On the 25th anniversary of Loma Prieta, paramedics remember
on October 20, 2014
Twenty-five years later, they returned to the site where the earthquake wreaked the most havoc, to remember a day they could never quite forget. James Betts, the doctor who amputated a boy’s leg on the scene–he was there. Mark Hoffman, who was the first to arrive at the Cypress structure after the first bout of shaking stopped–he was there, to lead a brief moment of silence. David Burns, who made his mark as a 27-year-old paramedic supervisor, searching through the rubble for 5 days–he was there too. And by his side stood a dozen fellow former paramedics, many of whom had not worked together since 1989.
As they spoke, the Oakland officials faced a clean, newly-paved road called Mandela Parkway. But had they been there 25 years ago on the afternoon of October 17th, they would have seen the two-story Cypress Viaduct on the 880 freeway begin to jolt in concrete waves before collapsing onto itself, taking 42 lives with it. It was not until later that a name was assigned to the tremor that caused the ground to shake with such power. Loma Prieta, they called it. And it was fierce.
“Nature is an equal opportunity mother,” said Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the councilmember who represents West Oakland, District Three. She was a single mom living in the area when the earthquake hit. Now, on the 25th anniversary, she stood at a podium in the Cypress Freeway Memorial Park to address the press, members of the city government and the paramedics who responded to the scene that day. “We all suffered,” McElhanehy said. “Rich and poor.”
Elihu M. Harris, Oakland’s mayor in 1989, stood by current Mayor Jean Quan, as did Oakland’s Director of Transportation, Fire Department Chief and local leaders of Homeland Security and FEMA. They gave speeches about heroes and honor and remembrance. But if you knew where to look, you would have noticed the reunited paramedics slowly drifting away from the microphones and into the park. They were looking for a place to talk.
Rick Oliver, who walks with a cane and sports a greying mustache that runs all the way down to his jaw, had moved to a bench to rest, when John McPortland approached. The two locked eyes in an instant moment of recognition and patted each other on the shoulder.
“We’ve done a lot of things and been a lot of places together,” said Oliver, with a chuckle. McPartland nodded in agreement. In October of ’89, Oliver was a paramedic who spent 12 days in the rubble of the Cypress. McPortland was the Battalion Chief of the Fire Department at the time, and he recalled the scene “on the pile”–what he and his partners called what was left of the freeway. “Everyone there had that one thousand mile stare,” he said. “Everybody was a zombie. We were operating on instinct.”
The very first thing that every officer, paramedic, and fireman heard that day was Mark Hoffman’s voice on the radio. He was the first officer on the scene and his task was to size up the damage. To this day, McPortland remembers every word: “The upper deck of the Cypress has collapsed in both directions,” said Hoffman’s voice, “as far as the eye can see.”
The ground started shaking at 5:04pm on October 17 and the most devastated site was the Cypress Street Viaduct. The destruction was the deadliest in the Bay Area. Within the initial 15 seconds of violent shaking, the upper deck fell onto the lower, crushing drivers in their cars. Loma Prieta’s total death toll reached 63. In San Francisco, a section of the Bay Bridge upper deck collapsed, while fires ravaged the Marina District. At the epicenter in Santa Cruz, the quake, which was caused by shifting movements along the San Andreas Fault, leveled several buildings. The seismic shift measured 6.9 on the Richter scale.
The residents of West Oakland were the first people on the scene at Cypress, arriving with their own ladders to climb onto the wreckage before medical personnel were able to reach it. They pulled trapped bodies, some alive and some dead, from cars, many of which had been crushed under blocks of solid concrete, and aided paramedics and firefighters for days after, as aftershocks rippled through the already damaged structure.
Now the Cypress Viaduct is gone. The 880 was rerouted to the outskirts of West Oakland ten years ago. Mandela Parkway now sits where the structure once stood, wrapping around the Cypress Freeway Memorial Park. A black iron sculpture of ladders twists towards the sky, a reminder of the locals who saved so many lives.
