Hetta Laurena Carter
Witness to the St. Francis Dam
Keith Buttelman

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, October 1, 2006
(Television interview conducted September 25, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Disaster struck the Santa Clarita Valley on March 12, 1928. At three minutes before midnight, William Mulholland's monumental St. Francis Dam collapsed. Thirteen billion gallons of LADWP water crashed down San Francisquito Canyon. By the time the floodwaters reached the Pacific Ocean at Ventura, at least 450 people were dead. Half of the children in Saugus Elementary School were never seen again.

Born Feb. 7, 1910, Hetta Laurena Carter was 18 years old when she visited the St. Francis Dam in 1928, shortly before it collapsed. Her story — and her previously unknown photographs — could shed new light on who knew what, and when they knew it.

Laurena Carter
Laurena Carter
Signal: Laurena, where were you living in 1928?

Carter: I was living in Hawthorne, California. I went to school in Inglewood, and Hawthorne was about the end of the old streetcar (line) on 162nd Street.

Signal: You used to come out here to Saugus?

Carter: Well, I came out here just on the spur of the moment to have a picnic.

Signal: Did you often have picnics out here in the boonies?

Carter: No, it was the only time I ever had a picnic out here. I came out with a couple of friends, and we sat down beside the little creek and had our lunch.

Signal: And this was in San Francisquito Canyon?

Carter: Right.

Signal: When was this?

Carter: It was end of February (1928), which would make me 18 years old. I had been driving for a while, and it was just fun to drive. My dad had an old Chevy, and I drove the old Chevy all over the country.
    As I sat there, I wondered what in the world they were doing up on the corner of the dam. My father was a cement contractor, and I thought, "That looks like cement up there."
    I walked a little closer, and it was a half a sack of cement in the mortar box. The box also held a wooden hoe and a bucket, and the tip of a garden hose. The hose was down the side of the dam, so I immediately guessed that they were making sloppy cement in the mortar box, pouring it down the hose to (fill) a small leak that was on the side of the dam, about halfway down the dam.

Signal: Now this is the end of February 1928, so just about two weeks before the dam broke.

Carter: That's right.

Signal: Were you with anybody?

Carter: I was with several people. There were three or four of us having a picnic, but they're long gone.

Signal: Your father was a cement contractor, but he didn't work on the dam, did he?

Carter: No, he did not. No. It was only because he was a cement contractor that I recognized the tools that were on the top of a dam. And of course the first thing I noticed was the mortar box, which — years ago, that's what they used — (and) the hoe to mix up the cement for the topping of any job that my dad was doing.

Signal: Were you up on top of the dam when you took this photograph (showing the mortar box and hose, top of this page)?

Carter: No, I wasn't on top of the dam. I was alongside the dam. I only walked up a ways on the dirt to take that picture.

Signal: Could you see how much water was in the dam at the time?

Carter: No. I would have no idea how much water was in the dam.

Signal: Did you also take this photo of the water in the dam?

Carter: Yes.

Signal: When was that photo taken?

Carter: It was the same time as the photo was taken of the (photo) with the hose in it. That was the same time.

Signal: Keith, from your knowledge of the history of the dam, what do these photographs tell you?

Keith Buttelman
Keith Buttelman
Buttelman: The main thing is the timing of it. Throughout the inquest (the Los Angeles County coroner's inquest into the dam failure), (LADWP Chief Engineer William) Mulholland and (Assistant Harvey) Van Norman both testified that there was no indication that there was any problem on the dam, even the day of (the break).
    (Damkeeper) Tony Harnischfeger, as a matter of fact, called both of them up ... because there was a new leak on the western abutment, and it was muddy. That means that it would be undercutting the dam, which could lead to a failure.
    So Van Norman and Mulholland both drove up to the dam site, arriving around 10:30 in the morning, inspected the leak on the western side —

Signal: What morning?

Buttelman: March 12, 1928, the day of the failure — and reported that the water was clear, coming out from underneath the structure, which would mean just that it's a harmless leak.
    Also what was noticed that day was a new leak on the eastern side — which is the side Laurena is talking about — the eastern abutment. That did also occur, a small leak on the eastern side.

Signal: So there were leaks, but they were saying it wasn't a problem?

Buttelman: That's correct. They were saying that (the leaks) weren't undercutting the dam, they were just leaks off of hard rock.
    Mulholland, as a matter of fact, stated, "All dams leak" — and a leak isn't really a bad thing unless it's undercutting, unless it's taking material away from underneath the dam, the footing. That's when the problems arise in a concrete dam. Now, in an earthen dam, obviously if you got a leak it's a little more of a problem.

Signal: Laurena, when you were there in late February, did you actually see leaking in the dam?

Carter: Oh yes, I did.

Signal: What did it look like?

