From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
The ground rises up and hits you like a fist. Trees writhe and twist in a sky without a breeze. Concrete walls bend and ripple like tissue paper. A deafening roar fills the greensward, and imagination retreats into metaphor. The earthquake is so full of terror that most people think first of death. "In a few seconds I was scared to death. I thought I was gone for sure, "says Lasse Nielsen, 28, assistant manager of San Francisco's Mark Hopkins hotel, which normally sits atop Nob Hill with all the confidence of a bowler on a gentleman's brow. In the evening the Quake of '89 struck, however, Nielsen was undone. So was a woman he came across that night in the hotel's lobby: "She was in shock. She had been on the Bay Bridge when it collapsed, about 100 feet from the section that fell. Afterward, she had left her car somewhere in town, and she didn't even know where."

For many Bay Area residents, this was a frightening foreboding of the Big One, a giant quake that experts have long predicted as inevitable. Displaying a stubborn fatalism, many people have ignored the threat. But this quake, a 7.0 Richter rumbler, shook the city from its foundations and destroyed its complacency forever more.

It was a widespread shock, both psychic and physical, and as the evening hours wore into night its dimensions became startling: an estimated 270 dead, 1,400 injured and perhaps billions of dollars in damage. Hidden in those statistics, however, are the small brush strokes of extraordinary heroism, Like that of Dr. James Belts, who risked his own life to extricate a child from the rubble of the collapsed Interstate 880 in Oakland, Or an anonymous bus driver who managed to stop his vehicle before it plunged off the Bay Bridge, Or Capt. Chris Heath, a fireman who returned an old debt by rescuing the son of a comrade who had once saved him. Theirs were the heartening moments unseen by many, but symbols, still, of the best that can emerge in the worst of times.

Local residents, long accustomed to gentler quakes and kinder outcomes, would later say that to comprehend this one you had to be there. In the pages that follow are the stories of those who were.

When 1.5 miles of Interstate 880's upper roadway buckled and slammed down on a lower tier jammed with rush hour traffic, it was assumed that hundreds of people were crushed to death. One little boy would surely have died at the scene were it not for the heroic efforts of the rescuers who rushed to his aid.

Patrick Wallace, 31, a worker at a nearby paper products company in the industrial neighborhood, was the first to hear children's screams filtering through the jumbled slabs of concrete. After scrambling up the elevated structure, he could make out two children still alive, but trapped in a dilapidated red car. He yelled for assistance and stayed with the children until help arrived. Rescuers were able to extricate Cathy Berumen, 8, in fair condition with head injuries, but her brother Julio, 6, could not be freed.

The boy was pinned in the wrecked car with the bodies of his mother, Pety, and an unidentified driver, when Dr. Dan Allen, a first-year surgical intern, crawled between the precariously balanced highway decks to reach him. Allen, 27, was one of many hospital doctors who hit the streets to help wherever needed; despite the aftershocks that threatened to bury him in another collapse, he crawled through a gap that, he estimated, ranged in height from "three or four feet to maybe 14 or 18 inches." Later joined by two other doctors, Allen was able to stabilize the boy until pediatric surgeon James Betts could climb a fire truck's ladder to the suspended ruins.

Though Betts, 41, is a member of the California Medical Association's Committee on Earthquake Preparedness, nothing could have fully prepared him for the carnage he found. "There was an airport transport van right next to the car, and there were four or five people who were killed still in there," says Betts. "And there was another car that had been crushed into less than two feet of space. The abutment had directly fallen into the [little boy's] car," killing his mother and the driver instantly. "They were almost crushed in half." Julio "was pinned underneath the full weight of the concrete, which had crushed the car. His mother was lying on top of him and to the side."

Julio was in shock and was given morphine, but from time to time, "He'd just wake up and cry and run his hands over his mother's face," says Allen. One rescue worker said the little boy appeared to be trying to comfort her. At other times, says Betts, "He was screaming, but he's Asian, so none of us could understand him or talk to him."

After about two hours of unavailing attempts to free Julio with pneumatic tools—including the jaws of life, a pincer-like device used to cut crash victims from auto wreckage—his rescuers turned to their last resort: They would have to amputate his right leg. But to get close enough, they first had to perform a difficult task. "And so one of the team took a chain saw and cut the woman in half and extricated that part that was on the passenger's side," says Betts. "There's no doubt in my mind now that it was the correct decision."

Betts bellied forward on a board and, working with a scalpel in near-darkness, reached through twisted steel and shards of glass to amputate Julio's right leg at the knee. "I couldn't get clamps on it," he says. "I had to put my finger on it to hold the artery."

