1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake: Cypress Freeway collapse survivor Buck Helms remembered by Caltrans rescuer

ByKen Miguel and Leslie Brinkley KGO logo
Thursday, October 17, 2019
'89 Loma Prieta Quake: Cypress collapse survivor Buck Helms remembered
Eighty-nine hours after the 1989 quake hit, a Caltrans worker found a survivor trapped in a car that was crushed to a height of about 3 feet. Buck Helms provided the Bay Area a story of hope when it desperately needed one.On the anniversary of the deadly and devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, a Caltrans employee remembers finding the last survivor, Buck Helms, from the collapsed Cypress Freeway.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It has been 30 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake. The shaking devastated towns, collapsed bridges and highways, and changed thousands of lives in an instant.

In the days that followed, the stories of survival spread. And one in particular, on a collapsed stretch of Interstate 880 in Oakland, captured the hearts and minds of the Bay Area and the nation.

It is one of the most enduring images from the quake -- 14 city blocks of the double-decker Cypress Freeway had been damaged or collapsed.

ABC7 ORIGINAL SERIES: 'The Earthquake Effect' provides in-depth coverage on Bay Area's readiness for the next major earthquake

It's something that was beyond belief. There were rush hour cars, rush hour traffic trapped on the lower level.

A witness at the time said, "You could hear voices. You could hear voices screaming, 'help me, help me, help me,' until the fires just start, poof, and then you don't hear them no more."

Dozens of cars and trucks were crushed under concrete. Forty-two people died on the Cypress Freeway and dozens more were injured. Many people were pulled out in the hours after the freeway collapsed.

"Some cars weren't that crushed and people had crawled out of them," said Steve Whipple, one of the Caltrans engineers brought in the days after the quake.

VIDEO: What it was like to drive on the Bay Bridge as Loma Prieta hit

He went on to say, "Our job was really to assess the structure and to secure the structure so that we could go through a body recovery."

Whipple spent days with other Caltrans workers, firefighters and rescue personnel exploring the collapsed structure, helping to identify the location of those who had died.

When asked if he'd given up hope of finding someone alive at that point, Whipple answered, "As far as finding someone alive, yes."

But 89 hours after the earthquake, there was a surprise.

RELATED: Scientists call Bay Area 'Tectonic Time Bomb'

"The memories are as fresh as the day it happened," said Whipple, as he choked back tears.

The Caltrans worker found a survivor, Buck Helms, trapped in a car crushed to a height of about 3 feet.

When asked where he found the survivor, Whipple said, "Buck was about where we were standing, other than 15 feet higher."

Helms provided the Bay Area a story of hope when it desperately needed one.

"I was out investigating, in the downtime, and as I say, Buck was luckily conscious at the time, and so when I was near his car, and shining the flashlight on his car, he made a motion that he was still alive," said Whipple.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: ABC7's Peabody Award winning coverage of 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

The 57-year-old longshoreman from Weaverville, Calif. captured the hearts of the people of the Bay Area.

"They pulled him out, threw him in an ambulance and yeah, there was cheering and clapping," said Whipple. "And as soon as he drove away, I just walked away to be by myself."

Helms' survival gave rescuers working on the Cypress structure hope as they dug through the devastation. No other survivors would ultimately be found.

His family gathered at the hospital, as Helms fought for his life.

Lorene Helms, Buck Helms' ex-wife, addressed the media at the time, saying, "When we talk, we talk with our eyes, with his hands, and with the love that we feel for each other."

RELATED: A look at the most powerful earthquakes in California history above 7.0 magnitude

Sadly, Buck Helms died one month and day after the Loma Prieta Quake struck.

"The fact that Buck didn't survive ultimately was disappointing," said Whipple. "I never did see him, I never did see his family, conditions didn't seem right with them trying to take care of him and I didn't want to intrude."

Today, Whipple is preparing to retire, his career forged by the things he saw that day in October 1989. He's worked on bridges and highways around the region to make sure that scenes like those, on that fateful day, are never repeated again.

The stretch of roadway that was once the Cypress freeway, is now Mandela Parkway. The freeway has been replaced by a tree-lined park, a reminder of the 42 people who died.

ABC7's "The Earthquake Effect" debuts on the 30th anniversary week of the Loma Prieta earthquake. It features a never before seen aerial view of the entire vulnerable Hayward Fault using exclusive SKY7 mapping technology and brand new first-time footage inside the Bay Bridge structure to demonstrate its readiness. Take a look here.

Take a look at ABC7's in-depth coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake here.