Carter: Well, I would say the leakage was no bigger than my thumb, maybe a little smaller, and it was trickling down the side of the dam, into the dirt and on down. I don't think that it turned into the little creek that was there.
    Now, I did have pictures of that creek, but they were very, very funny, because I was wading in the water in the creek and I had my dress all rolled up, and years ago I threw (the picture) away because I thought it was terrible.
    I was close enough when I was wading in the creek that I could look up and see the water coming out. It didn't seem like it was very big. My guess was it was about like my thumb; I'm just guessing because it's so long ago that some of the particulars...

Signal: Do you remember if it was on the right side or the left side as you were facing it?

Carter: It was on the right side of the dam, halfway up.

Signal: Was it right up against the mountain, or was it on the face of the dam?

Carter: It was right up against the dam.

Signal: On the face of the dam?

Carter: Yes. Right on the edge of the dam.

Signal: Isn't that one of the places where the dam broke?

Buttelman: Well, the theory of the eastern side causing the failure — there isn't total fact; nobody survived who saw the dam fail, so we can't say for certain that it failed on the eastern or western side.
    The state of California had a theory that it failed the western side, at the fault line, on the western abutment. J. David Rogers, who is a dam engineer, has done a lot of research on it, and his theory is that the failure (occurred) on the eastern abutment, which is the theory I go along with.
    So yes, the theory is, there was a small blowout down the dam, probably halfway, two-thirds of the way down, which undercut the eastern abutment, the hillside, triggering a landslide that took out the eastern side of the damn, simplistically put.
    So yes, that is one of the theories, that the eastern side failed first.

Signal: Laurena, did you just see only the one leak?

Carter: Only the one leak, yes.

Signal: Keith, was it all of these cracks that caused the dam to break, or was it something else?

Buttelman: Basically, it was geology that killed the St. Francis.
    The eastern side of the dam was on a shift, or shale, which was very fractured. Also, the whole eastern side of that hillside was an ancient landslide that had taken place millennia ago, and actually, there was an earthen dam that plugged that whole area up, creating a lake larger than the reservoir of the St. Francis or anything else, and eventually was eaten away.
    So the hillside itself was unstable, and that is one of the reasons that if you ever see a picture of the St. Francis, of the hillside where the landslide took place, the slide actually occurred 50 to 100 feet above the top of the St. Francis. That's what took out the power lines that designated the time of the failure at 11:57:30 (p.m.). That's when the power lines were cut.

Carter: I have a question. It's very odd that the middle of the dam was still standing when I went back. Why would all that pressure not take the middle of the dam out?

Buttelman: Well, there were cracks in the face of the dam. There were four large cracks, contraction cracks from the original pouring.
    When they poured the St. Francis, they didn't know that Portland cement, the concrete they use, generates its own heat when it's poured in large sections. So as the dam cured, four large cracks appeared — two in the center section that went alongside that one piece that remained standing after the failure, plus two on the abutments.
    Now, those were filled in 1927 with oakum, which is basically wedges of oak, and with grout. So the theory (is), when the dam failed, when the eastern side failed because of the landslide, the dam then started to shift toward the east, because there was no longer a structure there separating it from the western side, and it failed along those two existing cracks in the center section of the dam.

Signal: Laurena, you mentioned what you called "sloppy cement." What is that?

Carter: Sloppy cement is, let's say, a half a sack of cement to a bucket of water, or two-thirds of a bucket of water, and take a hole and mix it up. That's what they were doing. I could tell that they were using sloppy cement, otherwise it wouldn't go down the hose.

Signal: So a very liquid cement.

Carter: It had to be liquid to go down into the hose. They couldn't put anything that was real heavy in there. There was no sand or gravel. I think it was strictly cement. I didn't see any sand or gravel or any sacks of it. But I did see the cement, and I did see that they had a bucket and a hoe, and they were mixing up sloppy cement, I call it.

Signal: If you go out to the site of the dam and examine the rubble, it looks like they just used whatever dirt and rocks were in the area, and threw them together with the cement when they built the dam. Was the composition of the dam itself a problem?

Buttelman: Mulholland always stated that the concrete was of acceptable quality. They would bring in the cement, and they would use the rocks from the existing creek base. Theoretically, it would be washed and then mixed with the concrete. So you will find the rocks in the concrete — like normally when we look for gravel or something like that, when you buy a sack of concrete at the hardware store. Well, they took the rocks from the existing creekbed; it saved them money.
    Part of the problem with the mixing of the concrete, though, they found with the St. Francis — because Mulholland said it was of average strength; tests have said it was a little weak — they used what's called a batch plant, which if you ever see a picture of the construction, you'll see there's a structure with a long tube coming off of it. Basically they mix the concrete there, pump it up this pipe, and then it would be distributed higher up into the dam. But as it was being done, the aggregate of the rocks would separate from the cement, thus causing a weaker cement.
    Was that responsible for the failure? Probably not. It's accepted that the strength of the concrete was not responsible for the failure, that it was the geology of the area.

