Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

50 Years Later, Disaster Survivors Tell of Night of Terror.


Newspaper clipping courtesy of Carol Rising Longo, daughter of Ray Rising, who lived in the Powerhouse No. 2 community and lost his wife, Julia, and their three daughters in the St. Francis Dam Disaster of March 12-13, 1928. (Rising eventually remarried; Carol is his daughter by his second wife, Ruby.)

 

Valencia — Fifty years had done little to dull the memories of those who survived one of the worst disasters in the history of California.

One man remembered an omen — how he could detect the restlessness of the cows in a Santa Paula dairy by the smell in the air. Another woman recalled that her mother had to spend a whole day going around Piru to help identify bodies. An old woman in a wheelchair echoed the description of many of the others when she told of "the terrible roar" of the enormous wall of water which burst from the St. Francis Dam in the early morning hours of March 13, 1928, and cut a 54-mile path of destruction from Saugus to Ventura.

A crowd of about 150 people — survivors, their children and history buffs — came to the Ranch House Inn in Valencia Sunday for a 50th anniversary reunion in commemoration of the disaster, which claimed 450 victims, two less than the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 [sic: An estimated 3,000 people perished in San Francisco — Ed.]. Largely responsible for the reunion was Don Ray, a 28-year-old Los Angeles public relations writer.

The program included a dinner, dedications of memorials, presentation of special recognition plaques and a narrated slide program by Santa Paula historian Charles Outland. Outland is author of "Man-Made Disaster," the only comprehensive book about the disaster, which was the result of faulty construction.

But most of the drama of the reunion was centered on the survivors and their vivid recollections of that fateful night.

Oliver Crocker had come all the way from Tombstone, Ariz., for the reunion, where he told the tale many times over of how, at the age of 21, he narrowly escaped death while stationed at the Southern California Edison camp near Piru [sic: at the L.A.-Ventura county border — Ed.]. "During the night, we heard the pounding on the door of the night mechanic, and the next thing we knew, the water had upset our beds," remembered Crocker. Miraculously, he escaped from his tent in an air bubble and ended up on a drift of debris with about 30 or 40 others, he said.

But a minute later the drift broke, and Crocker was thrown into the middle of the raging torrents. "People were getting crushed in the logs and driftwood," winced Crocker. "You could hear them hollering."

He was fortunate enough to be washed onto the bank of the flood waters, and he was found by a couple named Ortiz who didn't even speak English. He told how Mrs. Ortiz jerked off her skirt, wrapped him up in it and got him to safety, helped by her husband. Crocker had broken several bones and had lost his hearing. The partial deafness that has remained has been a handicap ever since and has been a constant reminder of the terrifying experience.

Yet it wasn't painful to attend the reunion, and Crocker said that he hopes that the event will help pass on information about the disaster to younger generations. Also, "we should honor the dam as a sacred site because of the lives lost there," he said.

Unlike many others, Crocker claims to feel no bitterness toward those who took the blame for the breaking of the dam, like William Mulholland, father of Southern California's water system and chief engineer of the dam. "He's just a man who made a mistake," Crocker said. "He didn't do it on purpose."

Crocker does feel strongly when he remembers the man and woman whom he feels saved his life. "I never had a chance to thank them in all 50 years," he said. "And I hope God forgives me for it."

Some people were less fortunate. Lillian Curtis Eilers, 29 when she and her family lived a mile and a half below the dam, lost her husband Lyman Curtis and their two daughters in the dark, raging waters as she clambered to safety with her son Danny, then 3 years old. She remembers screaming a lot, among other things. She couldn't hear much else, so terrible was the roar of the flood.

Josie Griffin, now of Lancaster, attributes her survival to a stroke of fortune and her husband's intuition: They had been visiting in Newhall the day before the dam broke, and her husband Earl had an eerie feeling that something was going to happen and decided to go back to their home just above the dam. They reached their destination an hour and a half before the walls of the dam gave way.

Carolyn Chivvis Van Laar of Northridge was 7 years old and living Piru at the time of the disaster, and she told of the roles of the four-legged members of her family in the flood. Not only did her father possess a horse who had been trained to rescue victims in the water, but the family dog named Don got a gold medal from the Pasadena Post in 1930 for rousing the family before the flood waters descended. Later, she remembered the men coming from town in a big touring car and helping them to safety.

Mrs. Van Laar was enthusiastic about the reunion in Valencia and the opportunity to exchange memories. She also got a surprise when she met up with Reatha Fine of Fillmore, who had been the principal of Piru School at the time of the flood.

One of those honored at the reunion for his role in saving lives was Thornton Edwards, the officer in the California Highway Patrol in the Santa Paula-Fillmore area who is hailed as the "Paul Revere of the St. Francis Dam disaster." Edwards went from house to house on his motorcycle blaring a siren and warning residents to get to safety on higher ground, while his son George, then 9, helped him on foot.

Mrs. Thornton Edwards, on the other hand, claims to have felt no panic or sense of urgency that night when her husband phoned to rouse her from sleep and told her to get herself and others to safety. "A lot of people didn't even know the dam was up there," she said, explaining her disbelief. "And I didn't think that anything that far away could be that dangerous."


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