Nimitz Freeway Death Toll Sharply Lowered : Disaster: Powerful aftershocks awaken Bay Area residents but there are increasing signs of a return to some of the routines of normal life.
As if Bay Area emotions were not already tattered enough, residents were shaken awake Thursday by powerful and destructive pre-dawn aftershocks, but as the day went on there was good news in the collapsed rubble of the Nimitz Freeway and the return to some routines of normal life.
Crews digging with jackhammers and cranes found many fewer cars than expected crushed in the rubble of the Nimitz Freeway’s upper deck, which collapsed on motorists below in Tuesday’s catastrophic 6.9-magnitude quake.
Disaster officials felt confident enough late Thursday to revise their fears that more than 250 people may have died on the Nimitz.
“Now they are going lower, much lower in fact,” said Lisa Covington, a spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Services. So far, 45 automobiles have been pulled from the rubble and 18 bodies recovered, Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson said.
Another 27 automobiles were sighted but workers cannot yet tell if they contain victims, Oakland Asst. Fire Chief Andy Stark said. About 720 feet of the freeway upper deck lies too tightly on the lower level for searchers to look underneath.
In all, at least 34 deaths have been confirmed in the Bay Area since the quake that struck minutes before the start of a World Series game in San Francisco. Unofficial reports have put the death toll as high as 39. There have been at least 2,483 injuries, state officials said Thursday night. Oakland police said 167 people remain missing.
Damage was estimated at $4 billion and climbing. In Washington, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said Congress will consider a $2.5-billion aid package for the Bay Area. Gov. George Deukmejian said an emergency, temporary tax increase--probably in the form of higher gasoline or sales taxes--may be needed.
President Bush was planning to leave Andrews Air Force Base before dawn today to survey the quake damage and meet with officials on the scene.
As the second day of recovery began in good weather, many parts of the Bay Area tried to pick up the normal pace of Northern California life.
Power was restored to all but about 100,000 customers, and many people returned to offices and schools. Unlike Wednesday, when most people stayed home, there was even commuter traffic snarls. By mid-afternoon the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which briefly shut down its transbay tube for inspection Wednesday night, was running at 70% of normal and considering extending its hours to operate all night.
But earthquakes are fickle phenomena, and word also came Thursday that the Bay Bridge--an integral institution of “normal life” in the Bay Area--will be closed indefinitely.
A thorough look at the damage inflicted by the quake found that an earlier estimate of reopening the bridge in three weeks was unrealistic, said Anita Yoder, a Caltrans spokeswoman in Sacramento.
Deukmejian issued an executive order that indefinitely suspended the collection of tolls during morning rush hour on three bridges that remain open over the Bay: the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge and the Dumbarton Bridge. He requested that the independently run Golden Gate Bridge also suspend toll collection.
The aftershocks, which shuddered as many as 5 million Bay Area residents out of their first restful night’s sleep since Tuesday, hit especially hard in Santa Cruz County and put more urgency behind plans to airlift disaster aid into the Santa Cruz area and Watsonville.
California 17, the main link used by 20% of Santa Cruz residents to reach jobs in the San Jose area, suffered new damage and will be closed at least three more weeks, county spokeswoman Dinah Phillips said.
Sewage from broken lines is being diverted into Monterey Bay and the county declared Santa Cruz beaches unsafe for swimmers.
Water, gasoline, medical supplies and shelters for displaced families who may be drenched by rains in the forecast were in short supply Thursday. More than 1,000 people are staying in shelters in the Santa Cruz area.
Food was also running short at local markets.
“All they had was Twinkies,” said Kristen Jensen, a UC Santa Cruz student.
Three separate airlifts were planned to bring medical supplies and provisions into Santa Cruz County. A plane from Santa Barbara left in the morning to ferry medical supplies to three hospitals in the Santa Cruz area. The Air National Guard plans to dispatch two helicopters from Mather Air Force Base to bring supplies into Santa Cruz and nurses to Watsonville. The Salvation Army also sent 9,500 gallons of water into Santa Cruz County
“Santa Cruz County is partially isolated,” said Tom Mullins of the state Emergency Medical Services Authority. “An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 residents are using trucked-in water and large numbers are also without power.”
At least 201 homes and apartment buildings and 72 commercial structures sustained serious damage. Emergency shelter is needed because rain--predicted to fall in the next few days--would make camping out more difficult for displaced families.
