OAKLAND — Cheers broke the gloom along the tomb of rubble that was the Nimitz Freeway when a surprise earthquake survivor--uncovered by a fluke shifting of debris--was carried to safety Saturday after being pinned in a buried air bubble for four chilly Bay Area nights.
Laboring fast in a cool rain, workers freed Buck Helm, 57, from his Chevrolet Sprint more than five hours after his waving hand was seen by a rescue worker about 6 a.m. He was in good condition despite being buried in the darkness--without water or food--for more than 90 hours.
"Thank God I'm alive," Helm said when the head of paramedic Diana Moore came into view.
The morning's rain stopped and a large crowd of onlookers that had gathered by the destroyed freeway cheered and hugged each other when Helm was lifted out. Spirits had sagged since the frantic search for victims had shifted down to a slow cleanup effort earlier in the week, after officials gave up hope of finding more survivors.
Rescue leaders said they believe the small air chamber where Helm survived was hidden from view until Friday night, when a Caltrans crew attached a cable to a piece of the freeway and tugged--a stress test to see if the pile of rubble was safe for workers.
Pieces of concrete apparently moved enough to expose the cavern where Helm was trapped between decks of the collapsed freeway. But work was halted for the night and he wasn't noticed until morning.
Doctors at Highland Hospital said Helm came in dehydrated and in pain, with a lowered body temperature of 97.1 degrees and kidney failure. Helm suffered a minor skull fracture and three broken ribs, but the kidneys were his biggest problem. He was listed in critical condition.
"He's definitely not out of the woods yet," said Dr. Randy Rasmussen, a kidney specialist. "It's too early in his course to say how he'll do, but we're hopeful."
But he did not suffer any ill effects of hypothermia and could have lived another two or three days, said Dr. Floyd Huen, medical director at the hospital.
"He didn't receive any large crushing injuries," Huen said. "He was lucky."
His news was the best heard on a day that saw rain begin to fall on most of the 100-mile-long area damaged by Tuesday's 6.9-magnitude quake and hundreds of aftershocks. Rain stopped falling about noon in the Bay Area, but temperatures remained cool.
At UC Berkeley, only 20,000 fans--one of the smallest crowds in 25 years--watched a football game between California and Washington. An aftershock was felt during the game, which Washington won, 29-16.
In Santa Cruz County, the National Guard began erecting tent villages for several thousand residents displaced from their homes, and the rain raised the fear of landslides on hillsides near the quake epicenter.
Powerful aftershocks, including a 4.8-magnitude rattler that struck at mid-afternoon Saturday, also were causing misery for residents of the quake area.
Helm's extrication from the wreckage of the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway gave new energy to workers whose spirits had sagged as they worked long days in sometimes-harsh conditions with nothing but bodies and sweat to show for it.
Helm, a familiar figure on the Oakland docks, where he is a clerk, had left work at the waterfront a few minutes before the quake. He lives in Weaverville, the seat of small Trinity County in evergreen forests below the Trinity Alps, but was apparently just headed to dinner in Berkeley.
Basil Parker left work at the same time and drove up the freeway just ahead of his friend. "(Parker) barely missed being crushed," said Don Grice, a dispatcher on the docks. "So the word spread: Buck didn't make it."
But friends said Bucky, as they knew him, was not only tall and burly, but also resilient.
"We figured that if anybody could make it, Buck Helm could. He's tough. He's a fighter," said Dave Comport, a co-worker on the docks.
Spectators quickly gathered near the west Oakland freeway as word spread that a survivor had been found. They waited quietly as the delicate rescue was conduced, hidden from view in a cramped area beneath the fallen upper deck.
Reuben Perez, 25, of Berkeley, heard the news on the radio and drove down. "We wanted to see this guy get cut out of his concrete tomb alive," said Perez.
After Helm was brought out, at 11:27 a.m., and put in the ambulance, a Red Cross worker drove his truck along the lines restraining the crowd, shouting, "He's alive! He's alive! He's alive!"
Ronnie Thomas, another Red Cross volunteer, said tired rescue workers got new legs. "It's amazing," Thomas said. "It makes all this work worth it."
At least 55 people have been confirmed dead since the quake. Workers have pulled 34 bodies from the Nimitz Freeway. As many as 85 people are still missing and regarded as possible victims, but the freeway ruins will not be cleared for several days.