Remembering A Harrowing Rescue During '89 Earthquake

Doug Sovern
October 17, 2019 - 5:15 am
Rescue workers and police enter the scene of destruction where the Interstate 880-Interstate 80 interchange collapsed in Oakland during the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989.

Tom Van Dyke/San Jose Mercury News/MCT/Sipa USA

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It was at 5:04 p.m., October 17, 1989, when the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland pancaked, killing 42 people. 

But there were survivors. Authorities at the time said they had confirmed some people were alive under the rubble. 

Among them were 6-year-old Julio Berumen and his 8-year-old sister. They were trapped under tons of debris that flattened their family's car. Authorities thought the children’s parents were dead in the front seat. 

Pediatric surgeon Dr. Jim Betts crawled in and was forced to amputate Julio's leg to free him.

“Caltrans was ordering us down off the structure because it was unstable, but we all felt that as long as the child was alive, Julio was alive, we needed to stay there and finish, as best we could, the extrication and get him off the structure,” Betts recently told KCBS Radio. 

Betts had to lie on his stomach, in the hot, cramped space. He had to cut through a dead woman in the front passenger seat using a chainsaw to pull little Julio free. 

“We took it as a surgical procedure,” he said. “We all agreed that no matter who the people in the front seat were, that in order to save this child’s life that they would allow us to do that.”

Betts was stunned when the children's father showed up at the hospital, looking for them.

“I remember getting chills a little, up and down my spine, and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, wait a second. Who was in the vehicle?’” Betts recalled.  

It turned out Berumen's mother and a family friend were the people who were killed in the front seat of the car. The father and his two kids are still living in the East Bay.

Betts said he hasn’t had contact with Julio or the rest of his family in decades, but he says he does know they are doing quite well.

Julio Berumen did not respond to a request for an interview. He has said that he's moved on, putting the family tragedy behind him. 

Today, at 72, Jim Betts is still saving lives at what is now UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. 

That terrible day, I was on an offramp, exiting the Cypress when the earth shook and the freeway fell down with a roar behind me. 

My housemate was in an airport shuttle van on the lower deck. She was one of the 42 people killed. It was Jim Betts who found that crumpled van, with my friend inside, right next to the car that held Julio Berumen, which enabled us to retrieve her body.

That trauma taught me, and Betts, never to take a single moment for granted and always be ready for anything. That includes keeping the right tools and supplies in his car and trying not to stop under an overpass. 

“There’s much more we need to do to be prepared,” Betts said. 

Betts would rather look ahead, not behind, and he hopes the rest of us will, too.

But there’s still the lingering reality we can’t fully escape: the really big one has still yet to come. 

“It could be tonight, tomorrow, the next day, next week, next year,” Betts said.