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42 killed on Cypress freeway in 89 quake

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake was widespread, but the death toll came mostly from Oakland where the double-decker Cypress freeway collapsed.

>> FULL COVERAGE: LOMA PRIETA QUAKE OF '89

The Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway completely collapsed and 42 people were killed along more than a mile of Interstate 880. Sections of the top deck had fallen on to the bottom deck, some cars had gone over the edge, and others were trapped in between the two decks. All around the freeway there was chaos.

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Volunteer rescuer Vince Foudy recalled, "within a few minutes a police officer came by, and we asked were they going to send help and she said 'There is no help to send now. You guys are on your own.'"

"A company right across the street had some extension ladders. We went over there, climbed the fence, got some ladders, threw them back over the fence and that's how we got up on top of the freeway," said volunteer rescuer William McElroy.

Despite the danger, volunteers crawled between the decks, only to discover a grim scene.

"There were two children who were trapped in a vehicle that was elevated above the ground about 70 feet up," said pediatric surgeon Dr. James Betts, M.D., from Oakland's Children's Hospital.

Dr. Betts and a medical team drove to the Cypress freeway to help. By the time they got there, firefighters had reached one of the children -- a 9-year-old girl.

"You could come in on your belly between the upper deck and the trunk of the car and actually kind of get in the rear window, at least get an arm in and comfort her, take a pulse," said Assistant Chief Mark Hoffman from the Oakland Fire Department.

The girl was eventually pulled out of the car, but her 6-year-old brother's legs were pinned under the wreckage.

"He had lost probably a good 60 to 70 percent of his blood volume," said Dr. Betts.

Twenty years later, Dr. Betts still works at Children's Hospital and remembers every detail of that rescue. The only way to get the boy out was to amputate one of his legs at the knee.

"Constantly police, law enforcement and fire were asking us to come down," recalled Dr. Betts. "There were multiple aftershocks throughout the evening."

The space was only four feet high. Dr. Betts had to do the surgery lying down. Seven hours after the earthquake, the boy was finally free. Doctors didn't even know who he was, but the next morning at the hospital, a man showed up searching for his children and spotted the boy.

"I remember the child's father coming in and it gives me shivers now to think about it," said Dr. Betts.

The children were Julio and Cathy Berumen. Their mother was killed when the freeway collapsed and their recovery took months. They finally went home with their father just before Christmas.

ABC7 caught up with those children 10 years later. Julio was doing well with his prosthetics. Now, 20 years later, they want everyone to know they've stuck together as a family. Julio is an entrepreneur and Cathy is the happy mother of three young children.

Not every rescue had a positive ending. Four days after the earthquake, the entire Bay Area celebrated when longshoreman Buck Helm was found alive in the wreckage. Sadly, a month later, Helm died from his injuries.

Tim Petersen thought he was going to die too. He was also on the Cypress when it collapsed.

"The top deck just dropped and crushed my truck just down to 20 inches," said Petersen.

Petersen was stuck in his smashed pick-up for six hours, fully conscious, but unable to move.

"Bad break in my shoulder and ribs, and collapsed lung, a broken back," said Petersen.

Firefighters put their lives on the line to get him out. When Petersen recovered, he joined the Oakland Fire Department, working with the same firefighters who rescued him. They don't talk about that terrible night, but Petersen will never forget.

"Everyone talks about the whole dying thing or what's it going to be like and all that. And I sat there and waited and it just didn't happen. So, you get a second chance," said Petersen.

This story was written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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