Hempfield woman recounts how she nearly lost her life in Bay Area quake
She has never had a nightmare about that day.
Dorothy Otto has bad dreams about selling boxes and buying houses, “because we moved 12 times in 20 years,” she says.
But not one about that day.
Perhaps it's because he told her to talk about it, she says as she motions to her husband, Jack, in their Hempfield living room.
“He came to the hospital the next day and said, ‘Talk about it now, or it will become a big, hard lump in your gut, and it'll never come out,'” says Dorothy, 71. “So I just talked and talked.
“The company I worked for told me to go to a psychologist, (and) she wanted me to talk about how I felt when I knew I was trapped. I said, ‘Listen, I'll talk about this incident, but you're not getting in my head.'”
Dorothy stops and starts thinking.
Which is dangerous.
“Nobody's getting in there,” she says with a hint of defiance. “It's just — it's my head. Sure, there are things up there. But nothing worth digging into, nothing worth prying loose.”
Later, she adds:
“You never forget the smells.”
Dorothy and Jack Otto, both Western Pennsylvania natives, moved to California in 1988 to help care for Dorothy's nephews. One had suffered a brain injury in a work accident at a Tahoe, Nev.-area ski resort. The other had HIV.
They settled in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Dorothy got a job selling corrugated boxes for a company in San Jose. She drove her Pontiac Bonneville all over the Bay Area — up to 1,000 miles a week — on sales calls.
On the afternoon of Oct. 17, 1989, Dorothy picked up samples in Hayward, in the East Bay, and got on northbound Interstate 880. She called Jack from the car phone, told him where she was and that she would make one more stop, at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, before heading home.
“Nobody's going to be there,” Jack said. “Everybody's at the ball game.”
The two local teams, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's, were minutes away from playing Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park. As a result, traffic was unusually light as fans made sure they were off the roads and in front of TVs for the 5:30 p.m. first pitch. As Dorothy approached a stretch of Oakland freeway known for gridlock, especially at rush hour, traffic moved freely.
Dorothy assured Jack she would be home soon.
“OK,” he said. “We're having chicken for dinner.”
They ended the call. Moments later, Dorothy steered onto the Cypress Structure. The first time she and Jack had driven this freeway, Jack recoiled at its sight. “That road,” he said, “would not withstand lateral shear. Why would they build that?” It was an elevated, two-tiered freeway running 1.6 miles through industrial Oakland. On the top tier, four lanes of traffic headed south; on the bottom tier, four lanes headed north to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and Interstate 80.
Dorothy was on the bottom tier.
As she drove, she looked up at the mass of concrete above.
Suddenly, the voices on her car radio began speaking with urgency:
We're having an earthquake. And it's a big one.
“Then the road just jerked left to right about six to eight feet,” Dorothy recalls 27 years later. “And I realized that I was on that road, the road Jack told me would come down in an earthquake.”
In Marin, Jack took the chicken out of the fridge.
He went to the TV room and turned on the World Series pregame show.
He sat down on the sofa.
“That's when it happened,” he says.
At first, it was all noise: a low, loud rumbling.
Then came shaking.
Then a sickening jolt.
Jack held up a bookcase with one hand and kept the TV from crashing to the ground with the other. The World Series feed cut out just as broadcaster Al Michaels shouted: “I tell you what, we're having an earth —”
When the shaking stopped about 20 seconds later, Jack checked the house for damage, found none and returned to the TV room.
The phone rang. It was Dorothy's sister.
“Wow,” she said. “That was something.”
“Yeah,” Jack said.
“She was in Hayward, but she was going to stop in Richmond.”
“OK, well, she'll call.”
When the TV feed resumed, KGO-TV news anchor Cheryl Jennings appeared on screen.
Jack sat down.
The road was undulating.
Dorothy looked to the right and watched a massive concrete support disintegrate.
“It just blew to dust,” she said.
A pack of cars she was traveling with — Dorothy recalls a red one and a blue one — suddenly disappeared.
“While I'm thinking, ‘Gee, where they did go?' a concrete beam is coming at the hood of my car,” Dorothy says.
A section of the freeway 3⁄4 of a mile long buckled, broke and collapsed. In some sections, the top tier collapsed onto the lower tier, which then collapsed about 20 feet to street-level roads below. The cars that had disappeared from Dorothy's sight — like dozens of others that day — were instantly flattened under falling concrete.
a 200-ton support beam crashed down on Dorothy's car.
“Eleven inches in front of my nose,” she says. “It's in slow motion in your mind. All I could think was, ‘Oh man, I'm not ready.'”
“Ready to die. And I was going to die. I mean, it was evident.”
For several minutes, KGO's Jennings read breaking reports off pieces of paper handed to her live on TV.
When her monitor began to work, she tried to explain to viewers what they were seeing on their screens.
