Survivor of Quake Found in Oakland Freeway's Rubble : Disaster: Dramatic rescue lifts some of the gloom brought on by bad weather and growing problems of homelessness throughout the battered area.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cheers broke the gloom along the tomb of rubble that was the Nimitz Freeway when a surprise earthquake survivor--uncovered by a fluke shifting of debris--was carried to safety Saturday after being pinned in a buried air bubble for four chilly Bay Area nights.

Laboring fast in a cool rain, workers freed Buck Helm, 57, from his Chevrolet Sprint more than five hours after his waving hand was seen by a rescue worker about 6 a.m. He was in good condition despite being buried in the darkness--without water or food--for more than 90 hours.

"Thank God I'm alive," Helm said when the head of paramedic Diana Moore came into view.

The morning's rain stopped and a large crowd of onlookers that had gathered by the destroyed freeway cheered and hugged each other when Helm was lifted out. Spirits had sagged since the frantic search for victims had shifted down to a slow cleanup effort earlier in the week, after officials gave up hope of finding more survivors.

Rescue leaders said they believe the small air chamber where Helm survived was hidden from view until Friday night, when a Caltrans crew attached a cable to a piece of the freeway and tugged--a stress test to see if the pile of rubble was safe for workers.

Pieces of concrete apparently moved enough to expose the cavern where Helm was trapped between decks of the collapsed freeway. But work was halted for the night and he wasn't noticed until morning.

Doctors at Highland Hospital said Helm came in dehydrated and in pain, with a lowered body temperature of 97.1 degrees and kidney failure. Helm suffered a minor skull fracture and three broken ribs, but the kidneys were his biggest problem. He was listed in critical condition.

"He's definitely not out of the woods yet," said Dr. Randy Rasmussen, a kidney specialist. "It's too early in his course to say how he'll do, but we're hopeful."

But he did not suffer any ill effects of hypothermia and could have lived another two or three days, said Dr. Floyd Huen, medical director at the hospital.

"He didn't receive any large crushing injuries," Huen said. "He was lucky."

His news was the best heard on a day that saw rain begin to fall on most of the 100-mile-long area damaged by Tuesday's 6.9-magnitude quake and hundreds of aftershocks. Rain stopped falling about noon in the Bay Area, but temperatures remained cool.

At UC Berkeley, only 20,000 fans--one of the smallest crowds in 25 years--watched a football game between California and Washington. An aftershock was felt during the game, which Washington won, 29-16.

In Santa Cruz County, the National Guard began erecting tent villages for several thousand residents displaced from their homes, and the rain raised the fear of landslides on hillsides near the quake epicenter.

Powerful aftershocks, including a 4.8-magnitude rattler that struck at mid-afternoon Saturday, also were causing misery for residents of the quake area.

Helm's extrication from the wreckage of the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway gave new energy to workers whose spirits had sagged as they worked long days in sometimes-harsh conditions with nothing but bodies and sweat to show for it.

Helm, a familiar figure on the Oakland docks, where he is a clerk, had left work at the waterfront a few minutes before the quake. He lives in Weaverville, the seat of small Trinity County in evergreen forests below the Trinity Alps, but was apparently just headed to dinner in Berkeley.

Basil Parker left work at the same time and drove up the freeway just ahead of his friend. "(Parker) barely missed being crushed," said Don Grice, a dispatcher on the docks. "So the word spread: Buck didn't make it."

But friends said Bucky, as they knew him, was not only tall and burly, but also resilient.

"We figured that if anybody could make it, Buck Helm could. He's tough. He's a fighter," said Dave Comport, a co-worker on the docks.

Spectators quickly gathered near the west Oakland freeway as word spread that a survivor had been found. They waited quietly as the delicate rescue was conduced, hidden from view in a cramped area beneath the fallen upper deck.

Reuben Perez, 25, of Berkeley, heard the news on the radio and drove down. "We wanted to see this guy get cut out of his concrete tomb alive," said Perez.

After Helm was brought out, at 11:27 a.m., and put in the ambulance, a Red Cross worker drove his truck along the lines restraining the crowd, shouting, "He's alive! He's alive! He's alive!"

Ronnie Thomas, another Red Cross volunteer, said tired rescue workers got new legs. "It's amazing," Thomas said. "It makes all this work worth it."

At least 55 people have been confirmed dead since the quake. Workers have pulled 34 bodies from the Nimitz Freeway. As many as 85 people are still missing and regarded as possible victims, but the freeway ruins will not be cleared for several days.

