The Rescue: Everybody at Scene 'Went Crazy'

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At first there was disbelief. It's not possible, not after four days. There couldn't be anyone alive in there.

Then there was a cautious flicker of hope. Perhaps, rescue workers murmured as they peered up through the gray mists shrouding the Nimitz Freeway wreckage here early Saturday, perhaps someone could have survived that collapse.

And finally, shortly after 6 a.m., there was triumph: Someone was indeed alive in that mountain of rubble--broken, bruised, battered and still imprisoned in a tomb of concrete, but alive nonetheless.

So alive, in fact, that five hours later, he raised a fist as a cheering crowd of hundreds watched yellow-slickered rescue workers lower him from the viaduct with a crane.

Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson called it "an incredible and wonderful sight." Who could disagree? After more than 90 hours, Buck Alvin Helm, 57, of Weaverville had been freed.

The beefy longshoreman's clerk was pretty banged up. There was nerve damage to his left leg, and a skull fracture. Dehydration had caused possibly permanent trouble with his kidneys, and three ribs had snapped clean off his sternum, making breathing difficult. Helm also was disoriented.

But the good news made such details seem small: the big, gregarious man many friends called "Uncle Buck" was going to be OK.

"Everybody went crazy," said Fred Van Akkeren, the shore captain at the shipping terminal where Helm works. "All the longshoremen got on the phones calling everybody, telling everybody they knew."

Helm's ex-wife, Lorene, 40, learned of his rescue while watching television at home in Weaverville, a tiny Gold Rush town 50 miles east of Redding: "I raised my hands and screamed and thanked God that he was alive," she said tearfully before bolting for the door and a plane that would take her and three of Helm's four children to his bedside.

So how did Helm make it, defy the disbelievers and prove that the never-say-die optimists who had urged on rescuers were right? It took, of course, nothing short of a miracle.

Co-workers said Helm, wearing a red sweat suit, left his job at the Howard Terminal promptly at 5 p.m. Tuesday, heading for the Nimitz. A fellow dockworker and friend of 20 years, Basil Parker of Berkeley, left at the same time and was driving just 10 car lengths ahead of Helm on the freeway's lower deck when the quake struck. He last saw Helm in his rear-view mirror.

"When you got a big bridge over your head, shaking like a piece of paper, you try to get the hell out of there, and that's exactly what we did," Parker said. "When we found out how much damage there was, we knew Buck did not get out."

But somehow, it seems, Helm's tiny Chevrolet Sprint was lodged in a pocket, a cavern in the multi-ton debris. Surrounded by devastation, the silver car's front end was smashed to a height of three feet, but its windows were intact. Helm was sitting upright in the driver's seat, twisted at an angle, his left leg trapped in the hulk of the car. He still had his seat belt on.

Rescue workers had combed the section where Helm's car was found four or five times after the quake. It was, they said, one of the most unstable and severely flattened stretches, the kind of place where a glance might easily deter investigation.

Workers, however, said they had probed the area, using sonic detectors, infrared scanners and even a fiber-optic lens someone donated. They found no sign of life.

Then on Friday night, Caltrans workers performed stress tests in the area--tying a rope around a pillar and tugging to gauge its sturdiness. The teetering structure shifted a bit, creating new windows into the wreckage.

Rain and winds up to 25 m.p.h. drove workers home, but they returned at dawn Saturday. About 6 a.m., engineer Steve Whipple took a peek in one of the pockets. He saw something, a body part, move inside the dimness. He summoned help.

Paramedic Diana Moore, 25, responded. She was able to creep close to the mangled car, slithering through a crawl space that in spots was just 18 inches high, and shined a flashlight through a crack. She saw a head move back and forth, and yelled out.

The response was heartening: "When am I going to get out of here?"

"Hang tight," Moore told him as she administered oxygen, "we'll get you out of here."

Although his agonizing wait for help was over, Helm was not yet out of danger. The teetering structure continued to shake and shift dangerously in the drizzle and persistent gusts, and he remained trapped in the depths of the pile. After Caltrans shored up the wobbly freeway with steel girders and timbers the size of telephone poles, Moore inched closer to Helm, squatting beside the car for about four hours, comforting its desperate prisoner as rescue efforts continued.

He slid in and out of consciousness. He was "cool to the touch, very sweaty and very pale," Moore recalled.

