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Close Call on Bridge a Symbol of Fragility

October 26, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irene Osterman and Adam Sussman have both sailed some heavy seas, but never had encountered a chop like the one that left their car teetering over a suddenly created gap in the Bay Bridge.

As the couple--both captains for a Ventura tour-boat company--were driving back from San Francisco after getting visas for their honeymoon trip to Nepal, the world opened up for them.

The Oct. 17 earthquake snapped the bridge's upper deck. It swung down, landing just in front of Osterman's car--a red 1988 Pontiac LeMans. The car stopped just in time, its rear wheels clinging to a fractured slab and its hood pointed into the maw, down toward the waters of the San Francisco Bay. Another car, which had been traveling on the upper deck, careened down next to them, missing the LeMans by just a few feet.

The scene was featured on front pages and in televised news coverage across the country, a symbol of fragility and tentativeness in the savage earthquake's wake.

But Osterman, 32, and Sussman, 29, who were preparing for their wedding at her sister's house in Walnut Creek last weekend, could have passed on the symbolism.

"She said it was very scary, devastating," said Cherryl Wendel, an owner of the family-run Island Packer Cruises, which ferries tourists from Ventura Harbor to Channel Islands National Park. "Suddenly, all they could see was the water. All they could think of was to get out of the car as soon as possible."

The couple, both graduates of the UC Santa Barbara, called Wendel, their friend and employer, early Wednesday. Reached by the Times later that night, Osterman declined to discuss the incident.

Wendel said the shaken couple climbed out the passenger's side door and hoisted themselves onto the roadway.

"They just stood there shaking, and holding each other," she said. "They were so lucky to be alive. It was a miracle. They escaped without a scratch."

They emerged into chaos, however. "Everyone was running in opposite directions. She said nobody would stop to help them. They didn't know what to do."

They abandoned the car--which contained their wallet and purse, and possessions they wanted to place in storage--and started hiking off the bridge. A police officer ordered them to return to the car, Wendel said, but they refused.

Once off the bridge, they flagged down a bus. Other passengers gave them money for a subsequent bus trip back to Walnut Creek.

Meanwhile, Osterman's parents in Walnut Creek saw footage of their daughter's abandoned LeMans, Wendel said.

"Her mother said, 'That looks like Irene's car.' Her father said, 'That is Irene's car. But the door's open--they must have escaped."

Reuben Sussman of Calabasas, Adam's father, saw the same footage but had no idea his son and prospective daughter-in-law had come so close to perishing. "I didn't think he was in that car because he has a green Ford pickup truck," Sussman said. "When he called, I was shaking for half an hour. Then I just went numb."

The couple, who later retrieved their possessions from the car with the help of a relative on the Hayward police force, made it back home at about 11 p.m, Wendel said.

But Osterman was up all night. Piloting charter fishing boats in Alaska during the spring and guiding the Island Packers vessels through the Channel Islands in the winter hadn't prepared either her or her husband-to-be for their unanticipated adventure.

They did not see their immediate future--the honeymoon trip to Nepal, followed by graduate studies for each at the University of Oregon--pierced by tragedy.

"She just shook," Wendel said. "She said it was a terror."

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