One of the missing is Melissa Maxwell, a deputy district attorney for Alameda County. She left her office for the San Francisco airport to pick up relatives Tuesday afternoon and has not been heard from since, said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. John Adams.

"They found some cars and one of them looked like hers," Adams said. "We're hoping for the best, but who knows?"

Kyle Nelson, Caltrans spokesman, said about 1,000 workers from all agencies were to work through Saturday night, shoring up north part of collapsed freeway with truckloads of dirt and wood pilings.

They also were beginning to examine the pancaked section at the southern end by putting air bags between the decks, inflating the air bags, and then forcing the top deck upward so they can look under it.

For the sixth time today, workers scanned the entire collapsed section with infrared cameras and listening devices.

They now say they "have no idea" how many cars are in there.

In Santa Cruz and mountain towns near the quake's epicenter, the National Guard and volunteers fought bumper-to-bumper traffic Saturday to truck water, tents, raincoats and food to people driven from their homes.

Tent villages that equalized poor and affluent alike sprang up there and in Watsonville to house tired, cold and wet refugees.

In the worst-hit communities near the quake's epicenter, residents were reduced to a frontier-like existence, living on donated camping equipment, cooking stoves and Sterno fuel, Salvation Army Capt. Don McDougald said.

"One of the things asked for is pet food. Up in the Santa Cruz Mountains these people keep all kinds of animals," McDougald said. "We also need personal items like toothpaste, brushes and deodorant."

Late Saturday, Dick Craig, spokesman for the California Division of Forestry, estimated damages in the mountainous areas around Santa Cruz at $25.9 million for homes and $11.1 million for commercial structures.

He said 151 homes have been destroyed and 97 posted as unsafe. Another 486 homes suffered major damage, and 274 minor damage, Craig said. In the Felton area alone, 90 homes were destroyed and 290 major damage. "None have no damage," an official said.

Bud Tomlin, fire chief in Boulder Creek, said 85% of the chimneys in the area were lost. The falling chimneys knocked holes in the roofs, and Saturday the rain poured in.

Chata Alfaro, a Red Cross supervisor, said the organization was preparing to enlarge a shelter Saturday night in Redwood Estates off California 17. The Red Cross Shelter in Los Gatos may also get more people because of the heavy rain.

"Some people have been staying in their cars or in tents, but they may have to come in tonight," Alfaro said.

Caltrans crews worked in the rain to fill fissures left by the quake with sand and gravel so they would not collect water. If slides were triggered, officials said, it could mean loss of more houses and blockage of more roads, thwarting access to victims.

Jane Pettis said she is leaving the hills forever.

"I'm out of there. Fires, mudslides, earthquakes. I'm done. I never thought I would want to live in the city again, but I'm done, that's it," Pettis said.

In Beach Flats, the hard-hit barrio of Santa Cruz, residents driven from their $500-a-month rental homes lined up for free groceries, blankets and diapers. National guardsmen set up two tents that can house 50 people, and Mayor Mardi Wormhoudt said an "individual back East" offered to send the city 5,000 mobile trailers.

Building inspectors frequently made the dreaded announcement to ousted tenants and homeowners that they could never go back home.

In Watsonville, the National Guard set up strong tents to accommodate 600 people where hundreds of residents had been camping outside, first with blankets and later with borrowed small tents.

Many of the homeless farm workers in the camps feared that they would have to leave the town to find new housing. City officials estimated that the quake caused about $84 million damage to city housing, destroying more than 150 homes and damaging more than 500.

"Housing is our top priority and a deep concern," said Mayor Betty Murphy, adding that residents feel an emotional loss over Watsonville's 30 or so turn-of-the-century commercial buildings that must be demolished.

"It really breaks our hearts about the downtown," she said.

At the state Employment Development Department's Santa Cruz office, 500 people came in three days to apply for a aid to people who have lost jobs because of the quake.

Kim Selleck, 22, was a waitress at a Santa Cruz coffee shop damaged in the quake. She believes the restaurant will be closed for months, and she will have to continue with car and rent payments.

"Right now, I'm out of a job," Selleck said. "I am looking for work but a lot of other people are, too, and things seem kind of tight. I may be able to pay this month's car payment, but that's it. I hope landlords and the bill people will be patient, considering all that has happened around here."

In his regular Saturday weekly radio speech, Gov. George Deukmejian promised state government would do everything possible to help quake victims.

