BAY AREA QUAKE : Fallen Monument to Civic Pride : Freeway: Oakland's Nimitz once was the glamour girl of roadway engineering.


The men who built it called it the Cypress Freeway. Its neighbors knew it simply as "the bridge," 2.2 miles of the first-of-a-kind, double-decker roadway running through a poor, waterfront neighborhood of tattered Victorians and clapboard houses that shared blocks with factories and warehouses.

It began as Oakland's pride and an engineer's dream, this stretch of highway that collapsed in Tuesday's earthquake. Engineering journals published glowing articles about its construction. It was the glamour girl of freeways in an era when they were still synonymous with patriotism and progress, before pollution and snarled traffic made them unwelcome.

It ended as the earthquake's worst disaster, in piles of broken concrete and twisted steel that crushed cars and trucks and the people inside them and killed any lingering notion that proper planning and precautions might be enough when the Big One hits. Besieged engineers were left to explain why it failed, but they really appeared uncertain. Lawyers studied the remains and snapped pictures for evidence in the lawsuits they were preparing to file.

Proclaimed to be the first of its kind in the world, the double-decker opened on a warm, sunny June day in 1957. Dozens of civic leaders stood atop the upper deck to give speeches and jostle each other to be in pictures while a beaming Miss Oakland, dressed in a white gown and attended by her maid, helped cut the ribbon. Oakland, forever in competition with San Francisco, finally had one up on its rival across the bay and East Bay leaders were ebullient.

There was an "electricity" in the air that day. "This was state of the art," recalled William McCall, former mayor of nearby Alameda. "It was the biggest, the best, the greatest. As far as some of us were concerned, we were the center of the universe that day."

"Everybody was saying, 'This was the first,' " said Thompson E. Wayne, 73, then Oakland's city manager, who attended both the ceremony and then the three-course luncheon that followed. "It made Oakland a leader."

The Cypress viaduct was to replace four-lane Cypress Street, a major, gridlocked thoroughfare in West Oakland driven by 50,000 motorists a day. The decks were stacked to save money and space. Alameda County officials did not want to displace too many of the neighborhood's industries because they were important to the city's tax base. The Victorians that were leveled were of little concern. They were occupied by poor blacks who had no clout. Some of them had trouble finding housing elsewhere.

The price tag for this deluxe new freeway was $8.5 million, said by some to be the biggest highway contract in the state's history at that time. Competition to build it was intense. The firm of Grove, Sheperd, Wilson & Kruge of California won the bidding and its former vice president, Hamilton Roberts, now 72, oversaw its construction. He remembers the ground into which workers hammered hundreds of steel pilings as "spongy" but said he had seen "much worse." Other engineers said part of the span was built on landfill.

Jackhammers made a constant racket in the neighborhood below. Huge floodlights shone all night, and residents had to double the curtains on their windows to sleep at night. Children took detours when they walked to school. But there was pride as well as annoyance.

Mabel D. James Sr., 76, remembers sitting on her porch and marveling as the freeway rose before her eyes. "Honey, it was something," she said. "I thought it was great how God made men."

Engineers from the California Department of Transportation designed the viaduct, and Roberts said his workers built it "exactly in accordance with their plans and specifications." The state highway department, the retired construction supervisor said, "had dozens of representatives constantly at the job to make sure we did."

The span's two levels were supported by pairs of columns, each made of steel rods surrounded by concrete. "An engineer would prefer to have two or more columns to support a bridge structure," said Charles Seim, a former bridge design engineer for the state. Many freeway spans are supported by only single columns.

"In your mind's eye, imagine a one-legged stool. Picture the single column at the bottom. Break the base. The whole thing falls over," Seim said. "Now put in two columns. Break the columns at the base. It won't fall over. The bridge is like a two-legged stool."

Although some California highway planners now say they expected the freeway to withstand a major quake, few can remember any talk of earthquakes back when it was built. "I don't know if anybody thought about it," said John A. Morin, Oakland's city engineer at the time. "It wasn't discussed."

The use of steel scaffolding--the first time it replaced wood--sped construction and the span was completed four or five months ahead of schedule. "All of a sudden, there was this great big bridge, and we could only go one way on each deck," said Nolla Beasley, who was 7 years old when the freeway was built. "It was a major adjustment. And then the noise. But we got used to that."

Donald James, 58, remembers that his dad took the family for a ride in their 1951 Pontiac the day the freeway opened. "That was our treat," he said.

Officially the double-deck span was part of the Eastshore Freeway. It was renamed the Nimitz in March, 1958, after Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet during World War II, who had once lived in Oakland. He was there when it was formally dedicated that summer day, expressing his hopes "that this freeway will also be a safeway."

Neighborhood children learned to incorporate it into their play. Kids competed to see who could throw a baseball clear across its lower deck, and every Fourth of July they climbed on it to watch fireworks over Oakland's Lake Merritt.

But despite its early promise, the glamour girl of freeways soon faded. What had begun as the "pride and joy" of state highway planners quickly became the freeway that few wanted to drive. It shook and it creaked. It felt rickety. Some motorists went miles out of their way to avoid it. The freeway had become a major truck route, and the huge rigs that rumbled over it tore holes into the asphalt faster than Caltrans could repair them.

"We always said, 'Well, here we go on the roller coaster,' " recalled Jan Paul, a former Oakland schoolteacher.

"It was . . . like you were riding the waves," said Mark Atberg, 27, of Berkeley. "Every 30 feet, it would just drop a little bit."

