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The Initial Response to the Cypress Freeway Disaster
Compiled from Oakland Fire Department Reports and Radio Transcripts

By Dave Fowler

Oakland fire Lt. William R. Jarrett first knew of the disaster at the Cypress freeway a few moments after the earthquake when he and the crew of Fire Engine No. 5 saw large columns of dust and smoke rising from the area of 32nd Street at the Cypress Freeway. Lt. Jarrett immediately responded with his engine and crew and, upon arrival, saw people scrambling along the upper deck screaming for help.

To Firefighter Gary Klinger who was on Engine No. 5, "It looked like an atom bomb had just gone off. People were running around in all directions screaming for help here, there, and everywhere," and, indeed, the collapsed freeway appeared to have been shelled by heavy artillery.

Lt. Jarrett attempted to radio a report of the disaster to fire alarm, but could not get through because of other frantic radio traffic overloading the Fire Department communications system.

Citizens who lived in a nearby housing project ran to the wrecked freeway moments after the earthquake. Dozens of extraordinarily brave citizens climbed shattered support columns and – holding onto curled steel reinforcement rods that had been bent and exposed by the fearsome collapse – made their way along the top deck.

Dust and smoke rose straight up into the warm afternoon air.

These brave people covered their faces with handkerchiefs and rags for protection from cement dust and the acrid smoke of many burning automobiles, and went from car to car to search for survivors. Strong earthquake aftershocks rocked the teetering, insecure freeway. One of these citizen rescuers yelled, "I need something to pry the door open! He's alive...alive...he heard me!" as the first Oakland firefighters arrived.

Dr. Steve Mahin, Professor of Civil Engineering and Chairman of the Structural Engineering Department at UC Berkeley was on the seventh floor of the Engineering building and also saw what Lt. Jarrett did: "I have the fortune or misfortune of having an office on the Berkeley Campus which has a panoramic view of Oakland and portions of San Francisco," he said, "and during the earthquake I was in my office and looking out the window as soon as the earthquake occurred, I could note very clearly the collapse of the 880 structure and almost immediately subsequent fires that erupted."

There were several expert eyewitnesses on the Cypress Freeway at the time of the earthquake, and Dr. David Rogers, who testified before the California state Senate Transportation Committee, said some of them were civil engineers "... and they described driving over the waves and decided to get off while other people decided to stop, and that they believe the failure [of the Cypress Freeway] emanated from the north end ... and came back towards the south.

The California Highway Patrol's report on the collapse confirmed that various sections collapsed from north to south.

The first telephone call reporting the Cypress collapse didn't get through to the overwhelmed Oakland Fire Dispatch Center until 5:10 p.m., six minutes after the freeway had fallen.

Oakland Engine Co. 1 had been dispatched to Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way for reported of a collapsed building. When Lt. Mark Hoffman found nothing he suggested the Fire Dispatch Center cancel the call and assign responding units to other emergencies. The Fire Dispatch Center then radioed, "Engine No. 1, 880 and Cypress, the freeway is down. We need you." Lt. Hoffman calmly acknowledged the call, and the dispatch center then ordered Engine Co. 2 to also respond.

Meanwhile, Assistant Chief John Baker attempted to organize the limited resources of the Oakland Fire Department after riding out the massive earthquake while standing in the doorway of the dispatch center. Hundreds of calls for assistance swamped the fire dispatchers, and he called Chief Reginald (Reggie) Garcia at Battalion 3 by telephone and ordered him to headquarters to assist with operations.

Battalion Chief Garcia was quartered at Station 20, about fifteen minutes away by automobile from the Fire Dispatch Center at headquarters.

As Battalion Chief Garcia drove away from Station 20 at 5:10 p.m. While driving to headquarters, he could hear sketchy radio reports from various units around the city, and he heard the dispatch of Engine Co. 1 to a reported freeway collapse near I-880 and Cypress Street. Later, as he approached headquarters, he began to hear other scratchy, fragmentary and garbled radio transmissions from various fire companies just arriving at the Cypress collapse. However, it was still not possible to tell from these sketchy radio transmissions just how extensive this collapse might be.

From what he could see of conditions in the east end of Oakland, and hear from the few intelligable radio transmissions, it was clear that most of the earthquake damage was in the central and west portions of the city.