"In the weeks and months ahead," the governor said, "thousands of Californians will be faced with enormous task of rebuilding their lives. I intend to take every possible step to ensure that government acts in a compassionate manner and as a helpful partner to the victims during this time of need."

Deukmejian urged banks and lending institutions "to take into consideration this disaster when making decisions that affect the finances of earthquake victims."

He also announced he has directed the Department of Motor Vehicles to extend vehicle registration and license renewal dates by two weeks for those persons who live in the disaster area, and asked Californians to contribute to the American Red Cross, on which he said the earthquake "has placed a tremendous challenge."

State transportation officials said that the closed Embarcadero and I-280 freeways, the Bay Area's two standing double-decker highways, suffered such severe damage in the quake that it may not be possible to repair them and they might collapse in a major aftershock.

Like the collapsed portion of Interstate 880 in Oakland, both are double-decked freeways built on marshy soils. All three were designed before seismic criteria were strengthened after the 1971 Sylmar quake.

James Roberts, chief of Caltrans' division of structures, said, "The Embarcadero Freeway is obviously one we are worried about the most. It is right there in the old Bay mud. If we got another 6.9, there is a pretty good chance it would do what the Nimitz did, and that's why we are not going to reopen it. We . . . have to retrofit it."

The loss of those freeways worsens an already bleak traffic picture for the city, which is never wonderful even on good days and now has lost the Bay Bridge for a month or longer.

Lifting a 50-foot-long downed piece of roadway off the Bay Bridge was delayed Saturday. It will be attempted again today at high tide.

The bridge piece will be lowered to a barge and repaired, then reinstalled on the bridge. It could be longer than a month before the bridge reopens to traffic.

"One month sounds awful ambitious," said Caltrans spokesman Bob Halligan.

Since the accident, workers have hoisted pennants on the upper span in the black-and-gold colors of the San Francisco Giants and green and yellow of the Oakland Athletics, the cross-bay rivals who are scheduled to resume the World Series on Tuesday.

An aftershock caused a Marina District building to collapse Saturday morning, while a 10- to 12-story office building in the Mission District was knocked teetering and may need to be closed.

Demolition of ravaged Marina District buildings continued Saturday, with two buildings coming down. At least one more will be knocked down today.

The first to fall was at Jefferson and Divisadero. Units in the building sold for upward of $300,000.

Within an hour, the structure was demolished with many of the residents' possessions still inside. As the building was torn down, a sofa, a refrigerator, kitchen cabinets with dishes, and several beds spilled onto the rubble.

At least three residents watched from the police lines, including a young couple, Scott and Diane Carroll, who rented a one-bedroom condominium for $800 a month.

The Carrolls said they were given six minutes to remove their possessions for the home. They got clothing, but had to leave behind the things they wanted most--their wedding and family photographs.

They stood embracing each other on Jefferson about a half block from the building, hoping to see some of their possessions spill out. None did.

"This is just our last shot. We just wanted to be here. We thought we might be able to salvage something," said Diane Carroll, 25.

American Red Cross officials in Los Angeles asked that people save further blood donations until later in the year, when local shortages often occur. The blood supply in the Bay Area had been replenished, said spokeswoman Barbara Wilks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also urged Saturday that relief contributions be made in cash, rather than in food or supplies. Donations should be made through the Red Cross, Salvation Army or other private relief organizations.

At a press conference in the Presidio Saturday afternoon, federal officials announced that seven disaster application centers will open today at 1 p.m. The centers will be in San Francisco, Alameda, Monterey, San Benito, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties.

Spokesman Carl Suchoski said the centers will offer a one-stop process for earthquake victims seeking federal, state or local aid.

"Essentially, it's a registration process," he said. "There's a one-page disaster assistance application form which serves a multiple function. It registers people immediately for temporary housing and for minimal home repair grants, and it also serves as an application for family grants and for low-interest loans to cover uninsured damages."

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera announced a free concert in memory of victims for 2 p.m. today on the south side of the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. In case of rain the concert would move to the Davies Symphony Hall.

The public was asked to take food, money, blankets and cleaning supplies to the concert.

STORIES, PICTURES: A3-A16

Ashley Dunn reported from Oakland and Kevin Roderick from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Andrea Ford, George Ramos, Stephanie Chavez, Kenneth J. Garcia in Oakland and Miles Corwin, Marita Hernandez, Eric Bailey, Edmund Newton and Charles Hillinger in Santa Cruz County also contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°