Crews were en route when they caught sight of a column of black smoke funneling out the northern bore as vehicles exited from the wrong direction. They knew then that the call was anything but routine.
Seven people were killed when a drunken driver's stalled car, a speeding bus and an overturned gasoline tanker combined to cause a superheated, toxic fire inside the Caldecott, one of the worst tunnel fires in U.S. history.
"The heat was so intense coming out of the tunnel no one could get near it, much less attempt to enter," said Stan Williams, a Orinda fire captain. "It was the most frustrating experience I had during my fire career, knowing there were people trapped inside there and we could not help them."
"It is hard to believe that it has been 25 years since that fire," Williams said. "I never travel through the tunnel without thinking of that night."
Flames in the distance
Carpenter Paul Petroelje was heading home to Alameda on Highway 24 after a job in Walnut Creek. He slowed his 1980 Toyota pickup when he saw the red flashing lights reflecting from the tiles in the Caldecott's northern bore.
As he came around the tunnel's first bend, he stopped behind a stalled beer delivery truck. He waited, then backed up to get a better view. He saw a pickup parked beside a woman at
In the distance, Petroelje saw flames begin to flicker. Then the smoke started coming. Fast.
The pickup disappeared in the smoke. The beer truck driver opened his door, swung out a leg, hesitated, got back in. Then his truck disappeared.
Drivers behind Petroelje started backing up. The tunnel went dark as he shut the engine off and made his way to the catwalk. The smoke was thick and it was hard to breathe. Crouching, he walked east as fast as he could. The road was deserted when he reached the tunnel mouth. All the motorists who had backed out were gone.
"It was the loneliest time of my life. I felt completely isolated," said Petroelje, now 56. Shortly after, the man he had met inside emerged.
"We were pretty stunned, I guess, at what had happened," Petroelje said. "I kind of remember telling him that I had left my truck in there.
"He said, 'I left my mom in there.'"
Quake, bells and whistles
Tucked in a drawer in Fred Rutledge's Orinda home is a plastic bag containing an asthma alert bracelet and a necklace with the MacKay family crest, both charred from the night his mother, June Rutledge, perished.
June Rutledge, a 58-year-old reporter and founder of the Piedmont Historical Society, was returning from Carson City, Nev., with her 31-year-old son, Stephen, and a load for a garage sale at her Piedmont home.
Fred Rutledge, 25, was awakened at his Oakland apartment by Stephen's call. He said their mother had passed away.
"I thought it was of natural causes at the time," Fred Rutledge said. "Then, as he went through, and was coughing a bit, he began to explain that they had just been in this accident in Caldecott Tunnel, and I said, 'Oh my God. What happened?'"
It would take many weeks of investigating by the California Highway Patrol before the events became clear.
Janice Ferris, a 34-year-old bookkeeper from San Leandro, had spent the evening socializing in Walnut Creek. She had an illegal blood alcohol level of 0.17 when her Honda compact struck a tunnel curb and came to rest in the fast lane one-third of the way through the northern bore.
Within minutes, the front wheel of a gasoline tanker driven by Sacramento resident Mervyn Lee Metzker struck Ferris's car. Then, a speeding out-of-service AC Transit bus with 55-year-old John Dykes at the wheel swerved to avoid the tanker and hit both vehicles. Dykes was thrown from the bus, which crashed into a concrete support pier outside the tunnel. The bus's impact opened the tanker, spilling 8,800 gallons of gasoline, igniting a 2,000-degree fire.
Dykes and Ferris died.
Tunnel operator Doug LaVallee said he heard what he thought was an earthquake, followed by bells and whistles. He ran downstairs from the tunnel's command center, opened a tunnel door and saw Metzker running for his life.
"I couldn't see the accident because of the curvature of the tunnel," LaVallee said. "And I remember this tall guy running down with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat on and he said, 'My tanker's exploding.' And I just let him in, and brought him up."
The Rutledges' truck was the first vehicle to drive in after the bus, and they stopped to help. June Rutledge, who suffered from severe asthma, called for help and went back into the truck. Stephen Rutledge walked east to try to slow oncoming cars. When the fire started, he raced back to help his mother, but he couldn't penetrate the heat.
The beer truck's driver, Sepulveda resident Everett Kidney, 53, and a passenger, Granada Hills resident Melvin Edward Young, 30, who had caught a ride, also died.
So did San Franciscans George and Katherine Lenz, both 68. They were returning home after visiting relatives in Pittsburg. Their car was found behind Petroleje's truck, perpendicular to lanes, indicating they were attempting to turn around when they were overcome by the smoke and flames.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the disaster on Ferris' erratic driving, which created a traffic obstacle; Metzker's inattention that led him to strike Ferris' car; and Dykes' overtaking the truck too rapidly to avoid striking the passenger vehicle.
"It was a chain of events, just a total coincidence, that developed into a nightmarish result," said Piedmont Fire Chief John Speakman, then the Oakland fire spokesman. He fielded media calls from as far away as New York, where the accident was compared to the 1949 Holland Tunnel fire.
Saying a prayer
The scars that marked the tunnel for years have disappeared, but memories remain vivid.
The bus driver's widow, Aretha Dykes, lives in the Oakland home she shared with her husband before he died five months before their 25th wedding anniversary.
It's unclear exactly how Dykes died, but Aretha believes he tried to help after he was ejected from the bus, as was his nature. He was a 30-year Army personnel specialist who served two tours in Vietnam. His funeral with full military honors was at the Oakland Army Base. She recalls that the chaplain said he died helping people.
Stephen Rutledge moved to Washington to escape the attention surrounding the fire. Fred Rutledge, who commutes through the tunnel regularly, says a little prayer every time he goes through. The brothers haven't talked about the accident since.
Petroelje, a carpenter and a church janitor, still lives in Alameda. He thinks about the accident every April. He thinks he suffers from survivor's guilt and wonders whether he could have saved the Lenzes. But, rationally, he knows that if he had tried he likely would have died, too.
"Obviously, I'm grateful to be alive," Petroelje said. "Timing is everything, and this is one accident that proves that beyond a shadow."
Reach Malaika Fraley at 925-945-4782 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.