Friday, October 17, 2014

The Haunting Death of Janet Ray

Since first learning of the tragic death of Janet Ray and the soul-crushing anguish of her husband William's final hour with her I have been haunted by the entire episode. Initially, at some point after the 1989 M6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake I became aware of a reference to there being a victim, a male, having been trapped in the apartment structure at Beach and Divisadero Streets in the Marina District who as the fire overcame the collapsed structure had to be left behind to his fate to burn alive in the rubble. It was only at some point later either in the article from which I share excerpts below or perhaps another reference I have since forgotten, that I learned this person was a woman. Worse yet, upon doing further research which wasn't all that easy, I discovered, to my horror, that her husband was with her until the very last moments of her short life. Her name was Janet Ray and she was only 28.  Had she survived that day and was still with us she would be 53 today.

What follows are select excerpts from Stewart Brand's (of Whole Earth Catalog fame) amazing article "Learning From The Earthquake" which should be canon by now in emergency management and first responder (including CERT) literature. It is his own personal account of his participation in citizen volunteer rescue efforts at the now infamous Beach and Divisadero locale. It also recounts the experiences and observations of others there that day in the Marina District at the time of the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. He wrote this the following spring after the earthquake when memories were more accurate and emotions more raw than now. Although I have not contacted Mr. Brand about my use of his work, I hope my use of it is acceptable with him and received in the spirit in which it is intended to be shared here.
Back to 5:04 p.m.  In the four-story apartment building at 3701 Divisadero,  William Ray, 33, was changing clothes in the bathroom of the apartment on the second floor, above the garage floor, on the west end.  His wife Janet, 28, was in the living room overlooking Beach Street.  When the earthquake began, they both headed to the hallway.  There they embraced, and then their home shattered and embraced them. 

“We were in a spot about eighteen inches high,” Bill Ray remembers, “our arms wrapped around one another.  We couldn’t move.”  Bill Ray was pinned on his back, his right leg numb.  His wife’s lower body was buried in unmovable debris.  “Janet was on top of my leg with her head on my chest.  From her waist up she was okay, but her legs and feet—she was suffering.”  In the dim light full of plaster dust Bill Ray beat on the floorboards above him with a stick, and the couple made contact with neighbors outside.  “We were both fully in command of ourselves.  We were talking.  When you’re in that kind of situation you’re supposed to remain calm.  We were calm.  Janet was a very strong woman.  We were obviously concerned about our welfare, but we just assumed that since we survived the initial building collapse, we were going to get out of there.”

What did the Rays talk about, that hour?  “We talked about our married life.”  They had been married two and a half years, Bill working at the financial firm of Dean Witter, Janet an account representative at Color Copy Printing.  Both of them mountain bikers and skiers, they had travelled widely together.  A handsome couple—Bill tall and soft-spoken, Janet blond, good-looking, private, clear-minded.  In another month they would have been out of the building—escrow on a house they were buying in Montclair was due to close November 21.  Bill reassured his wife, “We’re going to get out, honey.  People are here to rescue us.”
People were, but there were problems.  Their building had collapsed to two floors, and those outside were afraid to go in the lower floor of such a severely damaged building.  So the rescue crew of eight volunteers when I joined it was trying to tunnel a way in from the west side, but with almost nothing in the way of tools.  
One of the best tools is expertise.  In our crew we had that at least.  John Kaplanis, who had run to the scene from a nearby shopping street, recalled later, “I’m a carpenter by trade, and I remember telling the guys, ‘Hang on a second, let me see how this place is built.  Maybe I can figure out how to get in there’—because they were just sort of going at it unorganized.  So I knocked a couple of blocks out in between the joists space, and I figured if I crawled in there I’d be able to break through a ceiling down to whatever space they were in below me.  But when I did that I dug through the plaster and hit concrete.  I couldn’t figure out where they possibly could be.”

Finally we were joined by professionals.  Fire Truck 16 had been guided to the scene not by phone or radio, but by people in the streets.  Captain Bob Jabs sized up the appalling scene and immediately radioed for help, “We have two buildings collapsed, with people in both of them, and one of the buildings is on fire.  I need an engine!”  (A fire truck has no fire fighting capability, being equipped strictly for rescue.  It’s the fire engines that have the pumps, hoses, and some on-board water.)  Jabs split his meager crew—sending Howard Cross and Wayne Martin to the building where Sergeant Gustafson was to take charge of the rescue of the two women there, while he took Tom Bailon and John Reed across the street to our building with smoke puffing out of its eastern corner. 

Firefighter Tom Bailon changed the stalemated rescue situation with two quick moves.  He called to the Rays, “Where were you when the building collapsed?”  “In the hallway!” came the answer.  With that information and his captain’s permission he led the way into the building, looking for the hallway of the floor above the collapsed floor.  A few more shouts pinpointed the Rays’ location, and he and John Reed proceeded to chop down toward them with axes.  Several volunteers joined them.  I found a ladder that shortened the way into the building.  Captain Jabs leaned out the window to call for tools from his fire truck.

