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‘The Ground Just Opened up and the Car Started Going Down’ With PM-SF Quake Bjt

October 20, 1989

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Janice Freiburger kept thinking she wasn’t ready to die as she struggled to escape a car wedged in a gap between the collapsed upper deck of the Bay Bridge and the split lower deck.

As she fumbled with her seat belt and climbed across the driver’s seat, Freiburger hoped her movements would not tip the crushed car into San Francisco Bay.

Freiburger, helped to safety, suffered a cracked breastbone, cracked spine and cracked collarbone in the wreck. The impact of the accident left her a quarter-inch shorter, doctors said.

From her hospital bed Thursday, she said she felt ″very sore but very lucky. Happy to be here.″

She and Bruce Stephan, the driver of the gray 1984 Mazda, marveled that they were the only ones on that section of bridge as it collapsed in Tuesday’s rush-hour earthquake. A small red car seen flying over the edge in a home video tape shown on national television this week arrived minutes later, after most traffic had managed to stop. The driver was killed.

Stephan’s car crumpled like tin, and he can’t explain why it didn’t plunge into the bay.

″The ground just opened up and the car started going down,″ he said. ″All I could think is ‘I’m going through the bridge and into the bay.’ ... I knew it was death. I didn’t think there was anything that could stop us.″

At his apartment in San Francisco, Stephan said he was searching for reasons why he survived the unthinkable with no more than a sore neck. Maybe, he said, he will get a chance to save someone else.

″It seems like it should be more profound. It was kind of a brush with death, but I don’t feel that much different,″ said the 33-year-old.

He and Freiburger, 41, of Larkspur, work at a San Francisco real estate company. They were returning from a project in the East Bay when they were caught on the bridge.

″I’ll live with the aches and pains of bruises and just be thankful I’m here,″ said Freiburger, who may be released early next week.

″It all happened in just split seconds,″ she recalled. ″First there was a moment of utter silence and then boom, an explosion-type of noise. It all opened up. We went traveling down like a roller coaster ride, just that fast.″

Stephan thought at first that he had four flat tires. When the bridge began bouncing and weaving, he knew it was an earthquake.

″I closed my eyes real tight and made my mind blank,″ he said. ″You know how you’re supposed to have all those flashbacks and your whole life flashes before your eyes? That didn’t happen. ... I told Janice, ‘We’re going to die,’ and she said, ’No, we’re not. Hold on.‴

When the car slammed to a stop, Stephan climbed out the window and onto the hood of the car. Propelled by fear, he reached overhead and hoisted himself up onto the surface of the bridge’s lower deck.

Despite her injuries, Freiburger was able to scramble out of the car and onto the hood. Stephan and a stranger pulled her to safety. She immediately started walking toward Treasure Island.

″Everyone said, ’This is amazing,‴ recalled Stephan, describing the rush-hour crowd of drivers on the lower deck of the bridge. ″But since we weren’t bleeding, everyone pretty much wanted to get off the bridge themselves.″

It was more than a mile to Treasure Island and Freiburger was having trouble breathing, but the pair kept walking.

″I was in a great deal of pain and I just knew that I was going to make it,″ Freiburger said.

After preliminary treatment at a clinic, the two were taken by ambulance to San Francisco General Hospital.

Neither Stephan nor Freiburger is eager to cross the bridge when it reopens.

″When the ground drops out from underneath you, it’s kind of hard to trust anything,″ he said.

Vowing to try it eventually, Freiburger conceded the return trip may be a long way off.

″I’m certain I will never cross any bridge without some anxiety,″ she said. ″But it’s something I will have to work with. When you live in the Bay area, there are a lot of bridges.″

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