Thirty years ago, we answered the call

Donald Lichliter

The circumstances were extraordinary.

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989, the Bay Area endured its largest earthquake since 1906. It struck at 5:04 p.m. – the peak of afternoon rush hour.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, over which 200,000-plus vehicles traveled every day, sustained a partial collapse of its upper-deck eastbound lanes onto the westbound lanes below.

Only one fatality occurred on the bridge that evening when, a half-hour after the quake, a young woman who apparently was unaware of the damage vaulted her speeding car over the bridge’s 50-foot gap.

Why weren’t more motorists on the bridge? Because the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants were 30 minutes from starting Game 3 of the World Series in nearby Candlestick Park, and many commuters had left work early to watch. It was the only World Series in the past 63 years in which both teams were from the same metropolitan area.

Over in Oakland, the news was horrific, but with a silver lining, of sorts. Along most of a 16-block stretch of the Cypress Street Viaduct (Interstate 880), the top-deck westbound lanes “pancaked” onto the eastbound lanes below. Normally at this time on a weekday, such a disaster would cause hundreds of fatalities. The death toll at Cypress was 42.

The Loma Prieta earthquake represents one of the biggest challenges that Caltrans has ever faced. The department rose to the challenge, reopening the Bay Bridge exactly one month later, conducting round-the-clock support in rescue and recovery activities at Cypress, and quickly reopening badly damaged State Route 17 north of Santa Cruz.

It was such a huge undertaking that a handful of Caltrans employees were given tape recorders and ordered to interview as many colleagues as possible for an oral history project – one of only two such projects the department has undertaken since it was founded in 1909. (The other featured men involved in the boom years of state highway construction.) More than 200 of those interviews are accessible online at the Caltrans Library & History Center site.

Donald Lichliter, at the time a tree maintenance worker at the San Leandro Maintenance Station, participated in the Loma Prieta Oral History project. He shared his recollections on Dec. 20, 1989.

After completing a full shift, Lichliter was commuting when the earthquake hit. At home in Modesto, his wife told him part of the Bay Bridge had broken. “I didn’t believe her,” Lichliter says in his interview conducted by Lynne Horiuchi. “So I turned on the TV set, and sure enough. There was a newsreel on at the moment that showed the Bay Bridge, and then I saw a shot of the Cypress structure. … So I immediately jumped in my truck because I realized I was going to be needed.”

"I immediately jumped in my truck because I realized I was going to be needed."
Donald Lichliter, relating what he did when he saw the extent of the earthquake damage

He arrived at Cypress at about 8 p.m. and was assigned to operate a personnel hoist. He and an Oakland Fire Department firefighter worked their way from one end of the site to the other, going into the structure where possible to search for survivors. They found none. Here is how Lichliter describes their efforts:

“I knew there were people up there, and all I wanted to do is just see if we could get some out. Of course I was aware that it could fall at any time because we were crawling inside the structure looking for survivors. … I was excited about trying to find some people alive.

“They didn’t really ask me to go inside, but I didn’t want – the fireman went inside and, I don’t know, I felt like I should go in with him, because if something happened to where he got trapped, I wouldn’t know. And I would just be sitting out there, you know, and maybe he wouldn’t be able to yell, I wouldn’t be able to hear him, you know. So I just went in like a buddy system-type thing. And he was all for it, so I went in with him.”

He estimates he was at the Cypress until 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, an emotionally grueling 14-plus hour shift. “I think we all had kind of a shot of adrenaline because we wanted to get people out of the structure. That’s what we were concerned about. I don’t think anybody thought of how much time they were putting in, or anything until maybe a week later, when it really started to hit you bad.”

That fall, Lichliter put in 271 hours of overtime. “A lot of people put in more than that, too. A lot of the supervisors put in a lot more time, and some of the superintendents were down there non-stop for the first three days. … I did what I was asked to do.”

Donald Mark Lichliter was killed on July 23, 2009, when he was hit by a truck as he worked next to his Caltrans vehicle alongside State Route 99 in Lodi. He was 53. This special edition news release, marking the 30th anniversary of Caltrans’ role in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, is dedicated to him.