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Response to the Cypress Freeway Disaster - Part II

In this first hour, staff at the Fire Dispatch Center relied to a great degree on commercial television for coverage of earthquake damage. Some of the early information about the collapse came from pictures transmitted by a KGO-TV news helicopter. Dispatcher Jolene Williams wrote, "I remember getting a call reporting the Bay Bridge had collapsed. I envisioned the whole bridge, cars and all, in the Bay. When the call came regarding the Cypress Freeway structure collapsing, I never realized it was as devastating as it was until we could see the report on the TV news."

The KGO-TV helicopter was transmitting live pictures of the disaster, and Assistant Chief Baker and the dispatchers at the fire alarm office could see on the small television set the rippled upper roadway and smoke billowing from between sandwiched decks.

It was clear this horrific collapse extended from 18th Street to 34th Street.

Even so, Lt. Hoffman of Engine Co. 1 had difficulty putting the disaster into context when he radioed, "We are at 880 along Cypress and we have complete structural collapse of the entire freeway between the streets of 17th as far as I can see going toward 32nd, so we are going to need some trucks down here as soon as you can get them!"

Battalion Chief Garcia arrived and gasped at what he saw. He later wrote of his first view of the collapse: "As I approached the Cypress Freeway, I could see the top deck collapsed down onto the lower level. I parked my car at the intersection of 18th and Cypress. Looking north along Cypress Street, I could see a complete collapse of the upper deck as far as I could see. The scene was unreal, almost beyond comprehension. There was total chaos with people scrambling through the rubble attempting to assist those who were trapped."

He remained in the area of 18th and Cypress streets and established a South Division command post responsible for the rescue operations between West Grand Avenue and 17th Street.

It was his view that the collapse was so huge that it required the division of the rescue operation into areas which could be more easily managed, and at about 5:50 p.m. Battalion Chief Manuel Navarro arrived at the Command Post and began to coordinate rescue operations north of West Grand Avenue.

By 6 p.m., fifty-four minutes after the earthquake, Cypress operations had been organized into two major divisions; North, commanded by Battalion Chief Navarro, and South commanded by Battalion Chief Garcia. Overall Incident Command was led by Assistant Chief Al Sigwart from the West Grand Avenue Command Post.

Dr. Mahin arrived at the Cypress Freeway at 6:20 p.m. "Following a very quick evaluation of some buildings on the Berkeley Campus," he said, "I made my way down to the 880 structure within about an hour and fifteen minutes of the earthquake...." to begin the scientific study to find out why there had been such a catastrophic collapse.

The only clear picture of conditions at this time was that most of the available on-duty and recalled fire force had been depleted, and there were no more fire companies available for response anywhere in Oakland. Emergency supplies on the engines and ladder trucks were also running dangerously low. Lt. Hoffman appealed to Battalion Chief Garcia by radio: "If you could round up any extra medical equipment, we need some inhalators and other first-aid equipment to assist us here. All our engine companies are stripped and we need more medical assistance."

A task force of two Oakland engines and a ladder truck company, along with an ambulance and paramedic units, operated on the west side of the collapse led by Capt. Frank Baleria of Fire Engine Co. 2.

On the east side of this same area, Engine Co. 1, Engine Co. 8 and Ladder Truck Co. 20 began the very long, difficult and horrific rescue of two young children, Julio and Cathy Berumen.

Engine Co. 5 was positioned on the west side of the Cypress Freeway near a burning automobile, and with the aid of citizens, a small fire hose was used to put out this blaze.

Jeff A. Hillstrom, a Hoseman on Engine Co. 5 wrote, "I jumped off the rig, grabbed a New York hook and proceeded to free a male trapped in a Blazer on the street below the collapsed freeway. Lt. Jarrett, Hoseman Klinger and Engineer Thompson threw a ladder to the superstructure and went to the west side of the Cypress to put out a car [fire]."

The engine crew was then able to climb to the top of the freeway. They found a van with six people inside; two were injured and four were dead and there were several other injured people lying about on the pavement.

Lt. Jarrett left his crew with these victims and worked his way along the Cypress structure toward 26th Street. There he found more dazed and injured people who were walking around, and others who were still trapped in the wreckage.

Ladder Truck Co. 1 had arrived and the crew brought up a hydraulic rescue tool. Eight badly injured victims were placed atop a shipping container that had been raised to the freeway deck by a forklift operator.

