Paul Lukkarila: You're mad, but I might be right

Paul Lukkarila, 2019

Through the vagaries of circumstance and timing, young people can find themselves thrust into positions of intense leadership. Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and, back in the day, Joan of Arc are two famous examples.

Add Paul Lukkarila to the list.

Lukkarila was 24 years old and had been a full-time Caltrans assistant engineer for less than three months when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989. By that weekend he was posted at the Cypress Street Viaduct, in charge of monitoring who could go atop or inside the broken roadway.

“You got all those people up there. And I have to go to the police photographers, you know there’s identification for coroners, all those guys,” Lukkarila tells Chuck Morton in his Loma Prieta Oral History project interview on Dec. 15 of that year. “So we had to develop a system. These guys had a specific job, a specific time to be on the structure and when not  to be on the structure.

“So to try to coordinate with all these people, and me being kind of rather young, and all these other guys, you know, rather experienced, it was really a feat to be accomplished. But I think they sensed some of my, I don’t know if it was me, they sensed some of the authority. But all of a sudden I started handing out commands. [Lukkarila laughs.] And it started to work!”

Three decades later, he recalled how at one point at Cypress an enraged fire marshal approached him in the company of an Army colonel and demanded to know whether it was Lukkarila who had allowed the colonel’s troops to crawl around between the two decks.

“I’m just a young guy with a clean vest and a Caltrans hard hat on,” Lukkarila recounted last month in his Sacramento office. "(The fire marshal yelled at me), ‘I have complete, 100 percent jurisdiction and control on this site! And he (the colonel) is not authorized to be on this structure! Anywhere near this structure! He has to go through – ‘

Paul Lukkarila, 1989

“And at the same time, just out of the lights, I was seeing (someone) in this early morning contingent of CHP guys coming. I could see the stars on his shoulders, and everybody running around him. I didn’t realize until later it was the commissioner.”

Lukkarila told the fire marshal to hold on for a minute and he walked over to the CHP commissioner. “I said, ‘You look like a man of authority.’ And he goes, ‘Uh-huh.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got a decision to make, and I think you’re just the guy to empower me to do it.’ And he’s all, ‘Well what’s that?’

“I said, ‘Who has complete authority on this emergency site? There’s a lot of different authorities here.’ And he said, ‘Well I do!’ And I said, ‘Is that by California statute, law?’

“ ‘By this!’ (the colonel responded), and he slaps his gun. I said, ‘That’s plenty good enough for me, but you got a differing opinion back there. See that fire marshal over there? He thinks he does. I got a situation where he said he’s going to have me arrested.’ ”

The CHP commissioner went over and had a chat with the fire marshal. “I could see both faces,” Lukkarila recalled. “I could see the colonel start to smile, and the fire marshal start to frown.”

Lukkarila accompanied the colonel’s troops to their next assignment, their next point of entry.

“Oh my god. I mean, what they did,” Lukkarila said in awe, 30 years later. “They would go in tight spaces. So tight that they’d be pulled out. They couldn’t back up, go forward. This is aftershocks! I mean, you never know when they were coming, right? And you could be in a little piece that pancaked, you know.

"Oh my god. I mean, what they did. They would go in tight spaces. So tight that they’d be pulled out. They couldn’t back up, go forward."
Paul Lukkarila, describing Army troops’ rescue and recovery efforts at the Cypress structure collapse

“So we thought, because when we were there and we went through it, it was a little crazy what we did.”

Through the years, Lukkarila has performed a variety of tasks for Caltrans, including being a diver. Briefly he left to be a structure representative with the private firm Parsons Brinkeroff, but returned to Caltrans in 2007, Since 2015 Lukkarila has been branch chief  for Structural Materials & Corrosion Testing in the Division of Engineering.

His wife, Michele, is a Caltrans biologist. They live in East Sacramento with son Nikolai, 16, and daughter Kaylan, 14.

When he tells people about his Loma Prieta experiences, “Everyone’s kind of enthralled,” Lukkarila said, but some try to figure out his career path. “ ‘So you went from that, beginning your career almost on the cover of Time magazine, and (now) you’re doing purchasing. Your highlight is passing the audit. … You didn’t know that was your max moment in life, right?’ ”

Like the colonel all those years ago, he smiles. In charge of his life, and very content.