Of course it wasn’t as direct and purposeful as this brief account makes it seem.  A real rescue is dreamy and hesitant, full of false starts and conflicting ideas, at times frantic and focussed, at times diffuse.  It is a self-organizing process, neither quick nor tidy, but it proved to be effective all over the Marina that night. 

Since I was trained as an infantry officer, I defaulted into supervisory mode—“What are we overlooking?”  I scouted around the back of the building, my new specialty, and found a second smoke and reported it to firefighter John Reed.  “What can we do about it?”  I asked.  His face was anguished: “No water!”

By now the nearby fire hydrants had been checked.  No pressure.  Broken water mains, broken gas mains, no phones, no power, buildings down with injured people in them, and growing smoke....

Another fire truck arrived—still not an engine.  Firefighter Joe Conway from Truck 10 remembers, “When we rolled around the corner and saw all these buildings out in the middle of the street, I was just numb.  There was people crying and freaking out all over the place.  But then you just tuck it in, and we kicked in to what we do.”  Truck 10’s Captain Bob Boudoures also divided his crew, sending Joe Conway and Jack Porter to help the men in the burning building, while he and two others started a second rescue at 2090 Beach, this one for Sherra Cox.

Volunteers were the message carriers all evening.  Carpenter Kaplanis ran up to newly arrived Truck 10 to report on the need for rescue tools in the burning building.  (Truck 16’s own power saws and jacks had already gone into 2090 Beach.)  So Truck 10 was moved to the front of the fire building to provide tools for the increasingly desperate situation there.  Jabs:  “The volunteers were fantastic.  If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have gotten any of that equipment.  I’d yell from the window for a tool, and they’d yell to Truck 10, and Joe Conway would hand it to them.  It was like a bucket brigade going in through the window—hose, power saws, jacks.”

The Rays still didn’t know about the fire.  Bill Ray: “All you’re doing is listening to sounds.  You become aware of where people are in relation to where you’re lying.  They got a chain saw going and they cut this one hole, three feet behind my head.  A fireman stuck his hand down through the hole, and I could reach up, and we could just grab hands.  He told us, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of there.  Just keep calm.’ 

“He had turned the chain saw off, and they couldn’t start it back up.  He kept tugging on it, tugging on it, tugging on it—couldn’t get it started.  I said, ‘Keep cutting!  Cut us out of here!’  Then we started to smell smoke.  That’s when I realized that the building was on fire.”

Tom Bailon, the one who clasped hands with Bill Ray, remembers, “They were both pretty calm and coherent.  The captain asked if I could get them out, and I said, ‘I don’t think so.  I think we should cut a hole right over them.’  And that’s what we started to do.  There was a closet wall in the way, so we kicked that out, and started to cut a hole in the other side with axes.  The building was at a severe angle.  I saw a wall glowing and went over and looked, and the whole other side of the building was on fire.”
The view from the street was frightening.  One minute the fire started to flame up a little at the opposite end of the building from the rescue efforts, and the next minute the top floor was burning to the sky.  A series of sharp explosions shocked the ears.  Collapsed old wood buildings (pre-1945, when sheet rock walls came in) don’t burn like other buildings.  Captain Jabs: “Wood lathe and plaster, when it collapses like that, all it makes is a big pile of kindling that’s fifty or sixty years dry.”  With the walls gone, there was no protection to slow down the fire, and the fire was probably fed by natural gas, making an effective blow torch.  The fire was spreading faster and hotter than anything the firemen had seen before.
Joe Conway was with Truck 10 in front of the fire.  “It got so hot our truck started to melt—the plastic lenses melted, the glass broke.  We jumped in and pulled the rig down further.”  By now some fire engines had arrived and had tried one pressureless hydrant after another the length of Beach Street until they reached the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon three blocks away, where they threw in a hard suction line and began drafting, relaying from engine to engine to Truck 10’s line.  Water!  Kaplanis and I and other volunteers helped maneuver the heavy hose.

Joe Conway: “I was on the front of the large line, with a line of civilians in back of me.  We were trying to put a fog over the fire to keep it cool enough for the guys working in there to get the couple out.  But there wasn’t enough pressure, so you had to get close.  I got a sunburn, and the civilians all got sunburns.  I remember turning around, and they just had their shorts and Hawaiian shirts and stuff.  I almost couldn’t take it because of the heat, and I’m thinking, ‘If I’m taking a beating, imagine what these guys are doing.’  It was just unbelievable.  I was so proud of them.”

