THE DAY THE EARTH ROARED
Dorothy Otto had just called her husband on the car telephone to say that she was on her way home. Otto, a 43-year-old sales representative from San Rafael, Calif., was heading north last Tuesday on the lower deck of Oakland’s two-tiered Nimitz Freeway when, shortly after 5 p.m., she suddenly saw the road start to shake. “The cars bounced, and then the upper deck crashed down,” she recalled. “There was a thunderous roar, a moaning and wrenching of concrete as it tore from the pylons. It was a terrible noise— of all my nightmares, that sound is the worst of all.” A severe earthquake, registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, had hit the area. It inflicted havoc randomly along a 150-km stretch of coastal northern California—including Oakland and its twin city across the bay, San Francisco—and it left a trail of death and monumental destruction in its wake.
Most shocking of all was the collapse of the two-kilometre upper stretch of the Nimitz
Freeway. Otto described the experience as “like being inside an exploding building.” As huge concrete slabs began to fall, she watched the cars ahead of her “go like dominoes,” she said. She hit the brakes, but one slab slammed
down on her hood and another on the roof, pinning her inside. “I was in a little coffin,” she told Maclean ’sthree days later. “I thought I would suffocate. I had concrete dust in my nose, in my eyes and everywhere, and I heard crying and moaning for a minute.
But there were no other cars around me. I was alone, and I yelled: ‘Help me! Please!’ ”
Otto yelled for a half-hour, but no one came. She realized that her left foot was trapped under part of the frame of the car. A metal bolt from the emergency hand brake had shot into the side of her foot, and her toes were smashed.
Grabbing a piece of paper and a pencil with her free hand, she began to write to her husband, John—in case she did not get out alive, she at least wanted him to know that she had survived for a little while. “I smell smoke and burning,” she wrote. “I love you and I hope I survive the rescue effort. I wish us both luck.” Finally, an Oakland woman nearby heard screaming and told a local garage worker, who climbed down from the top deck, found Otto, and the rescue effort began.
Trauma: Working in a three-foot space between the upper and lower parts of the roadway, four men used a carbide saw to cut the concrete and metal of the freeway, and then the car. Meanwhile, a medic gave Otto morphine to cope with the excruciating pain, and Otto stuffed a rag into her mouth so that she would not scream in the ears of the rescuers. Eventually, after four hours of struggle, the workers pulled Otto out by her feet. “They had to treat me like a rag doll to get me out of there,” she said. She was taken to a trauma centre in Oakland and later transferred to a San Rafael hospital, where she was listed in stable condition at week’s end. Her left foot was crushed. Muscles, tissues and veins were badly
TT WAS A TERRIBLE NOISE—OF ALL MY NIGHTMARESTHAT SOUND IS THE WORST OF ALU
bruised, and doctors said that she would require physical therapy to walk again. She also had facial damage from the steering column whipping her face, as well as extensive nerve damage. Still, said Otto, “I am the luckiest person there ever was.”
Many others were not so lucky. By the weekend, coroners listed 35 deaths from the Nimitz Freeway collapse alone, bringing the earthquake’s known death toll at that time to 57, with others still missing. Overall damage estimates ranged as high as $6 billion. President George Bush declared the stricken region a federal disaster area and flew in to see it for himself. Geological scientists pinpointed the epicentre of the quake in Nisene Marks State Park—on the treacherous San Andreas Fault, a breach in the earth’s crust—22 km northeast of Santa Cruz and about 90 km southeast of San Francisco. The earthquake ravaged communities in the major cities of San Francisco and Oakland and in such smaller centres as Santa
Cruz and Hollister (page 62).
