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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : 5:04 P.M. : A TIME WHEN LIVES CHANGED : Tales of the Quake: Death, Heroes and Luck : For an Officer on the Scene, Highway Will Never Be the Same

October 20, 1989|PAUL JACOBS

Before nightfall, California Highway Patrolman Bill Myers would find himself crawling through the rubble of a collapsed freeway in Oakland, looking for anyone still alive among scores of hopelessly smashed cars.

But his day began routinely enough at 5:15 a.m. Already in uniform, he jumped on his motorcycle and headed into work, coming down from his home in the East Bay town of Rodeo to the CHP office in the heart of Oakland.

Even in the early morning darkness, he felt that he had taken possession of the roads--that these were his freeways. That was his job, to take command of the highway, to control the traffic, to keep it moving safely.

"When I was a kid I lived a stone's throw from I-80," Myers said. "When I'd hear a crash, I could hop a fence and be there in a minute. And I can remember waiting for the Highway Patrol to show up. When they got there, you knew everything was going to be all right. Now I've taken accidents in the same place and there are new kids running up."

At 31, Myers is already a six-year veteran with enough seniority to work the morning shift.

At the day's briefing, he was assigned to work a stretch of California 13, east of Oakland. On the road by 6:15 a.m., he was quickly called to the scene of an accident with possible injuries--a Code 3, which means he raced there with sirens sounding and lights flashing.

"I've seen a fair share of fatals," Myers said. Recently, he recalled, he had handled "a fairly stupendous fatal. A woman literally wrapped her car around a tree. . . . The way I deal with it, is I consider the body or parts of a body as elements of an accident, just as I consider a tire in the road as part of an accident. Naturally, there's a human side. It's going to hit somewhere deep inside of you and you talk a lot about it."

But at the scene of the early morning accident, Myers found oil on the highway that had to be cleaned up, but only minor injuries.

In the course of the morning, he wrote a handful of tickets and handled a second accident, a minor one with no injuries. He spent his afternoon writing detailed reports.

By 4 p.m., he was home with time to kill before going to the Lakeridge Club for a game of racquetball. It was about 5:15 p.m. when he arrived there but the front desk was abandoned and everyone was in front of the club's large-screen TV.

"There was a collapsed bridge there and they said it was the Bay Bridge and I said, "What bay?" They said, "Our bay, where have you been?" I was on my bike. I didn't feel the quake."

By 5:45 p.m., Myers was in uniform and back at work. He was dispatched to the Nimitz Freeway, one of eight officers who rode in tight formation until they reached the lower deck of the raised freeway.

"I've been here lots of times and I don't care for this section of freeway. There are no shoulders and there's no place to pull people over and get them out of traffic. I'd never thought about it collapsing.

"We came to the 14th Street on-ramp and ahead of us we saw a wall of rocks. It was the upper roadway. A Global Van Lines truck had smashed into it. Personal belongings were spilling out of it. There was a couch hanging out. A part of a bed.

"A Volvo was sitting on top of the rocks. There was an abandoned patrol car there. It was all locked up but the ticket book was still inside."

Parking their bikes, the patrolmen climbed over the mound of rubble. "So now I'm standing on the upper deck, except I'm on the lower deck," Myers said. "I could see flashlights ahead, the rescue was already started."

Walking north, they climbed up sections of the collapsed upper deck that had buckled up into the shape of a tepee, Myers said.

"At the top there was a crack. It was like looking down into a cave.

"There is all this publicity about the Bay Bridge but I'm thinking about how much traffic there was here. And there must be at least a hundred cars buried."

He and the others climbed down into the space between roadways and began looking for survivors. He had been in caverns like this before, he remembered. As a kid he explored an abandoned gold mine on his grandmother's property near Placerville.

"I'm not sure I want to be in here," Myers said. "Everybody is talking about aftershocks. But I told myself I'm here, and I put off thinking about it."

In some places, he could stand almost upright, but to keep moving ahead Myers had to start crawling. "I spit-shine my boots every day so I'm standing on my toes so I don't scuff them."

Laid out flat and unable to go any further, he could see a smashed red car and "a hunk of shiny stuff I'm assuming was a car."

There was no sign of life.

On the way out, he came upon two Fire Department rescue workers and helped them lift out a survivor who had been taken from his crushed car.

"Our chief role as highway patrolmen is to keep traffic moving safely. Safety is the key word. But this isn't highway patrol work--this is a disaster."

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