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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 : Community Mobilized to Save Freeway Survivors

October 20, 1989|ASHLEY DUNN

William McElroy has lived in the shadow of the Nimitz Freeway for most of his life. As a teen-ager growing up in a grimy, blue-collar section of Oakland along 12th Street, he watched workmen in the 1950s raise the heavy, double-decked highway just a few blocks from his home.

Over time, the Nimitz became one of those dominating landmarks one hardly notices. That's how it was for McElroy, a short, chubby 52-year-old boilermaker who never moved from the old neighborhood until Tuesday's earthquake flattened huge sections of the Nimitz like a pancake.

McElroy had just returned from a visit with his insurance agent in Richmond--driving along the Nimitz on the way home--when the first tremor hit. Barely in the front door, he turned around and walked back outside to find friends and neighbors milling on the street. From their vantage point, nothing looked too unusual. There was no sense of concern.

But after about five minutes, a next-door neighbor rushed up to McElroy screaming. "The freeway has fallen!" she shrieked. "The freeway has collapsed!"

He raced to his backyard, where the view of the roadway was better, though still obstructed. Sure enough, plumes of thick black smoke were rising behind the rooftops. "Oh, my God," McElroy thought. "The cars are burning."

McElroy jumped into his car and drove down Peralta Street to 20th. Only then did he fully grasp the horror. About 30 people had already gathered at the barrier fence in front of the freeway. They stared upward, dumbfounded.

About 40 feet above them, leaning over the railing of what had been the freeway's upper deck, another small crowd had assembled. A few shouted, "Get us down! Get us down!" But most stood dazed, pleading for help only with their eyes.

For a few moments, McElroy and the others on the ground stood helpless. Then two men drove up in forklifts, and used them to bash through the fence that separated the onlookers from the freeway structure. "Now we're getting somewhere," McElroy thought. A cheer rang out from those on the ground.

There were a couple of wooden pallets lying beneath the freeway. Someone in the crowd attached them to the forklifts, and the operators raised the makeshift platforms to the survivors on the upper deck. More equipment began to arrive. Ladders were commandeered from a nearby piping company. Neighbors and factory workers ran to the freeway with flashlights, car jacks, pliers, electric saws, crowbars and whatever else they could find. One man threw a rope up to the top of the freeway and shinned up to help the people stranded there.

McElroy went up a ladder. Once atop the deck, he saw dozens of people wandering among their cars, which had been strewn across the crumbled roadbed in a weird tangle. He hugged a young woman he had seen hanging anxiously over the railing. "We're going to get you out of here," he promised.

In the next 30 minutes, at least 50 survivors were rescued using the forklifts and ladders brought by passers-by. Not a single police officer or firefighter had yet arrived on the scene.

McElroy and a few others climbed over the side of the span and ducked into a small gap between the upper and lower decks. After they had squeezed inside the pocket, McElroy said, a firefighter showed up and told them to clear the area. "The hell with that," McElroy and the others shouted. "We got people to get out." The firefighter left.

For 90 minutes, the rescuers pulled out all the survivors they could find sandwiched between the layers of concrete. One man, however, remained pinned inside a truck. Daylight had faded, and the rescuers, working only with a pair of pliers, a few electric saws and some 2-by-4s, could barely see what they were doing.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a truck pulled up beneath the freeway with a generator and a bank of floodlights. Firefighters arrived, with a saw that could cut through steel. For more than three hours, McElroy stationed himself at the bottom of a ladder, ferrying tools up to the workers above.

About 9:30 p.m., a man leaned out from the air pocket and yelled: "We got him! We got him!"

McElroy got his first glimpse of the pinned driver only when rescuers brought him down the ladder, battered and crying in agony. What he was witnessing gave McElroy chills, but he also felt happier than he had all evening. "We did it!" he thought.

But the elation quickly soured. While they were freeing the truck driver, another group of rescuers had swung into an adjacent air pocket and discovered a young girl and boy trapped in a car. Their parents, in the same vehicle, had been crushed to death.

McElroy wanted to stay and help, but by then police, firefighters and medical personnel were swarming over the site. He could hear doctors debating whether to amputate the boy's leg to free him.

Finally, at 11 p.m., an exhausted McElroy left the freeway and went home to sleep. Only in the morning did he learned that the boy's leg indeed had been cut off.

The next morning, when McElroy returned to the freeway, willing to pitch in again, he found an army of police, firefighters and reporters as well as a forest of satellite dishes atop television-station vans. Authorities had thrown up barricades, keeping at bay those who had assisted so unselfishly the night before. When he tried to go through, police warned him away.

"I felt a little helpless," McElroy said. Finally, he gave up and went home.

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