“We have pictures of a fire in Berkeley,” she said — incorrectly — as a camera focused on the Cypress Structure. “I'm told the location is Berkeley. This is an aerial view, a live picture. Uh, it looks like more than one fire in Berkeley right now ...”
Then came a moment of stunned silence as Jennings tried to reconcile what she was seeing — smoke rising from rubble — with what she knew should be there.
“That is the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway,” she said. “And you can see —”
She stopped speaking.
“Oh. My God,” she said. “Look at that. The freeway has just completely collapsed. And it looks as though there are vehicles down there. Oh, that's, uh ... that's pretty frightening. I certainly hope nobody was injured in that, but that's just one of the scariest things I've ever seen.”
Alone in Marin, Jack watched it all live.
Dorothy heard screaming.
“Men and women — you could tell the difference,” she says. “They didn't scream very long.”
Dorothy did not scream. She took stock.
She was surrounded by fallen concrete. The dashboard had collapsed onto her legs. The passenger side roof was caved in, the windshield shattered. She did not know it yet, but her teeth had all cracked.
And she was stuck.
“The concrete crushed my firewall down to four inches,” she says. “Sadly, my foot was occupying that space.”
It was dark. The screaming stopped. Dorothy was alone.
She found paper and a pen and began to write:
Jack, Earthquake hit while I was under concrete. Worst happened, it collapsed on car. I'm alive just my left foot is stuck under the car. Hope they don't kill me getting me out. Love you lots, good luck to us both.
Jack sat by the phone, waiting.
The sun set. Family came. They urged him to eat. He couldn't.
“I was thinking she was gone,” he says. “You know, what the hell was I going to do now? We were just in our mid-40s. I don't even want to think about her being gone today, you know? She's my anchor.”
An hour and a half after the collapse, a local mechanic named Tom climbed into the wreckage, found a tiny opening between the first and second tiers and shouted into the smoky darkness:
“Is anybody in there?”
“I'm in here!” Dorothy screamed. “I just have one foot stuck. It will only take a minute, come on in.”
And he did.
Because that's how it happened that day: The devastation was so widespread — in Oakland, in San Francisco's Marina District, on the Bay Bridge and in areas close to the epicenter of the magnitude 6.9 quake 60 miles south — that civilians became rescuers before firefighters could arrive.
“All kinds of Oakland people crawled in,” Dorothy says. “I had a Hispanic guy holding my hands for hours, talking to me. Don't know who he is. ... Somebody came in with morphine. Boy did I like him. He was my best friend for a very short time. But I don't know who he was. ... People brought blankets and pillows from their homes, crawled into that structure, and it was not stable. They did everything they could to save a person they did not know.”
But they could not free her.
They cut off her shoe, poured lubricant into the firewall. They pulled and twisted.
“Finally, I told them to get an ax,” Dorothy says. “Take the leg. I just wanted out. We were having aftershocks, and I really didn't think we were going to get out of there.”
They worked in a space so narrow that when firefighters got there, they had to take off their helmets just to squeeze in.
And with each aftershock, the concrete dropped farther, threatening to crush them all.
Time was running out. Cars were burning, and Dorothy was sitting in gas and oil leaking from her engine.
Then a firefighter named Robert Sibley had the idea of taking apart the Jaws of Life — which was too big to fit between the collapsed freeway tiers — and “use the pin, the lever, to get in to where the firewall was,” Dorothy recalls. “Because they only needed a little space to free me.”
Her foot popped out. Rescuers strapped her face-down to a backboard and slid her through the narrow opening.
Finally free of the structure, after five and a half hours, Dorothy heard cameras clicking and people cheering.
The phone rang.
Jack lunged from his seat to answer it.
“Mr. Otto, your wife wants to speak to you,” a voice said. “This is the hospital.”
Dorothy got on the line.
“I made it,” she said. “I made it.”
Then they cried.
Today, Dorothy shrugs at the memories.
We all have our “stuff,” she says, and her stuff is minor compared to the 42 people who died in the Cypress Structure collapse that day, people who were right next to and all around Dorothy. Yes, she wonders why she lived and others didn't, but why be tethered by memories?
“Like Jack — he's a Vietnam vet, and he saw people burned, blown up, bleeding,” she says. “That's never going away. But he's never going to tell me about it. It's just — stuff. We all have our stuff.”
Jack told her to talk about it, and she did.
But she did so with a sense of detachment.
She still does.
Because there's a difference, she says, between simply talking about what happened and really thinking about it.
“Nobody's getting in there,” she repeats, pointing to her temple. “Sure, there are things up there. But nothing worth digging into, nothing worth prying loose. ... I don't want anyone in there because I don't want them to know. That's all.
“But it does change you ...”
She looks away.
She removes her glasses to stop a tear from reaching her cheek.
“Now you have me thinking,” she says. “And that's not good.”