Towns in the hills above Santa Cruz where the big earthquake was centered took the worst brunt of it. Two-thirds of the 450 homes in the hamlet of Loma Prieta were damaged, in Boulder Creek 60 buildings had major damage or were destroyed and in Scotts Valley, 35 buildings were damaged. Nearby in Zayante 25 buildings had major damage.
Electricity was expected to be restored in the hills by the weekend but water supply remained a problem.
In Watsonville farther south, hundreds of people took to the streets after the strongest aftershock at 3:15 a.m. Seismic labs estimated that the shock was between 4.5 and 5.0 magnitude. It collapsed an historic church steeple, forced closure of a bridge and set a fire that destroyed a mobile home.
“We had lived in very poor houses and had saved all we could. We don’t know where we are going to live now,” said Berta Sandoval, whose farm worker family took refuge in Callaghan Park after their home--just purchased in May after 10 years of saving--was knocked off its foundation.
Standing in Main Street looking at the damaged, 100-year-old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Watsonville police officer Jim Ihlen said: “It breaks our hearts.” The church almost certainly will have to be demolished. “It’s our town symbol, a piece of history that’s gone.”
Long lines formed at the few markets and gas stations open for business. Phillips said much of downtown Watsonville is closed, a one block area of the main street was virtually demolished and a levee was seriously damaged. More than 150 homes probably will be condemned, said City Clerk Lorraine Washington. Older brick and unreinforced concrete structures suffered the worst damage.
Also in Watsonville, the Green Giant frozen food processing building lost 20 to 40 million pounds of frozen food. That’s a $5 million to $15 million loss, Phillips said.
Sixty miles away in the Marina District of San Francisco, Mayor Art Agnos mounted a van and tried to calm angry residents. They were upset that officials had kept them out of their homes and that bulldozers had begun changing the face of the trendy, well-to-do neighborhood by razing damaged buildings.
The neighborhood has some of the nicest views in the city, but was built on fill over what used to be a cove on San Francisco Bay. The area suffered the city’s worst quake damage.
“Please understand we are doing our best to respond to the biggest crisis this city has faced since 1906,” Agnos said. But the mayor was booed when it became clear that 50 to 100 buildings would be condemned, and that other residents would be kept out of their homes indefinitely.
At the Nimitz Freeway in west Oakland, a large crowd of onlookers watched the retrieval efforts, and hot dog vendors--who began arriving soon after the freeway collapsed--did a brisk business feeding rescue workers and spectators.
Police and fire crews from Los Angeles and other cities were also on the scene shooting videotape to be used in training their own disaster teams.
Construction workers using blow torches and jackhammers and a “mini-max” concrete cutter hoisted atop the rubble by helicopter methodically broke up concrete slabs of freeway. Cranes eight stories high then plucked out the chunks of concrete and the flattened cars. Workers said it could take six days of around-the-clock work to dismantle the huge pile of debris.
Andy Stark, assistant chief of the Oakland Fire Department, said that the meticulous process begins with two teams of 10 firefighters who map and measure each 80-foot pillar-to-pillar section of the freeway, plotting where cuts in the top level must be made to reach vehicles.
Searchers quickly developed a code for that mapping process. Where they found a car 40 feet toward the center of a section, they spray-paint “40" on a pillar, and where no cars are found, they write “MT” for “empty.” The letters “DOA” for “dead on arrival” designate location of a body.
When cars were extricated, police and coroner’s deputies worked to identify the human remains. But the process was going slowly.
Stark said the teams were finding only about three cars in each of the approximately 40 smashed sections of the freeway--fewer than officials originally estimated. But dozens of the “DOA” symbols were painted near the southern pancaked portion of the wreckage.
“There are a couple of cars up there that are six or seven inches high. It’s pretty gruesome,” said Brock Settlemier, president of Biggie Crane & Rigging Co. of San Leandro, which provided the cranes.
“It’s unbelievable how the cars are crushed,” Oakland police Sgt. Bob Crawford said. “It looks like somebody took some tinfoil, just wadded it up and threw it away.”
At dawn Thursday, near the end of the 1 1/4-mile-long collapsed stretch of Interstate 880, workers hauled out a crushed Japanese Acura automobile virtually unrecognizable except for the steering wheel, which was intact. A human arm was the only identifiable body part seen.