Lt. Jarrett went to the command post after finishing the rescue operation at 32nd and Cypress Streets and was told to report to Battalion Chief Navarro at Peralta and Cypress streets. Engine Co. 5 and two other engine companies were directed to make a sweep of the structure back toward 32nd Street.

As the crew of Engine Co. 5 drove along Cypress Street, they came upon more citizens on the freeway yelling that a man was trapped in a vehicle in the center of the structure opposite 26th Street.

Other citizens from the West Oakland housing projects, nearby machine shops and warehouses carried a fire extinguisher up a ladder and told the firefighters that gasoline was running through the area where the man was trapped.

Now, Lt. Jarrett, along with Firefighters Hillstrom and Klinger, climbed the freeway to rescue the victim. They found him in an automobile that had been crushed to a height of two feet and gasoline was running over him. Lt. Jarrett called for a small fire hose line to be brought up to the wreckage to protect the trapped victim from fire.

At the same time, workers from a private roofing company raised a conveyor belt up to the firefighters to allow rescue equipment to be quickly moved to the lower deck.

An Alameda County mutual aid engine crew arrived and brought the hose line up to the freeway then helped lead it through the collapsed upper deck to the center of the roadway and to the crushed automobile.

All the equipment that might be needed for the rescue; hydraulic power tools, cutters and jacks were brought up by conveyor belt. Unfortunately, the only equipment that would fit in that confined space were hacksaw blades and small tools.

Firefighter Hillstrom, two paramedics identified only as Marty and Bruce, as well as several citizen-volunteers worked feverishly with these tools in that narrow area to cut away the steering wheel and brake pedal and give the victim medical care and life- saving oxygen.

As this desperate rescue attempt continued, fire broke out above them on the upper deck. The hose was swung around and brought up to the fire and it was put out.

As the victim was finally freed from the crushed vehicle, a Castro Valley Fire Department aerial truck ladder was raised and a stretcher was brought up to them. Because of limited space, the stretcher containing the victim was dragged across the pavement toward the aerial ladder where it was tied with rope and lowered to the street and waiting paramedics.

U.S. Army Capt. Stephen M. Park of Letterman Army Medical Center was on the Cypress Freeway and stopped his car when the shaking began. He was later given the Army's Commendation Meal for: "heroic efforts on the collapsed Cypress Street overpass... . With total disregard for his personal safety, Capt. Parks initiated immediate life saving actions for four critically injured motorists and evacuated a dozen or more from the disaster area. Throughout the evening, he continued to provide medical assistance to the Oakland Fire Department, working under perilous conditions between the collapsed smoke-filled sections of the roadway."

Capt. Park was an Army lawyer assigned to Letterman Army Medical Center and had worked his way through college and law school as an EMT.

With his automobile still on the freeway, Army Capt. Park was given a ride home by Capt. Gerald Flom of the Oakland Fire Department at about midnight.

Navy Hospital Corpsman Bill Wicker was approaching the Cypress structure in his ambulance when the quake hit.

The 21-year-old Wicker, a trained emergency medical technician at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, climbed to the top deck and going from car to car administering first aid. "Even though he was drenched in gasoline from ruptured fuel tanks, and risked certain death should a fire break out, Wicker continued to help victims. Using makeshift stretchers and braces, he loaded his ambulance with some of the most seriously injured," said a Navy report.

Corpsman Wicker became a victim himself. Nurses and doctors at the hospital had to almost physically restrain him to keep the corpsman from going back to the fallen freeway. He was admitted to the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.

San Francisco Firefighter Michael R. Bryant of Engine Co. 25 was off duty at the time of the earthquake and was also on the freeway. He scrambled to assist victims and organize rescue parties. He was later awarded a meritorious citation for his bravery by the California Highway Patrol which read: "He personally rendered aid, organized volunteers and searched for survivors at great risk to his own life."

Lt. Steve August of Ladder Truck Co. 15 and his crew were also dispatched to the Cypress Freeway but, as he wrote, "Heading north between 14th and 15th streets, we found Willow Street was obstructed by debris from a three-story brick warehouse whose roof and third floor had collapsed. In questioning a worker of the building, we determined all employees were accounted for and were out of the building."

The officer also found major a natural gas leak and radioed to the dispatch center, "We got civilians cordoning off the area and there is no one trapped. But, if possible, we need PG&E to trace out a major gas leak in this whole block area...We're going to head over [where] the freeway collapsed and see if we can lend assistance there."