Julio was rushed to Oakland's Children's Hospital, where Betts and a team of surgeons fought desperately to save his badly mangled left leg. After the operation, Betts, a Vermont native who is married but has no children, decided not to go home but to stay on and watch over his tiny patient. Julio's father, Pastor Berumen, who was not in the car, soon joined the vigil. By the next day, when Julio underwent further surgery, his condition remained critical.

Betts, while acknowledging that he feared for his own safety on the tottering roadway, is matter-of-fact about his heroism. "I honestly felt that if it was going to collapse, it was going to collapse," he says. "We just couldn't leave him. If he was still there, I'd still be working there."

Other people's experiences were less dramatic but nonetheless disconcerting. Michelle Kuhn, guest relations manager at the Mark Hopkins hotel, was in Candlestick Park, waiting for the first pitch in the third game of the World Series. "All of a sudden everyone stood up, and my husband and I were holding hands, and we were just swaying back and forth. Everybody just stood with fear on their faces. You could see the lights sway back and forth. People were screaming. Some were going, 'Yeah, yeah!' and others were going, 'Oh, my God!' There was a woman vomiting next to me, over the ledge. A lot of people were sick and throwing up, from fear and from the swaying."

High above the ballpark, John Crayton was piloting a Goodyear blimp for ABC. "We were just ready to go on the air when the network feed went blank. The last thing I heard was the director swearing. Then I started noticing transformers blowing up and dust and smoke in the air. I felt—and I know this sounds strange—but I felt four bumps in the blimp. When it got dark the whole city went dark except for the cars on the street. The city just kept getting darker and darker and darker, and you kept expecting the lights to come on but they never did."

Christy McGill, 25, a girls' field hockey coach at University High School, was holding a practice at the polo fields in Golden Gate Park when she "saw the land moving. It was like someone took a rug and shook it. These huge trees were bending like windshield wipers. I thought, 'I'm about to die. I'm going to fall into the earth.' Everybody, including the horses in the park, just froze still and looked at each other. Then there was this huge silence."

Hotel reservationist Peggy Iacovoni was driving her MG when the ground began to shake. "I thought I had blown a tire," she says. "At the same time, everybody opened their car doors or stuck their heads out the windows to see if it was their tires." Recalls Florence Perlite, 66, a plumbing company bookkeeper: "It was like standing next to a slow train going faster, that kind of rumble and roar." After the bump, "There was a stunned silence for a few minutes, like the city and everyone in it was holding his breath. Then came the scream of sirens."

As she walked home from work, Marti Mogensen, 41, a Berkeley kindergarten teacher, noticed an elderly woman crossing the street ahead of her. "She started shaking—I thought she was having a stroke," says Mogensen. "Then I realized everything was shaking. There was this awful jolt, like a fist rising up out of the earth. The elderly woman grabbed my arm, and I led her out away from the glass windows. I felt so powerless, so out of control." Mogensen is certain that local schoolchildren will need counseling to help overcome the trauma. "They saw the TV pictures of the bridge that fell down and trapped the cars. They saw the fires. It will be a long time before some of them feel safe again."

Rush hour traffic on the Bay Bridge screeched to a halt when a section of the upper level collapsed onto the lanes below. Two cars plunged into the resulting chasm; one woman was killed instantly when her car flew into the breech and was crushed by the moving bridge. Further tragedy was averted when a skillful bus driver steered his packed vehicle to a stop just eight feet short of the gaping hole. Afterward, the unnamed driver described those seconds to a KTVU-TV reporter. "It was like all my tires blew at once," he said. "I didn't know what was going on. I tried to remember everything I'd ever learned about that bus. I didn't even see the hole. All I knew was the bus was out of control, careening from side to side. I managed to bring it to a halt, and then I saw [the hole], and I said, 'Oh, my God, the bridge has fallen.' "

Tom Hope, 28, an AIDS researcher at a U.C. San Francisco laboratory, was entertained at first. "I was at work, and all the liquids in the bottles were just sloshing around, kind of all synchronized, which was kind of neat," he says. "All of a sudden, the building really started shaking, and I took off running. The building was moving so much it was hard to keep your footing. You were kind of stumbling along."

When the quake hit, registered nurse Marcus Cayson, 22, was on duty at the Samuel Merritt Hospital, on a floor with 28 bedridden patients. "There was only one freak-out," says Cayson. "A wild patient, a Cuban. He tore out his IV, jumped up and tried to get dressed. He kept saying he just wanted to leave, he didn't want anything else to do with California and was going back home, Castro or not!"

Frances Martin, a collections officer, was in the dentist's chair when the floors seemed to start dancing. "I had a toothache, and my dentist was just about to start looking in my mouth, when the lights went out and the dentist disappeared," recalls Martin. "I heard him holler, "I might die, I might die.' When I finally found my way out of the office, I saw my dentist driving away."