“It looked like if he had a few more seconds he would have been out of there,” said Joe Everett, a construction worker.
Dan Getreau of the Milpitas Fire Department said he helped remove a mother and a little girl, about 7, whose book was stuck on the inside of their car’s intact windshield. Workers, wearing gloves, needed a little more than an hour to lift out the bodies after the tops of cars were cut off.
“It’s not difficult,” Getreau said, “except for the emotional part.”
The morning’s aftershocks did no apparent new damage. But Oakland Police Capt. Jim Hahn said some space between layers had settled through the night. Crawl spaces that were once four feet high had shrunk to inches, he said.
In downtown Santa Cruz, friends of Robin Ortiz, 22, stood watch Thursday as workers searched for her inside the fallen-down Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co. For many it had been a two-day vigil, marred when five of the friends were arrested for objecting when police called off the search Wednesday night because of darkness and danger from aftershocks.
About 30 friends had gathered outside the shop in the Pacific Garden Mall, chanting her name, “Robin, Robin,” and singing folk songs. Ortiz, a popular employee of the shop, was last heard yelling at patrons to evacuate during the main quake, which caused the roof to collapse.
Her body was finally pulled from the debris Thursday afternoon. The body of one man had already been pulled out, and his injured girlfriend was rescued.
In Salinas in Monterey County, David Harris of the Office of Emergency Services said the earthquake and its aftershocks had damaged 50 homes and seven commercial structures.
For the first time, state officials also described the extent of damage to the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco with the East Bay.
Before heavy equipment can be taken onto the bridge to make repairs, engineers have decided that the Oakland reach of the four-mile-long bridge needs to be reinforced. That process will take about a week, the state Department of Transportation announced.
Once the bridge is stabilized, crews will use a crane to remove part of the upper deck and place it on a barge moored in the bay. A 30-foot piece of the upper deck, which carries cars headed into San Francisco, collapsed during Tuesday’s main quake onto the lower deck where traffic was bound for Oakland.
The upper deck will be repaired on the barge, then lifted back into position on the bridge. But before the repaired section can be fitted back on the bridge, engineers must fix the lower deck too.
In the meantime, the East Bay is linked with San Francisco by ferries, the underwater Bay Area Rapid Transit system tube, and by long drives around the bay to the Golden Gate or San Mateo bridges.
Art Museum Damage
The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner printed special, smaller editions without ads again Thursday.
The quake toll in San Francisco was found Thursday to include at least $5 million damage to the Asian Art Museum, the largest collection of Asian art in the Western world, and unspecified but serious damage at the the Mexican Museum, home to one of the worlds’ largest Mexican collections outside of that country.
But the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, two of San Francisco’s best-known institutions, did not suffer serious damage.
Some damage may not be detected for months. State officials inspected hundreds of miles of fragile levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, finding only minor cracks and seepage in isolated spots.
Officials fear that the quake could have weakened already leaky levees that are vital to Northern California’s recreation and ecology and California’s water system. Coming rains could add further strain.
This story was written by Times staff writers Kevin Roderick and Myrna Oliver in Los Angeles based on staff reports from the Bay Area.
The following contributed to today’s quake coverage: Times staff writers Louis Sahagun, Maria L. La Ganga, Hector Tobar, Janny Scott, Lily Eng, Edwin Chen, Jack Cheevers, Paul Jacobs, John Hurst, Jim Newton, Robert L. Jackson, Scott Harris, Ashley Dunn, George Ramos, Tracy Wilkinson, Maria Newman, Andrea Ford, Martha Groves, Marita Hernandez, Richard O’Reilly, Jeffrey L. Rabin, John Glionna, Cathleen Decker, Carl Ingram and Michael Connelly; and Times researchers Norma Kaufman, Tracy Thomas and Cecilia Rasmussen.
REPAIRING THE BAY BRIDGE Caltrans engineers have devised a novel plan to repair the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the transportation backbone of the area that is used by 480,000 commuters daily. A Caltrans spokeswoman said the repair--in which a crane will move the damaged span to a nearby barge--will take from three weeks to two months. 1. Support towers and lower roadway will be reinforced in order to stabilize damaged area. 2. The damaged upper span will be picked up by barge-mounted crane and moved to a second barge alongside the bridge for repair. 3. While work proceeds on upper span, another crew will repair holes in the lower span. The upper span will then be replaced and reattached to tower supports.