'Miracle' quake survivor Buck Helm dies

Nov. 20, 1989
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Buck Helm, the burly dockworker whose rescue from the collapsed Nimitz Freeway nearly four days after the Bay Area earthquake was a ray of light amid the death and destruction, died suddenly just as doctors were most optimistic he would recover.

Helm died Saturday night, 28 days after his miracle rescue and just a day after doctors at Kaiser Permanente Hospital announced they planned to begin weaning him from a respirator.

'Doctors had been heartened by his great progress,' hospital spokesman Ron Treleven said Sunday. 'We had hoped to begin weaning him from his respirator this week and his kidney functions had returned to near normal.'

Helm's family was convinced his strong body and positive attitude would pull 'Lucky Bucky,' through an ordeal that began the evening of Oct. 17 when the earthquake flattened a long section of the Nimitz Freeway.

But without warning, he began having trouble breathing Saturday night, and despite 'at least half an hour' of CPR in the intensive care unit, the 'tough as nails' dockworker died, eight days after his 58th birthday.

An autopsy was scheduled.

Helm's death is the 67th attributed to the Northern California quake, and he is the 42nd victim of the awesome collapse of a 1 -mile stretch of the upper deck of Interstate 880, the two-tier Nimitz Freeway, California's oldest elevated freeway.

After nearly four days and nights of dangerous and futile searching through 60 tons of twisted steel and concrete in which only bodies were found, a structural engineer crawling through the debris spotted Helm's hand waving from his car, which was flattened nearly to the doorline.

After a five-hour effort, Helm was cut free as amazed rescue workers cheered. He waved his arms and thanked God he was .

Helm was the only survivor found in the wreckage since a little girl and her 6-year-old brother were pulled from their mother's car the night of the disaster. The boy's leg had to be amputated before he could be freed.

Julio Berumen, 6, remains at Children's Hospital, but a spokeswoman said Sunday night he soon would be going home.

'He's doing very well,' she said. 'He's all over the place in his wheelchair. He's really doing well.'

Julio's sister Cathy, 8, who suffered head injuries, has been discharged.

'The family of Buck Helm would like to thank all those who have shown care and concern during the past 28 days,' said Gary Frischer, a family spokesman. 'To many, Buck had become a symbol of survival and hope. For the Helms, the thousands of cards and letters from all corners of the world gave Buck and the family strength and encouragement and for that they are forever grateful.'

Helm was driving home on the lower deck of the freeway when the 7.1 magnitude quake struck at 5:04 p.m.

The upper deck crashed down, but a huge steel girder landed on his car in such a way that, although the front and rear ends of his car were crushed, he was protected from the tons of falling concrete.

He lay pinned in the wreckage with a fractured skull, bruised lungs, three broken ribs, and as the days wore on, kidney failure from dehydration and lack of movement.

In the hospital, he was unable to speak because of the respirator tube in his throat, but he smiled and wrote notes to friends. Hundreds of requests for interviews had to be turned down, and Helm died without telling his amazing story.

The 240-pound Helm was a longshoreman at the Port of Oakland, where he worked days in the shadow of the double-deck freeway and slept nights in a custom van he drove on weekends to his permanent home in Weaverville, a small mountain town about 250 miles north of Oakland.

Called 'tough as nails' by his friends, Helm kept tiny framed photographs of his four children -- Desiree, 12, Jeff, 16, Marc, 22, and Greg, 35 -- inside the van, nicknamed the 'Weaverville Flash.'

Helm was divorced from, but still close friends with, Lorene Helm, who flew to Oakland from Weaverville after his rescue. Ten days after the quake, residents of the tiny town in the Trinity Mountains festooned the streets with banners and posters to celebrate Helm's resuce.

Steve Whipple, who found Helm in the rubble, said his death 'will hit a lot of people hard.'

At the Church of the Nazarene in Weaverville, Pastor Dan Tennyson opened his sermon: 'A few weeks ago, we rejoiced that Buck was found. Today I have the responsibility to share that Buck passed away last night.'

Many in the congregation broke into tears.

'It's hard to say anything right now,' said Greg Helm. 'We're all taking this pretty rough.'

The funeral was scheduled Tuesday in Weaverville.

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