Northridge at 20: Truck driver who escaped collapse recalls his near miss

Ervin "Nick" Nichols has been a truck driver for 51 years, driving mostly from from Oregon to Southern California. In 1994 he was on I-5 near the 14 Freeway when the Northridge Earthquake hit. The quake collapsed the road in front and behind Nichols' truck leaving him stranded on the overpass.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC
In this iconic image from the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake, Ervin "Nick" Nichols' truck is left stranded on the ruptured Highway 5.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Nick Nichols says he doesn't think too much about his near miss with death in the Northridge Earthquake.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC
Nick Nichols has been driving a truck for 51 years.
Jed Kim
Guy William Dean, 45, is the son of LAPD Officer Clarence Wayne Dean, who died in the Northridge Earthquake.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Guy William Dean shown with his wife Kimberly and daughters Brittany, 13, and Courtney Dean, 9.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A plaque and portrait hang in the station of the Valley Traffic Division, memorializing Clarence Wayne Dean, who died on January 17, 1994, when his motorcycle plunged off a broken portion of the freeway.
Jed Kim

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This is one in a weeklong series of stories on KPCC leading up to Friday's 20th anniversary of the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The series will explore the quake's history, its effects and its legacy. You can view more stories on our Northridge Anniversary page.  Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, on Twitter ("@" mention @KPCC)  and in the comments below.

Ervin "Nick" Nichols was driving a truck south along the 5 Freeway when the Northridge Earthquake hit 20 years ago, causing a section of bridge to drop out in front of his rig. He barely managed to stop, mere inches from a more than 70 foot drop.

Officer Clarence Wayne Dean wasn’t as fortunate. He plunged to his death from a collapse in the interchange that now bears his name as a memorial.

Despite their drastically different outcomes that day, the men shared many similarities. Both were in their late-40s, both loved driving and both became instant icons of the 6.7 magnitude earthquake, their images broadcast across national news.

Nichols said he occasionally gets stopped these days by people who remember seeing the striking images of his truck marooned on a stretch of highway in the sky. Crews had knocked out an unsafe portion of the freeway behind his truck and had to use a crane to lower his truck to safety.

“After all these years, people from different parts of the country will see me at a truck stop or something like that and, ‘Oh, you were the one,’” Nichols said. “Unfortunately, yeah!”

RELATED: Northridge Earthquake 20 years later

Aside from the occasional reminder from strangers, Nichols said he rarely thinks about that day. He said the near miss was only one of several he’s experienced in more than 50 years behind the wheel of a truck.

“I’ve had runaways in trucks that I’ve survived. I’ve been in avalanches. I’ve been in flash floods. I’ve been in tornadoes. I’ve been in everything in my career that Mother Nature can throw at a person, and I’m still alive,” Nichols said.

On Saturday, he drove over the exact spot of the freeway collapse, something he’s done roughly twice a week for the past 20 years.

“Doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said.

When pressed, Nichols conceded the quake did impact him in two ways. For about a month after, he said he woke up each morning at 4:30, the approximate time that the earthquake hit. The second impact was more permanent.

“I was dark haired for about a month after it happened, and then about three weeks after that, I was totally gray,” Nichols said. “I went and talked to a doctor about it, and he said, ‘Although you didn’t realize it, your body was pumping out so much adrenaline. That’s what caused your gray hair.’”

RELATED: KPCC's Earthquake Tracker app

His gray hair is the only lasting sign of what happened, and he keeps it mostly hidden under his trucker’s cap. For others affected by that day, there are more visible signs. Just a few minutes south of where Nichols was able to stop his truck, a road sign announces the Clarence Wayne Dean Memorial Interchange. It’s the spot where Officer Wayne Dean, an LAPD motorcycle cop, came across another collapse in the freeway. Unlike Nichols, though, he wasn’t able to stop in time.

Guy Dean, who was in his mid-20s the day his father died, said that he most wishes his father could have met his granddaughters Brittany and Courtney, 13 and nine respectively.

“I think the biggest thing is him not being able to see my kids or his grandchildren. And I think, you know, when you look at that part, that’s what bothers me the most. Because they would crack up if they saw him, you know. It was just, they would enjoy being around him,” Guy Dean said.

Officer Dean brought levity to his family and his coworkers in the police department. Many people’s favorite story about him is about a pair of tennis shoes he once spray painted black to adhere to a dress code mandated by a lieutenant.

The shoes remain to this day as part of a plaque hanging on the wall of the Valley Traffic Division, next to his portrait.

“You couldn’t help but notice him. You know, he was a jokester. He liked to keep things light, liked to make people smile and laugh,” said Detective Bill Bustos of the Valley Traffic Division.

It’s a spirit that Dean’s son tries to keep alive within his own family interactions.

“Time to time, you kind of look and go, ‘Wow, that’s something my father would do,’” Guy Dean said. “And it’s really crazy for me now. I just turned 45 and I’m thinking, wow, he was 47 when he died. I’m two years away from the age that he was, and I think about all the life that he missed.”

Guy Dean said he doesn’t have any special plans for the 20th anniversary.

As for Nick Nichols, he said he’ll probably spend it doing what he’s done for the past 51 years – driving a truck.

“I’m a quarter Indian, and I’ve always had this philosophy that I’ve been dying since the day I was born,” Nichols said. “One of these days, it’s going to catch up to me, and it’s finally going to happen, and there’s no sense in worrying about it until then.”