Actress Cybill Shepherd was in town to speak at a fund-raiser for Ann Richards, who is running for governor of Texas. "I've never swayed so much, and my knees did feel pretty weak," says Shepherd, who was in her room at the Camp-ton Place hotel when the quake struck.

"I had gotten a message earlier in the day to call my astrologer right away, and I remembered it right before the earthquake hit. I haven't been able to reach her yet because the power was out, but now she's probably going to say, 'I was going to tell you there was this earthquake.' "

Joe Delligatti, 26, is a paramedic: "I saw a man and wife together. All you could see was her hand and his. They were holding hands when they died."

Relaxing at home last Tuesday evening, David Petersen was looking forward to a three-day fishing trip on the Trinity River in northern California. Within 15 seconds, however, the quake not only snuffed those plans but very nearly something much more precious. Sensing the severity of the Shockwave, the 46-year-old Oakland fire fighter volunteered for emergency duty. The dispatcher assigned him to the collapsed section of Interstate 880. In moments Petersen had slipped into his yellow turnout overalls and rubber boots. As he rushed out the door he thought about his son Tim, 24, also a fire fighter. "I kind of figured that he'd be working the rescue at 880," says David.

Tim was indeed at the scene of the freeway disaster—fighting for his life. At the time of the quake he had been driving his fire company's white pickup to the station house on Treasure Island, midway between San Francisco and Oakland. As he cruised along on the road's lower deck, a sudden jolt made him think "that I had flattened two of my tires," recalls Tim. "I had no idea what had happened." Then an enormous slab of concrete suddenly slammed down on him, crushing the truck to a height of two feet. The force pinned the steering wheel on top of his groin, leaving him staring at a chunk of metal from the truck jammed against his face. Though he didn't know it at the time, he had suffered a broken shoulder, a fractured sternum, a crushed ankle, a partially collapsed lung and nerve damage to both legs. Shards of glass pincushioned his hands.

For two hours he waited for help, bloodied and alone, gripped by agonizing pain and numbing fear. "I thought my legs had been cut off," he says. "I had been eating a bag of peanuts and was coughing up blood and peanuts, but I thought they were my teeth." Finally, just as the dark and chill set in, signals of hope arrived. "I could hear the feet of the rescuers crunching on the concrete," he says. "I kept hearing, 'I found one, I found another one.' I kept yelling, 'Help me, I'm over here.' "

One of those who hurriedly clambered through the rubble was Capt. Chris Heath. An Oakland fireman for 20 years, Heath, 40, had seen his share of disasters. He could also appreciate better than most the terror of the earthquake victims. Ten years before, while fighting a massive fire in a Bay Area subway tunnel, he himself had been pulled to safety when he collapsed unconscious. As it happened, the man who saved his life was a buddy and fellow fire fighter named David Petersen.

Now Heath spotted a familiar white fire department pickup. Checking the vehicle, he was overjoyed and stunned to discover the driver was alive—and that it was Tim. "It should have been fatal considering how the truck looked," says Heath. "It was just pieces of sheet metal wrapped around his body." For the next hour, Heath and five other rescue workers hacked away at the wreckage. All the while, Heath hovered close to Tim, trying to keep him calm and alert. Freed at last, Tim was rushed in an ambulance to nearby Highland General Hospital.

Meanwhile Tim's family had grown increasingly worried, when, in the hours after the quake, no one had heard from him. At 8 P.M. a local news bulletin reported that a 24-year-old victim identified only as "Tim" had just been rescued from the freeway. The family began desperately calling and visiting hospitals. Tim's brother, Dave, 26, and his father separately visited a makeshift morgue that had been set up at a nearby elementary school. "But I couldn't go in," says David, fearful of what he would find. A friend took a look instead; all the victims were female. Then David ran into Chris Heath, who told him that his son was alive. "When I first saw him, he was so bruised I just couldn't believe it was real," recalls Tim's girlfriend, Mandy Dikkers, 24. Last week, it was still too early for doctors to give the Petersens a long-term prognosis for Tim. Despite his ordeal, though, he was chipper at times. Greeting his cousin at the hospital, his first words were, "I'm happy to be alive. How did the A's do?" Says Tim of his rescuers: "I was so glad they were there. It seemed like it took them forever to reach me. But those guys were risking their lives. I don't know how they did it."

—Reported by Scot Holler, Vicki Sheff, Lorenzo Benet, Doris Bacon, Tom Cunneff, Michael Alexander, Kristina Johnson, Robin Micheli, Linda Witt in San Francisco, with Jane Sudden, J.D. Podolsky, Victoria Balfour, Peggy Brawley in New York

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sudden,
  • J.D. Podolsky,
  • Victoria Balfour,
  • Peggy Brawley.