Drivers felt it strain under the weight of vehicles. It went "click clack" whenever lawyer Milton Lathan drove over it, and he tried to avoid it whenever possible.

Fewer than 10 years after it was built, the construction methods that were used were obsolete. Builders switched from heavy concrete to lightweight pre-stressed concrete. "It's a kind of design that never would have been built in the '60s, '70s or '80s," said J. David Rogers, a civil engineer. "It's just too much weight too far off the ground."

More than 190,000 vehicles traveled it daily, and they took a toll. In 1978, inspector Joseph J. Gallippi reported a "cracked girder on the upper level span 77." Two years later, "the deck joint seals from abutment 1 to span 29 hinge have failed," wrote inspector J.R. Silva. In May, 1982, expansion devices on part of the upper deck were reported to be "severely deteriorated." None of the flaws were said to be serious.

Trucks flipped over, and there were plenty of accidents. One neighbors still remember was the overturning of an ice cream truck about 25 years ago. Everyone scrambled beneath the freeway to gather up the spilled cartons of milk, ice cream and Popsicles. "Milk was running like water down the streets," remembered Donald James. "The whole block had ice cream."

Until Tuesday, the most monumental event ever to befall the Nimitz occurred mid-morning on a Friday in September, 1983. A Cessna 170 crippled by engine failure skimmed five feet above the freeway, bounced off it and then hurtled forward for about 600 feet. The pilot, a flying instructor, taxied off the road onto the 96th Avenue exit and stopped the plane. He and his student climbed out, unhurt.

Caltrans made many repairs over the years, including work to shore up the freeway in the event of an earthquake. After discovering how vulnerable highways are to temblors during the 1971 Sylmar quake, Caltrans decided to lash slabs of freeway decks together to keep the asphalt from moving in the direction of the jolt.

Such earthquake restrainers were placed on the Nimitz in three installments--in 1977, 1981 and 1983 at a total cost of about $950,000. Researchers at UC San Diego thought the next move should be wrapping the columns, or at least their bases, with steel three-eighths of an inch thick, to keep the supports upright even if the concrete inside crumbled.

But to reinforce all of the columns that needed it on California highways would have cost $64 million and Caltrans, suffering through a budget crunch, committed only $20 million to the project. Because it had pairs of columns, engineers felt the Cypress wasn't dangerous enough to include in an experimental program to wrap freeway supports in steel "jackets" to prevent collapse during earthquakes, Caltrans spokesman Jim Larson said.

None of this mattered much until Tuesday. And for a while that evening, the commute on the Nimitz was uneventful. Trucks rumbled along and the Cypress span seemed to shake and totter as usual. The only difference from most days was that traffic was lighter. Many East Bay workers had left their jobs early to go to the World Series in San Francisco or watch it at home.

At 5:04 p.m., the Nimitz became the freeway that would be forever linked in memory with death.

It shuddered and rolled. Drivers thought at first that their tires had blown out. There were cracking and popping sounds. The columns began to fail. Then there was a deafening roar, as though a bomb had exploded. The columns crumbled, twisting into ribbons under the weight of the upper decks. More than a mile of the upper deck had collapsed on the lower. For an instant, just an instant, there was silence.

Then came the screams. "Help! Help! Help!" A giant dust cloud enveloped the broken freeway, and neighborhood workers and residents who rushed into the streets saw only blackness.

"You couldn't see the sky," said Kyle Heimbuch, who works in the neighborhood. The dust was too thick. "But the cries were coming from the direction of the freeway. Then it clicked in. The freeway had collapsed. I was sick to my stomach."

As the late afternoon light filtered through the dust, Heimbuch saw two cars flipped upside down. They had fallen or been driven off the freeway's top deck onto Cypress Street. "I kept thinking how could something this monumental, this sturdy, this large, just crumble like building blocks?"

That became the question of the day. Gov. George Deukmejian said he had been assured by Caltrans that the freeways would withstand an earthquake of Tuesday's magnitude. Had he known otherwise, he said, he would have closed the Cypress viaduct. He ordered an investigation. A labor organization of state engineers blamed Deukmejian. They said he cut budgets and refused to hire staff, making it impossible to bolster all of the state's bridges.

"No one would have cared if this (collapse) hadn't happened," a Caltrans spokesman said. "Who would have been interested in this program?"

Roberts, who oversaw the viaduct's construction, was hounded by reporters. "I can't express how sorry I feel for people who have lost friends and relatives in this and the tremendous economic repercussions," he said. "But do I feel guilt? I don't, because there was nothing we did that was out of line with what was required."

The Nimitz now ends abruptly at a huge black-and-orange billboard with the word "CAUTION" in white lights about three miles from the collapsed span. Cones and Caltrans trucks prevent drivers from going farther, and a detour sign points toward an alternate route.

Ferries have been brought in to take commuters across the bay, and transportation officials plan to meet Tuesday to assess the traffic situation. Commercial deliveries that were normally made on the Nimitz took twice as long as usual last week, and businesses were bringing in their drivers earlier and putting them on overtime.

And in the low-income neighborhood that saw "the bridge" go up, residents complained of a silence more deafening than the rumble of the trucks that had passed over their heads for 32 years. "I had got so used to hearing the noise . . . I never heard the freeway," a shaken Nolla Beasley lamented. "Now I notice the quiet."

"Listen," whispered Donald James. "It was never quiet around here. Never ever do you hear nothing."

Dale Going, who grew from a boy into a man in the freeway's shadow, calls it "the worst freeway in the world." Yet he missed it.

"It's like when you've got bad cousins," he said. "You still don't want to lose them."

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