One small movement of life lifted Orange County Fire Department Battalion Chief Chuck Nicola Saturday from a deep gloom that overcame him after three days of dealing only with the dead.
"It was like the highest high I could experience," Nicola said after he and Orange County firefighter Dan Mackay led a dramatic rescue of a 57-year-old dock supervisor buried for 90 hours in the rubble of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland.
Buck Helm of Weaverville was pulled from the wreckage of his car by the two firefighters, who are part of a Heavy Rescue Flash Fire unit stationed in the department's Seal Beach fire station, said Fire Capt. Hank Raymond.
Working feverishly in a dusty crawl space that threatened to collapse at any time, Nicola and Mackay tore with a Jaws of Life tool at the mangled door of Helm's car until they could finally free him. Then they and five others pulled Helm to safety. Helm had been trapped since a 6.9-magnitude earthquake collapsed the double-decker freeway at 5:04 p.m. Tuesday.
The rescue "was really a boost to us all," Nicola said.
News of the involvement of the two firefighters spread quickly Saturday at their station on Beverly Manor Road and Seal Beach Boulevard, where fellow firefighters eagerly watched local television reports throughout the day.
"They were watching for them all day," Raymond said. "It was good news to hear that our local guys played a big part in this. It's exciting for our guys to see our own people in a faraway place like that."
Raymond said that the rescue began after someone scouting among the wreckage noticed a hand moving. California Department of Transportation workers and private contractors rushed to shore up the section of overpass that had collapsed on Helm's car.
"It was real tricky work," Raymond said. "A lot was going on. The structure had been shifting. But when they knew a guy was alive in there, they all shifted in gear."
Nicola, who arrived in Oakland on Thursday morning with four other members of the Seal Beach heavy rescue workers, crawled into the three-foot-high space that was left after the top of the double-decker freeway collapsed onto the lower level during Tuesday's temblor.
"There wasn't much headroom," Raymond said the men told him.
As Nicola reached Helm's flattened car, Nicola said he felt a rush of adrenaline when he saw the victim's head and feet moving slightly.
"It was an emotional roller-coaster when you go from retrieving dead people and body parts to actually seeing a live human being in pretty good spirits," Nicola said.
Nicola then ordered firefighter Mackay to bring in a Jaws of Life tool to pry the car door open, Raymond said. Working in the tight, enclosed space, rescuers took seven hours to extricate Helm from the flattened car, Raymond said. Helm talked to workers throughout the operation, he added, and was finally passed to safety by a human chain of workers.
The special operations team has been involved in major rescues since its inception in 1983. Nicola and other members of the team rescued victims after the devastating Mexico City earthquake, Raymond said. "He's sort of getting used to this," he said.
It was Mackay's first dramatic rescue as part of the team, however, Raymond said.
Mackay has proposed renaming the heavy power tool that saved Helms' life the "Spirit of Buck" and putting a nameplate in Helm's honor on the housing.