But inside 3701 Divisadero the situation was deteriorating.  The chain saw became useless when its blade broke on nails in the floor.  Volunteers relayed in the “multi-purpose saw” from Truck 10—a heavy, gas-powered Homelite XL-98 that can cut through an axle with the right blade.  The multi-purpose, after a delay getting it started, was put to work over where Janet Ray was pinned.  Tom Bailon tried to slow the approaching fire with a light inch-and-a-half hose with partial pressure—“I was trying to keep the fire from getting in the hallway where we were, but it was really hot and smoky.  I did that as long as I could and then I had to get air, and John Reed relieved me on the fire.”  Gasping out the window, Bailon saw that the floor above them was burning.

Captain Jabs had ordered all volunteers out of the now-lethal building.  The three firemen traded off on efforts to cut down directly to where Janet Ray was pinned.  Jabs: “You’ve got to be careful when you start cutting away that you’re not cutting the support.  I wouldn’t want to be cutting, thinking I was freeing somebody and then watch them get crushed in front of me.  You’ve got to jack and shore.”  When the explosions went off, the rescuers thought for a second the building was coming in on them. 

Jabs:  “It was a nightmare.  Being a firefighter in a situation where you have a fire and no way to put it out, and people trapped, is a nightmare.” 

The fire was coming through the walls, and they could hear parts of the roof caving in.  Jabs:  “Then somebody from outside yelled, ‘Get out!  The building is collapsing!’  We stayed a little bit longer, but the smoke was starting to get thick.  There was no time to pick anything up.  We went out through the window.”  Tom Bailon swore and threw his helmet on the street, crying from smoke inhalation, exclaiming, “I was right there!  I almost had them!  I was right there!”

All Bill Ray knew was that the firemen were gone.  And he was through remaining calm. 

“I told Janet, ‘I’m going to get free, and we’re both going to get free.’  I assumed that I was binding her and if I could get loose, then she could get loose.  You just start pulling with everything you’ve got.  You reach up and pull on the lathe and plaster and it’s breaking off in your hand.  Then you’re grabbing a 2 by 12 joist and pulling.  My wife was screaming because it was a lot of pain and her arms were trapped, and a picture frame of glass was cutting her. 

“Then I got free, but she still wasn’t.  I tried to pull her out.  Smoke was coming in.  You could hear the flames cracking and popping.  She couldn’t pull herself loose, and I couldn’t get to her.”  What they said to each other then Bill Ray prefers to keep private.  “Then I left.  I crawled out that hole.  I realized my leg was broken, because I couldn’t move it.  I crawled to the bathroom and stood up in the window.  I wanted somebody to come back and help me, because I thought we could get her out.”

All of us who were there remember him standing in that window, gazing at our street full of chaos.  He stood while we shouted for him to jump, then he tilted forward and slid head first ten feet down the slanting wall to a broken roof at street level.  As we cheered, the nearest volunteer and Captain Jabs rushed forward to grab him and carried him free of the scorching heat to a group of medical volunteers.  He was shouting, “Someone get my wife!  Go back and get my wife!”  A volunteer assured him, “Don’t worry, we’ll get her!”  It was a lie.  Flames were already coming out the window he had just left.

As he was being carried in a sheet a block up the street to an ambulance, the blazing building collapsed into itself with a sudden, shocking finality.  Everyone there absorbed a piece of the horror of it.  We were crying, and then we were shifting attention to whatever had to be done next.  Numb with the knowledge that Janet was dead, Bill Ray directed his ambulance to Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center.  “The only time things started going right is when they got me there.  That place was running like clockwork.”  Next day he had extensive surgery for spiral multiple fractures of his leg, and he commenced his long grieving.

Should we have told the Rays from the start that their building was on fire?  If he had worked free earlier, it might have given the rescuers a better chance at freeing her.  It’s a tough call, but I would now say yes, give people who are trapped all the information you’ve got, and enlist their help.  Have them describe exactly where they are and what their situation is.  Ask their advice.  Tell them what you’re doing.  Pass them tools and medical gear if you can.  Treat them not as helpless victims but as an exceptionally motivated part of the rescue team.
At the conclusion of my interview with Bill Ray, he took off his wedding ring and looked at it.  “That’s all I have left,” he whispered.  Then he looked at my tape recorder.  “I hope something positive comes out of this.  That’s all I ask.”


  1. I've known about this story since the beginning but had only the basic framework not her name or these additional details. I've used it as instructive on a number of levels, and now will be able to be more accurate in how I share. Thank you posting this. April Kelcy, Earthquake Solutions,

    1. Thanks, April, for taking the time to read this piece and I'm glad you found it edifying and useful.... I feel CERT people need to read this, too, as a lot of what Brand describes is the sort of thing CERT members or otherwise CERT-trained people will be in the position Brand and his fellow volunteers found themselves in that day.

  2. I am currently taking a CERT class and have also been on a Fire Department Auxiliary. This story is sad, and I knew the outcome, but I hope it is useful in training firefighters, rescuers, EMTS, police force and CERT members.

    1. Rasha,

      Are you taking the classes with North San Luis Obispo County CERT?