Drilling through concrete on the freeway's eastern flank, workers made a hole in Helm's tomb. The Jaws of Life were used to punch through his car, and a gurney was brought in. As a waiting crane lowered the delicate cargo, a rescuer riding with Helm gave the thumbs up to a stunned and elated crowd. Cheers and applause boomed out through the light rain. Perfect strangers embraced; video cameras captured the historic event.

"Anybody who's been under that devastation and come out alive is an extraordinary human being," marveled Jeff Breckenridge, of Oakland, a volunteer who has assisted at the Nimitz collapse since Tuesday night.

As it turns out, a lot of people think Helm is just that. Take his co-workers at the Oakland waterfront, where Helm has been a member of the longshoreman's union for 20 years and was working Friday as a clerk for the Stevedoring Services of America. Burly, brawny, "salt-of-the-earth," a "tough cookie"--these were the descriptions that rolled off their tongues Saturday as they chatted about their friend, who was dubbed "Lucky Bucky" just hours after his rescue.

Calling Helm "a stubborn, bull-headed man," Parker said, "If there is anybody I thought would come out alive, I thought it would be him."

Helm, a balding 240-pounder with graying hair, would probably have agreed. He frequently proclaimed to friends that no challenge was too great for a guy like him. "Nothing I can't handle," he would always say.

Longtime friends said Helm divided his time between the Trinity County town of Weaverville and Oakland. During the week, he frequently bunked on a mattress in a beat-up yellow van, which he called The Weaverville Flash and parked neared the docks. Other times, he stayed at the Jack London Inn in Oakland. He was a regular at the inn's all-night restaurant, often popping in two or three times a day. He'd sit at the counter and do paper work, bills and such. Huge stacks of pancakes, milk and coffee were the meal of choice.

Loyce Kelly, who manages the Jack London Cafe, called Helm "the kinda guy who gets along with everyone." Kelly said he rarely missed a day of work, though he was laid up for a time when he lost the tip of a finger in a waterfront accident.

On Fridays, Helm would make the 250-mile trek home to his family in Weaverville, usually walking in to greet three of his four children--sons Greg, 35, and Jeff, 16, and daughter Desiree, 12--at about 10:30 p.m. His third son, Marc, 22, attends college in Redding. Though they remain close friends, he and Lorene Helm have been divorced four years.

The dockworker was a familiar figure in the community of 3,500, where his two most talked about trademarks were his thundering voice and good-sized belly. One friend, Pastor Daniel Tennyson, described Helm as a "Santa Claus," noting that he often treated Desiree's entire elementary school class to ice cream.

A family man, Helm tried never to miss a son's football game; Wendy Whaley, a worker at Weaverville Elementary School, said he'd sometimes lunch with Desiree in the campus cafeteria.

News of the rescue spread fast through Weaverville, a remote mill town where folks at the Nazarene Church had been praying for him since Tuesday. The assistant manager of Top's Market, where Helm shops, said a woman came in around noon and hollered at the top of her lungs, "They found him! They found him!"

Across town at the Nugget Restaurant, waitress Lory Hartland, 25, greeted the news more nonchalantly: "I'm not surprised he survived," said Hartland, who serves Helm cherry pie and coffee almost every weekend. "He's big, strong, tough and ornery."

At Highland Hospital in Oakland Saturday, friends and colleagues joined hordes of reporters in the hallways, waiting for word of Helm's condition. Early on, those who know him were buoyed by news of his first request: A glass of milk, please, he asked his doctors.

Noting that he had been in sound shape despite high blood pressure and a mild diabetic condition, those caring for Helm predicted he would pull through.

"He's not out of the woods yet . . . but we're hopeful, we're hopeful," said Dr. Randy Rasmussen, a kidney specialist tending to Helm.

By nightfall, Helm was in stable but critical condition. His body had been scanned from top to bottom. There was a lot of damage from the crushing impact, he was suffering from severe dehydration and periodically needed help from both a respirator and a dialysis machine.

But he was responding to fluids, said Dr. Michael Smith, director of trauma at Highland Hospital. And some doctors said Helm could have survived two or three more days.

"Obviously it's fairly miraculous," said Smith, confessing that he "almost cried" when workers pulled Helm from the crumpled freeway. "None of us expected to see this."

Others seemed less surprised. Brian Nelson, a co-worker on the Oakland docks, said "the rumors of his demise were slightly exaggerated."

And when Greg Helm was asked how his father managed to survive the 90-hour ordeal, he put it this way: "He's an ornery old fart."

George Ramos reported from Oakland and Jenifer Warren from Los Angeles.

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