"Upon arrival at Cypress and 32nd Street," Lt. August wrote, "we encountered mass confusion and destruction. We were informed by several civilians at the scene that there were mass casualties on both decks of the freeway, so we moved 15 Truck up the off- ramp on the west side of I-880, just north of 32nd Street," near where the crew of Ladder Truck No. 1 were involved in a rescue operation.

He wrote, "....The crew then threw a 38-foot ladder to the upper deck about 100 feet north of were the aerial ladder truck was placed. The upper deck looked like a `war zone.' There were approximately four CHP officers and half a dozen civilians assisting casualties from all the wrecked autos."

Lt. August was surprised by rotor noise from a helicopter that was about to land on the tottering, shifting freeway. "I was informed by the CHP that the chopper had been summoned for casualty evacuation. Given the condition of the freeway and the potential for collapse, I waved the chopper off just prior to its touchdown. I felt we could handle the evacuation of these casualties and the helicopter would only compound the hazards."

Then, wrote the lieutenant, "....civilians informed us that there were still people trapped between the two decks of the freeway in the same area. We repositioned the aerial [ladder truck] further down the off-ramp in order to gain access to the lower deck. We scanned the entire area and found only empty cars or vehicles that were so badly crushed that survival of the occupants was impossible. But, a few minutes later, Capt. Flom, who had returned to duty after the earthquake, came upon Firefighters "[Christopher] McCotter and [Gary] Schroeder who showed me a victim in a white Blazer between decks. The top of the victim's head was visible from the passenger side."

The ladder truck company was again moved to about 300 feet south of 32nd Street and Lt. August and his crew began to raise ladders to the lower deck of the freeway.

The lieutenant wrote: "Capt. Flom then crawled between the decks to a small pickup truck [the Blazer] in order to determine if the occupant was still alive. He was able to partially open the driver's door and he confirmed that the victim was still breathing, but was pinned in the driver's seat. We started to move a backboard and the jaws [Hurst tool also known as the "Jaws of Life"] between the decks when additional movement of the entire structure caused us to evacuate to the aerial [ladder truck]."

Aftershocks continued to roll through the vast, unstable structure and, as Capt. Flom wrote, "In the process of moving equipment and people to the first level, a distinct shock was felt and the deck dropped a short distance. I ordered everyone to the ground and reevaluated the situation with Lt. [Brian] Lawrence."

"I went to the ground to assess the stability of the freeway," wrote Lt. Steve August, "and found that even the support structure for the lower deck was fractured and was continuing to move. I called everyone off of the structure and I called for Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers to advise me as to the stability of the lower deck. Understanding that time was critical for the victim, Capt. Flom and I dismissed the idea of shoring and elected to make this a two-man rescue operation in order to minimize the chance of further casualties.

Lt. August contined: "With the assistance of Lt. Lawrence we set up the [Hurst tool] power unit on the lower deck and Capt. Flom crawled between the decks with the spreader to extricate the victim. Capt. Flom then came out to discuss a plan for evacuation of the victim. Capt. Flom and I crawled back in between the decks with a backboard while Lt. Lawrence stayed just outside and manned a `lifeline' that was attached to the backboard."

"I went in and opened the driver door with the Hurst [tool] spreader," wrote Capt. Flom. "The victim was pinned from the waist up. He moved his legs, indicating he was not completely unconcious."

"Once the victim was pulled out from between the decks," wrote Lt. August, "the rest of the crew assisted in lowering the unidentified man down the aerial to the waiting Paramedics."

"I think it appropriate," Lt. August suggested, "that the Oakland Fire Department consider Capt. Gerald Flom to be honored with a Medal of Valor award. His action and disregard for his own safety went well beyond what we consider normal, everyday heroics."

It was certainly clear to Chief Baker at the Fire Dispatch Center that the Fire Department had no fire apparatus in service for dispatch and that the City of Oakland were in extreme danger. The fire communications center was gridlocked because hundreds of emergency calls were being received, but there was no fire engines or trucks to send.

Lt. Charles E. Nelson of the Oakland Police Department Communications Division complained after the earthquake, "[The Oakland Fire Department] was overwhelmed and would not take information on, or respond to, gas leaks or lines down. We [the Oakland Police] could not get through to PG&E with these calls because of phone congestion."

IN: San Francisco Almanac
San Francisco, 1995

Go to “Response to the Cypress Freeway - Part III”

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