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Response to the Cypress Freeway Disaster - Part III

In the city of Fremont, about 20 miles south of the Cypress collapse, Fire Chief Dan Lydon had begun to set up the Emergency Operations Center with the help of the mayor and the city manager a few minutes after the earthquake.

Mayor Gus Morrison was listening to a portable radio when he suddenly whirled and said to the chief, "I just heard that the Bay Bridge has collapsed!"

"I said 'My God!' when I heard that," said Chief Lydon, "I then checked and found that our city was not in serious trouble and I immediately went to the telephone to call Oakland Fire Alarm, and they answered right away."

Chief Lydon knew that a portion of the Bay Bridge was within the city limits of Oakland, and he also knew that years of budget cutbacks had left the Oakland department with just seven understaffed ladder truck companies. His 25 years of experience in the fire service also told him all of those truck companies would be needed for potential heavy rescue operations on the Bay Bridge. He was not however yet aware of the disastrous collapse of the Cypress Freeway.

When the call miraculously got through the overtaxed commercial telephone system at 5:25 p.m., Assistant Chief Baker was still not fully aware of the extreme magnitude of the Cypress Freeway collapse himself, but had full knowledge that virtually all of Oakland's fire companies had either already begun rescue operations at many places along the freeway or were out of service on other major emergencies. There were no fire engines left.

Assistant Chief Baker quickly came to the telephone and said, "Danny, you're the first outside person I've talked to since this thing hit. Every company is committed and we need ladder companies quickly....the Cypress is down!"

"I've known John for 30 years," said Chief Lydon, "and I could tell by the fright in his voice that his department was in trouble, and I asked him if he was requesting mutual aid. `Danny, call it want you want,' Chief Baker said, `just send me ladder companies! We can't reach the [upper deck of the Cypress Freeway], the ground ladders won't get to it!' "

Fremont Mayor Morrison and City Manager Kent McClain gave instant approval to send a ladder truck company to help Oakland. Chief Lydon also called other fire departments in southern Alameda County to see if truck companies were available. There were none.

Assistant Chief Baker also asked Chief Lydon to contact the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District and request ladder truck companies from them.

Oakland was quite fortunate that the city of Fremont was in a unique position to help and had a mayor, city manager and a progressive fire chief who were more than willing to send immediate help. First, there was little major damage in Fremont and, second, there was an outpouring of off-duty fire department personnel who quickly returned to the fire stations and, fortunately, the regular day staff was still at work when the earthquake struck.

"We had two 100-foot, brand-new, tillered aerials [ladder trucks] that had just been delivered and we were just in the final stages of mounting [rescue] equipment on them. Ironically, our people had been trained by the San Francisco Fire Department, because this was a new piece of equipment to us. So, we recognized that we had enough people to staff the department and still send ladder companies to Oakland," said Chief Lydon.

Fremont is also the only city in Alameda County that provides advanced life support on fire engines, so Chief Lydon also sent six paramedic-firefighters to Oakland to assist at the Cypress disaster.

Under normal conditions Assistant Chief Baker's call for additional fire equipment to Oakland, instead of going to Chief Lydon, should have been handed off to what is known as a county mutual aid coordinator. This coordinator, as the title implies, coordinates assistance to local fire departments within Alameda County.

The position was held by Chief John Sharry of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory Fire Department.

Chief Sharry wrote in his report, "At approx. 1740 hrs. [5:40 p.m.] we received a TAC phone request from Fremont Fire...asking for truck companies to go to Oakland. Upon questioning the caller he stated that Oakland had contacted them and that they needed truck companies at the Cypress St. Rt. 880 overpass. The overpass had collapsed. I asked if this was a relay from Oakland to the County Coordinator for County Mutual Aid. The person stated that he did not know that he was just trying to help Oakland. He stated that Fremont had dispatched some truck companies to their assistance."

But by 5:40 p.m., Oakland was stripped of fire engines and trucks by the enormous number of emergency calls – there were no fire resources left. On the northern border of Oakland, the Berkeley Fire Department was fighting a major earthquake-caused blaze that required the use of all engines and trucks in that city, and it could not send apparatus. The smaller Emeryville and Albany fire departments were also committed to various emergencies, which included mutual aid to Berkeley, and could not be counted on for assistance.

For all practical purposes this major American city was without organized fire protection when at 5:48 p.m. – 45 minutes after the earthquake – Chief Sharry placed his first call the Oakland Fire Department.

"I contacted Oakland Fire Dispatch," he wrote, "via TAC phone to determine their needs. Oakland requested that we send them anything we could spare. I informed them that I could not deal with that kind of request. They needed to give me their needs in numbers.

"After some discussion, Oakland requested two Engine Strike Teams and two Truck Strike Teams. I informed Oakland that Truck Companies were at a premium, but I would organize the best available resources."

Each strike team was to be made up of five fire engines or five ladder trucks.

