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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 : A Frantic Time at the Hospitals


Caristine Larsen, 24, is a transporter. That means she pushes gurneys.

She had a hunch it was going to be a bad day when a 15-year-old girl seeking medical help drove her car through the emergency room doors at Samuel Merritt Hospital in Oakland, clipped a wall and skidded partway up the front hall before coming to a stop.

That was before 5:04 p.m.

Then came the earthquake. Larsen felt it.

"At first I didn't think it was that bad, until I went up into the emergency room. They said it was a disaster and people would be coming in. They told me to get the gurneys downstairs fast. I did that and started putting mattresses on the sidewalk. From then on, we didn't have time to react.

"We just had to do what had to be done."

Patients started arriving within 30 minutes.

Things got hectic, even frantic. "We had to pull them out of their cars and put them somewhere. Depending on how bad they were, we put them on the gurneys, or we put them in a wheelchair, or we'd just lay them on the mattresses."

She saw gaping wounds, severe cuts, broken bones, countless bruises.

"The criticals would go to emergency room; the cuts to the ambulatory treatment center. Others just waited. We'd take them inside, try to get a name and put an ID on them if we could."

Larsen talked to one woman caught on the Bay Bridge when it collapsed. She had jumped out of her car and fallen from the top level of the bridge to its lower level.

"I feel like a real fool," she told Larsen. "But I had to jump."

Larsen says she must have handled 50 patients. She had help, from everybody who had a spare moment--X-ray file clerks, security guards.

At one point, she says, she and two helpers carried a man up three flights of stairs for surgery because the hospital elevator was on auxiliary power and they didn't trust it. Getting stuck between floors seemed possible, even likely.

"People were covered in blood. There was blood everywhere. I must have gone through 50 pairs of gloves. It was a terrible bloody mess. I got blood on my uniform. I just threw it away. I didn't even try to clean it.

"People were bringing other people in off the streets--people they had just found."

Nearby, at Highland General, another large Oakland hospital, Valerie Louie, charge nurse in the emergency room, was wondering out loud why she had put herself down for a double shift. "I don't do it very often," she said. "I sure picked a hell of a time."

She ended up working a quintuple, 40 hours with almost no rest. It was 5:35 p.m. when the first earthquake victim arrived.

She was a woman whose car had been crushed when the upper deck of the Nimitz Freeway pancaked onto the lower deck. Her husband had been killed. She was suffering severe head and neck injuries. Louis did what she could for her--but soon victims from the Nimitz became a long and steady stream.

There were skull fractures, broken bones, cuts from flying glass, crushed chests--and some plain old anxiety attacks.

There were victims who were much worse.

Louie had no time to call in extra help. But there was no need. Off-duty nurses showed up by themselves. Some were volunteers from out of state, in town for the World Series. At one point, Louie turned to two nurses who had said they were from somewhere in the East. Without intended irony, she said:

"Welcome to California."

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