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Buck Helm: 90 Hours in Freeway Wreckage Created Quake Hero : Disaster: Tough longshoreman dies nearly a month after rescue from damaged interstate in Oakland. Respiratory failure is blamed.

November 20, 1989|PHILIP HAGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Buck Alvin Helm, the gritty longshoreman who had become the symbol of survival from the massive Oct. 17 Bay Area earthquake, died unexpectedly Saturday without being able to publicly tell his amazing story.

A funeral will be held Tuesday afternoon in his home of Weaverville. Helm, 58, died at 7:30 p.m. Saturday of "respiratory failure" after his condition abruptly worsened, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland said Sunday.

Ironically, his death came only a day after doctors optimistically announced plans to wean him from a respirator that he had been on since being hospitalized in serious but stable condition under intensive care.

"His physicians had been encouraged by his rate of progress but emphasized that he remained in very serious condition," said hospital spokesman Ron Treleven. "It was still too soon to determine how soon he would recover."

Treleven said that at the request of Helm's family, he could not disclose other details of Helm's death or treatment. An autopsy has been scheduled by the Alameda County coroner's office and physicians will hold a press conference this morning to discuss the death of the man who survived 90 hours in the rubble of the collapsed section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland.

Vasilios B. Choulos of San Francisco, an attorney retained by the family, said of Helm's death: "I had every reason to be optimistic, even though he was not completely out of danger. Everyone hoped Buck would be off of the respirator in a few days and then be able to communicate--and perhaps be discharged in two or three weeks."

Choulos said that Helm's former wife, Lorene, who had been constantly at his bedside recently, had temporarily left the hospital Saturday evening but returned to find a sudden change in the atmosphere at the facility.

She had a "sense of doom" when she saw the looks on the faces of the hospital staff, Choulos said. "She knew at that point, in her heart of hearts, what had happened."

Helm's death was the 67th fatality attributed to the massive quake that rocked Northern California, injuring nearly 3,000 people and causing an estimated $7 billion in damage. Forty-two died in the collapse of a one-mile section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland that trapped Helm and other motorists beneath tons of concrete at 5:04 on a warm, hazy Tuesday afternoon.

The hardy, 240-pound Helm, who commuted weekly from his home in Weaverville, 250 miles north, to his job on the Oakland docks, had been driving his Chevrolet Sprint along the freeway when the temblor struck with a magnitude of 7.1.

On the following Saturday at 6 a.m., after weary rescue workers had abandoned any realistic hopes of saving any more trapped motorists, Helm's moving hand was seen in the debris.

Jubilant workers immediately began the painstaking four-hour task of shoring up the freeway structure, cutting through the door of the car and pulling him out.

Donald Stone, a rescuer from Tuolumne County, asked Helm, "How's it going?"

"What the (expletive) is going on?" answered the dazed man.

Charles A. Nicola, an Orange County fire battalion chief and one of the scores of rescuers who responded to the disaster, asked Helm his name.

"Buck," came the faint reply.

"Where do you hurt?" asked Nicola.

"I hurt all over," Helm replied.

Helm was taken first to Highland Hospital in Oakland. He had injuries from head to foot, and was diagnosed as having a fractured skull, three broken ribs, bruised lungs, kidney failure and a broken ankle.

Quickly, the startling word of his survival was circulated around the world. It was a moment of joy in a grim event marked by death and destruction.

Details of Helm's colorful nature quickly emerged. The burly man, described by friends as strong-willed and "ornery," slept week nights near the docks at the Port of Oakland in a yellow custom van emblazoned with the words, "The Weaverville Flash." Inside the van he kept small photographs of his four children to whom he was devoted: Greg, 35; Marc, 22; Jeff, 16, and Desiree, 12.

Co-workers said that they thumped on the van door to rouse the longshoreman for his job as a clerk for Stevedoring Services of America.

Lorene Helm, with whom associates said he remained friendly, was flown from Weaverville to Oakland to be at his side. The family was nearly overwhelmed with requests for news interviews. Producers and agents came forward with proposals for movies and television shows.

The family hired a public relations firm to sift through the offers along with Choulos, who has been retained by the family and has filed a liability claim against Caltrans.

Ten days after the quake, residents of Weaverville, a small community in the Trinity Mountains, held a rousing celebration to mark his survival, stringing dozens of banners and posters along streets and over shop windows. "Our Thoughts Are With You Buck and the Bay Area" proclaimed one sign.

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