Bay Bridge cracks in Loma Prieta quake



Reporter Leslie Brinkley was just seconds ahead of that break. Within minutes, she was live from the very edge of a disaster.

"It's been a frightening scene here. As you can see, just below me is where this crack in the Bay Bridge occurred, a 50-foot section. You see down there below, the two cars. The two cars that were on the upper deck when the bridge collapsed..." she reported.

Time and traffic stood still at that moment in 1989. Brinkley was in a newsvan on the lower deck.

"We saw crumblings from the bridge falling down all around us as we just barely got to this Oakland end of it. It was very, very frightening," her report continued.

"It was kind of like a big giant grabbed the end of the bridge and shook it. There was nothing that could stop it. You were like a plate on the table that was going to end up on the floor," recalled survivor Bruce Stephan.

Stephan's car fell from the upper deck onto the lower deck. He climbed out with minor injuries. His passenger was more severely injured but managed to escape the wreck. Those who saw the collapse say it looked like a garage door shutting. Experts say the bridge stretched apart at its weakest link.

Denny McLeod with Rigging International explained, "It hinged down like a trap door and crashed onto the deck below, breaking that deck and itself."

Brinkley, her photographer, and her technician hitched a ride with a Caltrans crew up to where the break in the bridge occured. When they saw how disastrous the collapse really was, they decided to have the crew stay and shoot it. Brinkley hiked back down the bridge to get the truck, and drive back up so they could start doing live shots.

The world would later watch their live reports showing a car which had driven across the gap by accident, dangling off the precipice with two people inside. The car was driven by 23-year-old Anamafi Maala. She was the only fatality on the bridge. Lesisita Halangahu, her brother-in-law, writhed in pain with a crushed pelvis and broken legs. He regards October 17 as his new birthday.

"Oh my God this is my last day," he remembered thinking. "That's why I'm counting every 17th of October. I'm living twice."

By nightfall, stranded motorists had been taken off the Bay Bridge. The live reports continued and so did the aftershocks. Ironworkers worked quickly to tie the bridge together.

"It was ready to collapse further and I don't think the public really realized how close we were to having a major, major catastrophe and destruction on the bridge," said Ken Carrion with Rigging International."

The quake sheared off all 40 bolts that held the upper deck on the bridge and it dangled from a one-inch edge.

"I could block it off until a little tremor came and then the anxiety would come back," Carrion recalled.

Within a few days, Caltrans handed Denny McLeod a contract.

"Essentially, what it said was fix the bridge," he says.

Crews removed the 300-ton deck and had replacement steel delivered in just days.

"One of the things that wasn't obvious was the fact that the bridge had moved, and it was still at least five inches off of where it belonged. And, we had to come back with the new section and put those bolt holes over each other again," McLeod said.

One month later on November 17th, the bridge reopened. This time, ironworkers placed a hand-forged troll on the bridge to watch over it. It is still there, watching over the construction of the new Bay Bridge.

"It carries on a legacy of the Bay Bridge," Carrion says. "The troll needs to move to the new Bay Bridge. It needs to protect it."

The new Bay Bridge is scheduled to open in 2013.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

Web exclusive content commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Includes extended interviews with reporters who covered the quake, as well as city officials and first responders who lived through it all.

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