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The night before Buck Helm unknowingly drove his aging car into a concrete death trap, the burly longshoreman slept as usual in the rusty yellow panel truck he kept parked by the docks, co-workers said.

The morning before he defied death at the hands of a killer earthquake, he'd been a winner at tonk, the card game of the docks played at a quarter a hand.At 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, the magnitude 6.9 earthquake caused a 1 1/4-mile-long section of Interstate 880 to cave in around him, killing dozens of motorists and pinning Helm across the front seat of his tiny Chevrolet Sprint. For the next 90 hours, he remained trapped under the crumbled concrete.

On Monday, the 57-year-old survivor surprised his doctors at Highland General Hospital by nodding his head to indicate he felt no pain.

Dr. Floyd Huen, medical director of the hospital, said Helm's condition could be upgraded from very serious to serious if he continued recovering at the present rate.

"When he was asked about whether he was hurting anywhere, he shook his head and everybody was incredulous," Huen said.

After work a week ago Tuesday, Helm jumped into his silver Sprint and drove into what would become the heart of the disaster, according to a ship's clerk at the Port of Oakland's Charles P. Howard Terminal.

Four days later, astonished rescue workers pulled him out of the crumbled interstate.

Helm's children and former wife have been at the hospital since he was rescued Saturday.

"Buck and I were married 16 years, and we have some beautiful children," said his ex-wife, Lorrie, flanked by daughter Desiree, 12, sons Jeffery, 16, and Marc, 22, and Marc's fiancee, Audra. "We've always been the best of friends no matter what.

"He's always been there when I needed him," she told reporters. "This is when he needs us."

Desiree was afraid her father had been killed because he hadn't called to say he was safe.

Marc is waiting for the day his father comes home and tells the kids to clean house, the way he used to, or goes back to building a rock wall in the yard.

"I'm sure when he was in there he was saying, `There's no way,' " Marc said. He is sure his father kept repeating: " `My daughter, she's going to get married (some day), she's going to graduate. My son's in college. My other son's going to be going to college.'

"Just no way he was going to give up," Marc said.

Helm, 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, can't talk because a respirator tube has been run down his throat.

After a news conference, Helm's ex-wife took a 15-minute tour of the freeway where her former husband survived beyond all odds. She was escorted by police officers.

"She said, `Oh, my God. I don't see how anyone could make it out alive.' And then she reflected on it a minute and said, `Well, if anyone could, Buck could,' " said police Sgt. Jack Huth.