Radio reports from units in the field were still either too fragmented or simply too sketchy to tell of the true conditions at the Cypress collapse, but what could be heard alarmed Assistant Chief Baker, who then tried to borrow the Oakland Police Department's helicopter for an aerial survey of the city. It was out of service for maintenance.

All along the one-and-one-quarter-mile stretch of the Cypress collapse, the first-arriving fire companies immediately began to try to free survivors wherever they found a need, and that seemed to be everywhere. At any point along the broken structure trapped and injured victims awaited first-aid treatment or assistance.

These chronically understaffed fire companies – victims of years of budget reductions – had to split into squads to begin rescue attempts and to treat dazed and injured survivors along and atop this unstable structure.

Lt. Hoffman, of Engine Co. 1 at first used the Tele-squirt [a telescoping ladder boom that extends 45 feet with a nozzle at the top] engine to reach the collapsed upper deck on the west side of the freeway at Cypress and 18th streets. The crew then brought an extension ladder up the Tele-squirt and raised it from the collapsed section to the elevated section of the freeway which miraculously remained standing.

Engineer Jerry Prola stayed with the engine and helped survivors down the Tele- squirt boom and handled their immediate first-aid needs. Firefighter Charles Gerow and a group of citizen-volunteers raised other ladders to rescue more survivors who had begun to slowly crawl from the smoking freeway wreckage.

Lt. Hoffman and Firefighter Ken Costa were soon joined by two off-duty members of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda. One of these Marines, Guillermo R. Guillen, began to interpret for injured Spanish-speaking victims. Another volunteer was an off-duty employee of Alameda County who was not identified in Oakland fire reports. This combined Fire Department-volunteer crew crawled along the sandwiched lower deck peering between the decks for more trapped victims and noting the location of the fatalities.

While Lt. Hoffman led this group in this search, the crew of Engine Co. 8 raised ground ladders on the opposite side of the freeway to extricate more victims trapped on the east side of the lower deck.

Engineer Prola went to the assistance of Engine Co. 8's crew in this rescue effort and moved the Tele-squirt to the east side of the freeway, then raised the boom to a point where entry could be made.

The crew of Engine Co. 1 then worked with Engine Co. 8 and Ladder Truck Co. 20 on the extrication of the Beruman children that would last through the night.

At about 5:25 p.m., Ladder Truck Co. 1 arrived at 32nd and Cypress Streets to assist Engine Co. 1. John D. Thomas, captain of this this ladder truck, wrote that upon arrival, "we found large amounts of rubble in the street," at 32nd and Cypress Streets and he could see "Directly at the intersection a semi-trailer truck crushed between the two decks and was burning. Vehicles at street level were crushed by falling concrete and steel or appeared to have fallen from the upper deck of the freeway." The rescue work of the ladder truck company was further complicated because "travel along Cypress Street was blocked by fallen rubble," he said.

Capt. Thomas also split his understaffed ladder truck crew into two teams. Part of his crew began to work with Engine Co. 5 on the upper deck as other crew members grabbed ladders from the truck and raised them to get to the freeway deck. The truck fire between the decks was put out singlehandedly by Firefighter Robert Sibley, who led a hoseline from a nearby hydrant and attached it directly to the ladder truck aerial nozzle, then squirted the water between decks without benefit of a pump – a highly irregular, but effective maneuver.

This blockage of Cypress street by wrecked automobiles and thousands of tons of rubble was of grave and immediate concern because it severely hampered the initial rescue and firefighting efforts.

The City of Oakland was remarkably lucky because 60 Department of Public Works employees were attending driving school at the public works yard and, when alerted to the Cypress collapse, went immediately to the scene. On arrival, they began the extraordinary task of removing the debris with heavy moving equipment so rescue workers could get more ladders to the freeway deck and more ambulances to triage areas set up to treat the wounded.

These public works crews found hundreds of citizen-volunteers frantically pushing and shoving huge chunks of concrete and debris by hand to clear the street.

At the Fire Dispatch Center troubling reports of the disaster filtered in. An alarmed Assistant Chief Baker sent Battalion Chief Garcia to the Cypress Freeway collapse to begin command operations and to assess the need for additional assistance. Battalion Chief Garcia drove to the southern end of the freeway because most of the fragmentary reports concerning the collapse had come from fire companies near 18th Street.

IN: San Francisco Almanac
San Francisco, 1995

Go to “Response to the Cypress Freeway - Part II”

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