“The citizens from West Oakland were incredible,” said Martin Mora, the paramedic who discovered a man named Buck Helm alive in his car four days after the earthquake hit. Helm’s story was to turn into one of the running dramas of the Loma Prieta quake, the survivor who held out for so long, only to die from respiratory failure in the hospital 29 days later. But on the day of the rescue, as Mora climbed through the rubble on the top level of Cypress towards an arm that appeared to be moving, residents below continued to bring supplies and food for the firefighters. “A bunch of them were out there with no training,” he recalled, “pulling people out on ironing boards, using sheets and rope, they helped a lot of people come down. They risked their lives to go up there. I remember that the most.”
In her memorial speech, Councilmember McElhaney reflected on the community response. “West Oakland residents rose as champions, many of them poor and not usually esteemed,” she said, adding that some were falsely accused of being looters. “But today I honor them.” Gibson referred to the double-decker Cypress freeway as “a dark shadow” that divided and isolated West Oakland from the rest of the city, expressing her thanks to the residents and Caltrans officials who fought for a memorial park in a community with little access to open space.
“Remember this park. We need to talk about this park,” said Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Reed, at the podium. “This isn’t just another piece of cement and landscape within the city of Oakland. This park right here represents a change in the community.”
Behind the audience, groups of students led in pairs by teachers lined up to get earthquake safety bags from FEMA and learn about earthquake preparedness by building marshmallow structures and watching them fall on shake tables.
On the grass, where the parkland dips and surges in man-made waves, Patrice Doyle stood with the other paramedics. She had been working in Oakland for four years when Loma Prieta hit and was part of the second unit on Cypress.
“It was overwhelmingly quiet, very eerie,” she said, “Smoke was billowing up from the lower deck. And then all of a sudden, it was like a light turned on and there were shouts and screams and people needed help and you just kept moving and moving and moving.”
After arriving on the scene, Doyle remembered approaching a bus, but none of the passengers were alive. “They looked alive,” she said, “but they were not living.” She explained that the force in these kinds of incidents often separates the aorta, the main artery to the heart. The passengers most likely went from about 60 miles per hour to stopping at high force when the structure fell, and the impact would have been like hitting a brick wall. The inside of them went forward, but nothing else did, she said. She pronounced them dead and moved on. That was the triage regimen.
Doyle has a strong face and a jeweled pendant on her chest. She remained on the scene for five days straight in 1989, leaving only for a few hours on day three to shower and clean her uniform before acting as medical aid for President Bush, who flew in to survey the damage. Now she is retired, with two kids.
“Remember this stuff? I don’t need to remember it, I don’t need to relive it,” she said, pausing to take a breath. “It took everything to come back out here today.”
Ann-Margaret Moyer, a fellow retired paramedic with a gold badge pinned to the front of her Giants jersey, held up a photograph. There was Doyle, a young woman in a white Allied Ambulance uniform, steadying the neck and jaw of a Cypress survivor with her hands, the man’s body laid on a stretcher made from a car seat. A white bow was pinned on her head.
It took weeks for Aaron Janssen, another former member of Allied Ambulance, to get the word out about the anniversary reunion, using Facebook and other networking sites to get contact information for the first responders that were on Cypress with him 25 years ago. He is currently working on a project that addresses PTSD for EMS and firefighters, directing colleagues to support groups and working with a camp-style retreat for those suffering from the effects of trauma.
“It’s good seeing people,” Doyle said, glancing toward Moyer and another former paramedic, Anne Estrada. “It’s like a high school reunion.” Moyer’s back was turned, the word PARAMEDIC emblazoned in yellow on her jacket.
“Part of it is just crap. I try not to remember, but I will always be tied to these people,” said Estrada, who reminisced with the other retired paramedics about working in West Oakland in the 80’s, doing 48 hour shifts with limited rescue resources in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city.
“It’s important for everybody to come back and help flush out some memories, talk about it,” Moyer said to Estrada, “You’ve gotta deal with it.”
Wil Gorman, who was an EMT on the scene the day of the earthquake looked forward to the 25th reunion. “I wanted to come here today, because I think for me, it brought the other end to it, you know?” he said, surveying the park’s memorial words, which sat on a back wall in bold silver letters that spelled out 15 Seconds. “It’s kind of like the other half of the pendulum. Now I can really put this behind me.”
He looked at the street where the Cypress used to stand, and at the kids, now eating lollipops from their survival kits and playing with toy trains on felt hills and valleys.
“This big long park used to be a double decker highway,” he said. “That day was just different. We all thought the world was going to end.”
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