Striking at 5:04 p.m., the quake hit just half an hour before the World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and their cross-bay neighbors, the Oakland Athletics, was scheduled to begin at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (page 64). The stadium was shaken and cracked in places—players and fans escaped unscathed—but because of the timing, the disaster captured the immediate attention of millions of television viewers across North America. The great San Francisco Quake of 1906, also spawned in the San Andreas Fault, was more calamitous than last week’s, killing 700 people by traditional estimates—more than 2,500 according to some recent studies—and levelling much of the city. But the quake of 1989 was terrible enough. It was a grim reminder that, despite the technological advances of recent years that saved the area’s office skyscrapers and apartment highrises from collapse, an earthquake zone is still an
inherently dangerous place to live (page 66).
Indeed, another reminder came 24 hours after the California disaster, when an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale struck northeastern China, killing at least 29 and leaving 60,000 people homeless after their fragile mud-built houses collapsed.
Fire: In the California quake, although the Nimitz Freeway collapse was by far the worst catastrophe, there were countless other dire situations. There was the heart-stopping scene on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, where a 15-metre section of its upper roadway collapsed onto the lower deck, killing a driver, while leaving other cars hanging perilously on the brink. There was the fire that raged out of control through the night in San Francisco’s upscale Marina district after a gas main burst. An estimated 10,000 people were eventually evacuated from the Marina area, many leaving with literally only the clothes on their backs. And there were moments of pure terror expe-
rienced by ordinary people going about their everyday affairs when, for 15 traumatic seconds, solid earth turned into something that felt more like a storm at sea.
But no story seemed more miraculous than what happened at the Nimitz Freeway long after the quake struck. On Friday night, rescue workers attached a cable to one of the support structures to test its stability. The cable shifted the structure, and when workers checked it shortly after 6 a.m. on Saturday, they spotted movement in the highway wreckage. They then pulled away a railing from the rubble and shored up an area of the damaged structure with wooden beams. At about 11:15 a.m.—90 hours after the earthquake struck—rescuers pulled Buck Helm, 57, a 240-lb. longshoremen’s clerk, from the remains of a silver Chevrolet. They lowered him to the ground by crane in a metal cage, and the man waved his arm as onlookers cheered. Said one witness, Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson: “It was just a wonderful sight to see.” Doctors later said that Helm—with a skull fracture, a crushed leg, broken ribs and kidney failure—was in serious condition. Said Dr. Randy Rasmussen, who was attending Helm on Saturday night: “It is too early to say if he is going to make it or not, but certainly we are hopeful.”
Waves: In Oakland earlier, Olidean Harvey, a 49-year-old shopkeeper, described from her hospital bed what it felt like to be on the Nimitz Freeway when the quake hit. Harvey was driving home along the upper deck. At first, she said, she thought that she had blown out a tire. Glancing into her rearview mirror, she “saw the freeway going up and down like waves on the ocean,” she recalled. Harvey added: “My car was like a surfboard on top of a wave. Then the wave caught up with me.” When the roadway collapsed, Harvey’s car fell with it, and she broke her back. She was carried to safety by people from the neighborhood through which the freeway runs. They had clambered up onto the ruins—risking their own lives to help survivors.
At first, it was impossible to determine just £ how many people had been caught in the s freeway’s concrete sandwich. The work ofo cutting through and shoring up sections of the “ upper roadway was slow and difficult. Because £ no crane or helicopter is powerful enough to lift the 500-ton concrete slabs that fell onto the lower deck, workers had to break them up with saws, drills and jackhammers and then move the pieces. And as the crews worked, there was constant danger that an aftershock might bring the rest of the structure crashing down.
By Friday, however, workers had made enough progress to determine that traffic on the freeway had not been as heavy as at first assumed. Authorities, who had originally speculated that as many as 253 people might have been killed under the freeway, revised their estimates downward. And the World Series,
which until the earthquake had dominated the attentions of both elegant San Francisco and its workaday sibling city, Oakland, was almost certainly the reason that there were fewer cars on the road than usual that afternoon. The third game of the all-local series was due to begin at 5:35 p.m. Sixty thousand fans were already inside Candlestick Park, and tens of thousands more had gone home early to catch the start of the game on television. As a result, the traffic, which would normally have been bumper-tobumper at rush hour, was relatively sparse, and numerous lives were undoubtedly spared.