"I contacted Contra Costa County [Consolidated Fire District which adjoins Alameda County to the east] to ask for an Immediate Response Strike Team to Oakland. Contra Costa County informed me that they had already dispatched several Truck companies to Oakland. They would try to put together an Engine Company Strike Team and would get back to me." These were the ladder truck companies that had been earlier requested by Chief Lydon of Fremont. Chief Sharry then dispatched Alameda County Task Force 14 to Oakland, made up of apparatus from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory Fire Department, Livermore City Fire Department as well as units from Pleasanton and the small community of Daugherty, to Oakland.

This task force was certainly of some assistance, but given the magnitude of the disaster, fell far short of the resources needed to sustain major rescue operations at the Cypress Freeway. Assistant Chief Baker did, in fact, need "everything you can spare," and much more, in a rescue operation that would ultimately require resources from the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, the Air Force and fire departments as far away as Los Angeles.

At 6 p.m., Battalion Chief Walden of the Walnut Creek Fire Department was told by Chief Sharry to lead a Heavy Rescue Strike Team made up of San Ramon Ladder Truck No. 34 and Consolidated Fire District Ladder Truck No. 1 to Oakland. His strike team was dispatched to 16th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way for a reported building collapse. At 6:20 p.m., Professor Mahin arrived at the Cypress collapse to begin the investigation of one of the greatest engineering disasters of modern times that had happened as he watched from his office at the UC campus.

When Battalion Chief Walden's strike team stopped at a roadblock at San Pablo Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, it was mistakenly directed by the Oakland Police Department to the Cypress Command Post at West Grand Avenue and Cypress Street.

Oakland Engine Co. 4 was sent to the Cypress collapse and when it arrived, Firefighter Victor M. Cuevas wrote, "Words can't describe the feeling that came over me as the structure came closer in sight. It was very confusing. The engine stopped at about 2600 block of Cypress [at Peralta Street], where we were directed to the west side of the structure."

A California Highway Patrol officer told the crew that a man was trapped alive in an automobile on the lower deck. They grabbed all the tools from Engine Co. 4, then commandeered a forklift to raise them to the lower deck. Firefighter Cuevas began to check the seriousness of the injuries as Firefighter Andrew Papp began to pry and pull at the wreckage.

Firefighter Cuevas continued, "During my patient assessment, I established his identity which was Tim Peterson a Treasure Island Firefighter and son of an Oakland Fireman, Dave Peterson."

As this rescue went on, this section of collapsed freeway began to shift and settle, and as Firefighter Cuevas wrote, "CHP officer Tim Goodman informed us that the structure had moved one-and-one-half inches since he had arrived 20 minutes before. This made Andy and me very nervous."

Lumber and jacks were needed to support the tottering structure, and Firefighter Cuevas yelled down to citzen-volunteers below for assistance. Within a few minutes the necessary equipment was hauled to the lower deck to shore this unstable section of freeway – to protect the victim as well as those people involved in the rescue effort. "Andy's experience in extrication became evident as he pryed and pulled, sometimes with his bare hands," observed the firefighter, and soon Tim Peterson was being dragged from the wreckage inch-by-inch.

A few minutes later, Fremont Truck Company Co. 1, the first unit dispatched by Chief Lydon, arrived with the Hurst tool needed to finally pry the Treasure Island firefighter from the wreckage. Firefighter Cuevas wrote, "We all gave a sigh of relief and hurried to get our butts off the collapsing structure."

In the first seven hours of intensive search and rescue operations, 18 of 21 Oakland Fire Department companies, assisted by 15 more mutual aid companies - and dozens of ambulance and paramedic units - performed dozens of heroic rescues. More than 200 firefighters worked at the Cypress collapse during the first night of operations, and each of these firefighters was given a critical incident stress debriefing after they were relieved of duty at the scene.

What caused the collapse is still not thoroughly understood.

Dr. Mahin, in his testimony to the State Senate's Kopp Committee said, "At this stage, we sent out teams after the earthquake and asked people what they saw, and there seems to be some disagreement amongst the people. And so at this stage I don't have a feeling for it. I suspect there was some domino effect where the cable restrainers did do their job, and as the one section came down, it also contributed to pulling it down until you got to the portions where we have a freeway onramp, and the more firm ground and the additional columns on one end and the curved portion of the viaduct on the other side which tend to be a little stiffer, and then at those locations the cable restrainers did fail and the remaining portions of the structure did stand up."

The Cypress Freeway rescue efforts continued for several more days. To allow rescuers to continue to safely punch through the rubble of the unstable wreck, the U.S. Geological Survey installed a special alarm attached to a seismograph near the epicenter of the earthquake. If an aftershock greater than Richter magnitude 4.5 occurred, a signal would be transmitted to an alarm to rescuers. The alarm operated on the principal that the warning signal travelled at the speed of light along the wire to the freeway, but the earthquake waves travelled only at about the speed of sound. This would give rescuers at least 15 to 20 seconds advance warning to get off the tottering structure.

IN: San Francisco Almanac
San Francisco, 1995

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