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Death of Buck Helm a Grim Reminder of Quake

November 20, 1989

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ The death of Buck Helm, who amazed rescuers by surviving four days beneath tons of concrete in a collapsed freeway, was a grim reminder of the destruction wrought by the Northern California earthquake.

Just 20 hours earlier, residents cheered the reopening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as a symbol of recovery from the Oct. 17 quake, which toppled a 50-foot section of the span, killed 67 people and caused $7 billion in damage.

″I’m sure this will hit a lot of people hard,″ said Steve Whipple, the state Department of Transportation engineer who found Helm in the early hours of Oct. 21.

″I was under the impression that he was going to make it,″ Whipple said. ″It was just going to take a long while.″

Helm, who turned 58 on Nov. 10, died of respiratory failure at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center on Saturday evening, 28 days after his rescue.

The rescue of the burly longshoreman’s clerk buoyed spirits of rescuers depressed by the rising death toll in the collapse of Interstate 880 in Oakland - and cheered people across the country who watched the drama on television.

″I’m still glad we found him and gave him a better fighting chance than he would have had otherwise,″ Whipple added. ″It picked our spirits up and made all our work worth it.″

Other rescuers said they have grown accustomed to deaths from the quake.

″It’s a shame that (Helm) couldn’t have made it, but I guess that’s the way life goes - you don’t have any promises,″ said Alfred Anderson, a construction worker who was clearing rubble from the collapsed 1.25-mile section of freeway when Helm was found, alive and trapped in his compact car.

At the Diggins Inn, in Helm’s hometown of Weaverville, bartender Ken Simmons said Helm’s son Greg had been in the bar Saturday afternoon saying his father was expected to be taken off his respirator soon and return home.

″I just hate to see a guy go through what he went through and then lose it in the end,″ Simmons said. ″Yesterday his kid sat here and said everything was going great.″

The Saturday night drinking crowd at the Timber Lodge in nearby Douglas City had just finished a song celebrating Helm’s rescue when they were stunned into silence by news of his death. The band High Mountain Express, who wrote the ballad ″The Survivor″ to salute Helm, said they would add a final verse to their song.

″It will say something about his dying, but not for a lost cause,″ said lead singer Kevin Jones. ″He was still an inspiration and a great loss.″

In a statement, Helm’s family said that to many, he ″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,″ said the release issued by Gary Frischer, a Beverly Hills spokesman hired by the family after Helm was rescued.

″He represented more than just a person. I think to many people he very much represented the event of the earthquake,″ said Ron Treleven, a Kaiser Permanente spokesman.

The 220-pound, 5-foot-10 Helm suffered a fractured skull, fractured neck, three broken ribs, nerve damage to his leg and kidney problems caused by dehydration. He also had diabetes and high blood pressure.

Others were rescued from the freeway immediately after the quake, but Helm was the only survivor to be pulled from the wreckage after crews began gingerly searching through rubble remaining on the teetering structure.

Helm worked on the docks in Oakland and commuted 250 miles to the small town of Weaverville on weekends to be with his family and friends.

His former wife, Lorrie Helm, said he acknowledged hearing his family read the cards and letters sent to him by well-wishers, although he couldn’t speak.

A memorial service was planned for Tuesday in Weaverville. Helm is survived by his ex-wife and four children.

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