According to witnesses _
and rescuers, another factor
that kept down the freeway death toll was that there were evidently a few vital seconds’ delay between the beginning of the earthquake and the collapse of the upper roadway. An unknown number of people apparently saw the concrete sections collapsing one by one onto the roadway ahead, and jumped out of their cars just in time. That theory seemed plausible because many of the estimated 80 crushed cars were empty when demolition crews recovered them.
One man who may have jumped to safety from the
lower deck of the freeway—but who could not say for sure, because of a complete memory blackout—was 31-year-old businessman Ken Lind. From his bed at Oakland’s Merritt Medical Centre, where he was recovering from severe concussion, facial lacerations and a broken right ankle, he told Maclean ’s: “The hospital administrators don’t know who brought me in. Some people think I might have jumped, but I don’t know.” Despite his more serious injuries, Lind said that the most significant were the severe bruises to his chest and stomach caused by the seat belt of his car. “I must have
stopped suddenly to have gotten those bruises,” he said. “I must have been going about 60 m.p.h.” That, added Lind, could only indicate that traffic was unusually light for the time of day.
Rescue: Perhaps the most chilling rescue was that of six-year-old Julio Beramen. In the back of a compact car, Julio lay semiconscious, his right leg crushed and pinned under the dead body of his mother, Pety, which in tum was pinned under a massive block of concrete. Julio’s sister, Cathy, 8, had been pulled free with minor head injuries. But to save Julio, Dr. James Betts, 42,
_ who arrived at the scene shortly after
the freeway collapse, had to resort to desperate measures. He sedated the child, wrapped him in blankets and then covered him with a tarpaulin. Then, he cut the body of Julio’s mother in half with a chainsaw and, using a scalpel, amputated the boy’s crushed right leg below the knee. “It was horrific,” Betts said later. “It was your worst nightmare.”
Julio was rushed to the Oakland Children’s Hospital, where he was admitted in critical condition. A day later, he was upgraded to “serious,” and by week’s end he was listed as stable. Hospital emergency chief Patrick Connell had only praise for the child’s savior. “If this thing has a hero,” said Connell. “It’s Jim Betts.” Bush visited the freeway site on
Friday during a five-hour tour of the earthquake zone. As he watched workers pull a flattened vehicle from the rubble, Bush said: “I’m deeply moved—sad in some ways, yet very stimulated by this team effort here.”
Last month, Bush was widely criticized for waiting eight days to visit the city of Charleston and other coastal areas of South Carolina, which had been devastated by Hurricane Hugo.
Last week, he dispatched Vice-President Dan Quayle to California on the day after the earthquake. Quayle, after making a lightning tour of the fireravaged Marina district, left without seeing—or even notifying—Mayor Arthur Agnos. Said Agnos: “I question his reasons for coming here.” Agnos, a Democrat, later said, “Maybe it was a publicity stunt.” In any case, Bush himself flew in on Air Force One clearly feeling that he was in a no-win situation. Arriving at the nearby Moffett Naval Air Station, Bush remarked: “If you do come, they say you’re getting in the way; if you don’t, they say it’s neglect.”
Disaster: By declaring the entire region a federal disaster area earlier in the week, Bush made it eligible for about $300 million in immediate relief. State officials had estimated overall damage at about $6 billion, and Agnos had said on Thursday that “on paper, the city is broke.” But, said Murray Lawrence, the head of Lloyd’s of London, the world’s biggest insurance organization: “There are some wild figures being quoted, from low to high. I don’t think there is any real conception of the total damage.”