Signal: Would this "sloppy cement," a cement and water mixture, be sufficient to plug a leak?

Buttelman: I'm not an expert. That's something an engineer would have to answer. I don't know.

Carter: Since my dad was in cement, I looked at it and I thought, "They'll never get a leak stopped with that sloppy cement."

Signal: What did you think when you saw it? Did you think "Boy, they've got a problem and it's going to break?"

Carter: I never thought about the dam breaking. It never entered my mind whatsoever. And of course four or five, six days later, when I heard about it, I was shocked. Right away I thought, "Oh, I wonder if that leak caused the dam to break." But I had no idea. And I did think that it was not a smart move to make, putting sloppy cement where there was water coming out.

Signal: How soon after the dam break did you come back and visit?

Carter: As soon as the (road conditions would) let me go back. ... Because I thought, "Oh my God, this has happened right after we were there? And the dam is gone?"

Signal: How many weeks later was it when you came back?

Carter: Oh, I don't think it was weeks. ... My guess would be about five days, because for a while, you couldn't get through on the roads.

Signal: Describe what you saw, five days after the dam broke.

Carter: I stood there, looked at that hunk in the middle and I thought, "Good grief, both sides of the dam are gone?" And here's this piece in the middle; I just was amazed. I couldn't believe that it had happened.

Signal: What about the destruction you saw on the way?

Carter: I didn't see much, because they wouldn't let me on the roads.

Signal: Then how did you get there?

Carter: I went some back roads, in and out.

Signal: You came up and around the dam?

Carter: Yes. And I thought, "Well, I'm going to take a picture of the piece that's standing." But no, most of the roads were closed for quite a long time. I kind of went in the back way and knew my way around, and I left the car on the side of the road and walked down and took a picture of the part that was standing.

Signal: Did you know people who died?

Carter: Did I know anyone that died? No. I didn't know a soul.

Signal: One of your pictures shows some cars near the section that was left standing (see photo, page C1). On the back it says, "April 8, 1929," so it's just about a year afterward. Did you take that picture?

Carter: Yes, but I can't vouch about the date on it at all.

Signal: Do you have any idea what the cars are doing?

Carter: No, I can't tell you.

Signal: If you were there on April 8, 1929, that would have been just before that center section was dynamited.

Carter: That was before they dynamited the center, yes.

Signal: Why did they dynamite it?

Buttelman: The center was dynamited, I believe it was in 1929 ... the DWP said for two reasons. One was for safety; a young man had been killed on the face of the dam about six months earlier, and (two), the DWP said they didn't want people to have to be reminded of it. So it was dynamited — (a) for safety and (b) to try to start to bury the memory of it.
    Because not only the center structure was dynamited, but a lot of the larger blocks downstream were dynamited and reduced to rubble. Actually they tried to contour it to look like what the rest of the area looks like, and that's why you don't see any of the large blocks down there today. There is only one block intact down there.

Signal: Laurena, if you were living in the Hawthorne-Inglewood area at the time, what was the reaction like?

Carter: When the dam broke? Personally, I couldn't believe it. I could not believe it. That big hunk of cement broke? To me it was unbelievable. I was shocked and I couldn't believe it.

Signal: Were people in Los Angeles talking about it?

Carter: Well, I heard it over the radio, that it had broke, and of course right away I thought, "Oh, I'll go back to see for myself." But I had to wait, because most of the roads in that area were closed. But as soon as I could get in there, I went in and I took the picture, then, of the piece that was standing in the middle.

Signal: Keith, what questions do you have? What's important in all of this?

Buttelman: The main questions she has answered, which is the time at which the photographs were taken. That's one of the important items here, is that these being taken two weeks before the failure could call into question a lot of things.

Signal: Such as?

Buttelman: If the timeline can be verified — and photographs usually speak for themselves, too. Photographs usually have a way of verifying when they were taken by themselves, be it people in the foreground or a lot of times, images that are in the background.
    You asked earlier about the height of the reservoir when the photographs were taken. There are definite benchmarks. They know what height the reservoir was at certain dates in the life of the St. Francis. So (the photographs) warrant a lot more investigation of them, because if that was a timeline, then why wasn't it mentioned at the coroner's inquest? It was never brought up.

Signal: You mean the fact that they were filling the cracks?

Buttelman: The fact that they were doing repair work on the dam two weeks before the failure. That would have been something worth investigating at that time. And then if there was a problem with it, why wasn't any word given downstream?
    Now, we're not at that point, obviously. But it does raise some interesting issues, and as I said, worthy of investigation of the photographs.

Signal: Laurena, anything you'd like to add?

Carter: I think you pretty well covered it.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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