As well as being the scene of the worst carnage, the Nimitz Freeway was the subject of most controversy in the earthquake’s aftermath. After a 1971 earthquake in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles, the state of California embarked on a program aimed at making highways and bridges more resistant to earthquakes. One phase of the work involved strengthening the connections between elevated roadways and their supporting columns. The next phase was to strengthen the columns by wrapping them in steel blankets. That phase was not carried out on the 35-year-old Nimitz Freeway, and last Friday California Gov. George Deukmejian admitted he did not know why.
The governor, who had been visiting West Germany and who hurried back to California after the earthquake, said that all the state’s older freeways would be inspected to make sure that they were safe. “In the nearly seven years that I have been governor,” he added, “I have never once been told by our people that we had any kind of a problem with respect to our freeways.” Earlier, James Drago, spokesman for the California department of transportation, had said, “If we’d had any reservations about the safety of that road, we would not
have allowed traffic on it. I don’t think anyone envisaged an earthquake of that magnitude.” After the earthquake, flamboyant San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli said his staff lawyers are investigating whether there are grounds for legal action against unspecified authorities on behalf of Nimitz victims and their families.
Science: Unlike the freeway and the Bay Bridge, San Francisco’s modern skyscrapers stood up to their first major trial-by-quake.
They swayed from side to side by as much as three feet, but apparently not one of them suffered structural damage. Said earthquake engineer George Housner: “It would be almost true to say that the science of earthquake engineering has moved from infancy to theoretical completeness in a genera-
tion.” Under new building codes in force in California, highrises and skyscrapers are insulated from the force of earth tremors by rubber or lead bearings placed between the core structure and the foundations. In earthquake-prone Japan, engineers are working on even more sophisticated systems in which computers and vibration sensors will allow a building to control its own response to an earth tremor.
But the older, smaller and more picturesque buildings of San Francisco’s fashionable Marina district, which was built on landfill, had no such defences. Several houses and apartment buildings collapsed there during the tremor—killing three people— and a block was destroyed in the fire that followed. And when a team of 150 structural engineers examined the
Fire, fed by a A concrete slab The most grueburst gas main, from the upper some incident raged all night in section of the occurred when the upscale Marina disBay Bridge slammed onto the top deck of a freeway trict. Devastation was so the lower deck, killing a collapsed, crushing cars extensive that officials ordriver and leaving other and their occupants in a dered total evacuation cars hanging perilously deadly concrete sandwich
district on Wednesday, they found so many buildings damaged that the authorities ordered the evacuation of the entire area without warning. Many evacuees sought refuge with friends or relatives. Some found hotel accommodation, and the Red Cross made available 400 beds at an emergency shelter set up in a local school.
Authorities divided the buildings of the Marina district into habitable, dangerous and uninhabitable categories. Still other buildings were marked for demolition. People who had been living in dwellings in the first category—the majority—received green permits that allowed them to return. Those in the second category were issued yellow permits, allowing daytime entry without supervision. Holders of red permits, the uninhabitable category, were allowed back for 15 minutes under supervision. In all cases, permit-holders had to sign a waiver relieving the authorities of any liability in case of personal injury.
Fissures: On Thursday, a Maclean ’s correspondent found troops guarding street corners in the Marina district to stop evacuees sneaking back in without authorization and to keep away the curious. Every roadway and sidewalk revealed cracks and fissures. And one after another, pretty, stucco-fronted houses showed signs of the earthquake’s ravages. Some houses tilted, others had collapsed in piles of brick, stucco and plaster moulding. Many that had collapsed in the earthquake were quickly torn down by backhoes, which moved from street to street to demolish buildings that had been declared unsafe. Yet, paradoxically, some houses appeared quite undamaged, their windows open and lace curtains billowing in the autumn breeze above wroughtiron balconies. One private consultant involved in damage assessment calculated that only about 10 per cent of the Marina’s houses were insured against earthquake damage, because
many homeowners consider the high premiums as being uneconomical.
William Logan, the tenant of an apartment in a building marked for demolition, donned a hard hat to go in and get as many of his belongings as he could in the permitted 15 minutes. Crawling through lath and plaster, he ferreted around for his prized family silver and
other valuables. “Everything I own is in here,” he said, “all my family heirlooms and all my important papers. I’m afraid the city will just come in with a bulldozer and knock everything down.”
Dale Breen, 25, who was similarly allowed back into her third-floor apartment, was not permitted to remove her car from the ground-level garage, for fear of causing further damage. Running a hand through her blond, short hair, she said: “These natural disasters just flip me out. I mean, you have no control. This whole Marina area is built on landfill. I’m moving up on the rock.”
In contrast to the upscale Marina district, the workingclass area surrounding the collapsed freeway across the bay in Oakland, where most residents are black, escaped unscathed. The people of that depressed district, with its faded Victorian houses, evangelical churches and back-street crack houses, turned out in force Tuesday evening to rescue survivors from the freeway disaster. Local residents were seen risking death as they crawled into the rare gaps between the two concrete decks, looking for survivors. And, as in other areas that were plunged into darkness by power failures, there was little looting reported. In fact, there was no more crime than on an average night, said Police Sgt. Robert Crawford, who described his usual assignment as “closing crack houses.”
Vendors: Within 24 hours of the earthquake, enterprising street vendors were hawking T-shirts bearing the legend “I survived the quake of ’89.” But when it came to surviving, few San Franciscans could equal the record of Nick Vlahiotis, 41-year-old proprietor of the Capri Pizza Restaurant. Vlahiotis was bom on the Greek island of Zakinthos and lived through an earthquake that he says destroyed all but three of the island’s buildings in 1953. Years later, while living in Athens, he experienced another quake. Then came last Tuesday. “I guess it follows me wherever I go,” said Vlahiotis. “I think about it all the time, especially when I come over a bridge.” Still, in last week’s quake, his subur-
ban home escaped undamaged and his restaurant sustained only a few wall cracks.
Several Canadians living in or visiting the area at the time of the earthquake had vivid memories of the day the earth shook. Toronto actor Dale Azzard, in San Francisco with a touring production of the stage musical Durante, told how the wall of his hotel room moved “three feet forward and three feet back” when the quake struck. Suzan Major, a 29-year-old art history graduate from Calgary, who is studying for a doctorate at Stanford University and lives in nearby Palo Alto, had seen a television program on earthquake survival just three days previously. She was in the basement garage of her three-storey apartment building when she heard “a sound like a commuter train” and the ground began shaking. Major ran for the exit, but was thrown to the floor. Struggling to her feet, she ran outside in time to see a tree fall to the ground just a few feet in front of her. Then, she said, the building superintendent poked his head out of the front door and joked: “Welcome to California.”
In the small town of Santa Clara, 60 km south of San Francisco, the two youngest children of ex-Torontonian Barbara Cross, 35, were attending a swimming class when the earthquake hit. “I tried to run to the pool,” said Cross, “but was knocked down twice. It was like standing in a rubber raft going down amazing white water. It was amazing to see the earth move in six-foot waves.” When she got to the pool, she said, she saw “a seven-foot wave standing up in the middle of it.” Her daughter
Laura, 8, had been dragged to the bottom of the pool, but had surfaced laughing. Laura and the other children were all unhurt. Cross said that her daughter “thought it was a lark” until she realized what danger she had been in.
On the day after the earthquake, before the first light of dawn reached San Francisco Bay, the scene was eerily dark. The looped string of lights that normally links the twin cities along the 13-km Bay Bridge was blacked out. So were the silhouettes of the Oakland and San Francisco
highrises. Even the fire in the Marina district had died down. A beam from the lighthouse on the abandoned prison-island of Alcatraz swept the bay. It was the only light to pierce the gloom of the sibling cities whose cheerful World Series rivalry of just a few hours before had turned to such terrible tragedy.
HAL QUINN, HILARY MACKENZIE