LAFD History – Los Angeles Dam Failures

March 31, 2017

gv_apr-2017_lafd-history-damsWith the heavy rains in California during February and the problem at the Oroville Dam with the precautionary evacuation of 200,000 people, I thought it would be interesting to look at dam failures in Los Angeles. We’ll look at the 1967 Baldwin Hills Dam collapse, the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake and the near failure of the Van Norman Dam, and the catastrophic collapse of the St. Francis Dam that killed more than 400 people in 1928.

The Baldwin Hills Dam Collapse December 14th, 1963

I was an Engineer at Fire Station 34 when the Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed but was off that day. I do remember coming back to work and seeing how far the water and mud flowed. FS 94 was hit hard and the cleanup took a while.

The Baldwin Hills Dam disaster occurred on December 14, 1963. It began with signs of lining failure, followed by increasingly serious leakage through the dam. After three hours the dam breached, releasing 250 million gallons of water, resulting in five deaths and the destruction of 277 homes. Vigorous rescue efforts averted a greater loss of life.

Firemen Save 18 Lives in Baldwin Hills Flood
This article appeared in the February, 1964 issue of the Fireman’s Grapevine.

gv_apr-2017_lafd-history-dams3On December 14th, 1963, improbable tragedy struck the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles. Lost homes, ruined property and even death flooded downward from the broken dam at the head of Cloverdale Road.

In the rushing disaster unwary residents were trapped. On roofs, in second floor rooms, on small insecure islands of debris, they signaled desperately for help. And help was swift to come.

Unique in the rescue effort was the work of the three helicopter pilots dispatched to the scene: Fireman Theodore M. “Bud” Nelson – Crash 90-C, Fireman Ross H. Reynolds – Crash 90-B and Fireman Howard L. Payne – Crash 90-C.

Eighteen persons were rescued and flown out to a safe location. At least six of these, and quite possibly more, could not have been rescued in any other way and would have been lost except for the LAFD helicopter.

Don Sides, KTLA-TV helicopter pilot and broadcaster, was flying over the flood area during the rescue operations. He saw the LAFD helicopter go into places and make rescues under conditions that required not only a very high degree of skill and flying efficiency but a great deal of courage to even attempt.”

From Firemen Ross H. Reynolds’ report: “Two elderly women were spotted clinging to the top of a six foot fence. The helicopter landed on a garage roof approximately seventy five feet from the women. Fireman Nelson remained in the helicopter while I proceeded with a lifeline toward the victims. The water at this point was five feet deep and flowing very swiftly.”

Describing another incident the report reads: “A woman was observed on a front porch waving frantically. It was possible to land the helicopter about 200 feet north of her on what remained of a front yard. The streets and sidewalks no longer existed, only rushing water. Upon reaching the woman, she said that she was a nurse with a heart patient who needed immediate attention. I carried the patient to the landing site.”

From another portion of Reynolds’ report: “With Firemen Payne riding as observer, we returned to the stranded people and made a landing on the roof of a two story apartment building. Fireman Payne left the helicopter and leaned over the edge of the roof to reach two infants who were handed to him.”

Most dramatic of all is the report of Fireman Bud Nelson: “When I arrived over the garage,” his report states, “the part where I originally thought I might be able to land had collapsed and was under water. The part of the garage that still looked strong enough to land on had trees limbs hanging over and not enough room for the rotor blades to clear. I hovered in with my skids about a foot above the roof and started to clip the smaller lower branches with the rotor blades. I was finally able to move in far enough to get a solid place for the skids.

“Two older women were up to their shoulders in mud and water and hanging on to a patio wall. The patio partially protected them from the very swift current, but they were in serious trouble and needed help soon to survive. I left a man on the garage roof and returned for him later.”

Nelson flew two of the victims to the top of the dam site, and then his report continues: “I told Reynolds about the two old ladies in the water. He obtained a rope and, although attired in expensive civilian clothes, volunteered to make the rescue attempt. When we reached the garage again Reynolds helped the man into the helicopter and immediately went to the rescue of the two older women.

“I dropped off the man and returned to the garage roof, trying to find a good solid spot to land because I could see that I would have to get out to help Reynolds. By the time I landed, Reynolds had the older of the two women inside of the patio. The water was still up to their arm pits, but the current was not bothering them inside the patio. I don’t know just how Reynolds got to them because all I remember seeing was a torrent of water racing between the garage and the back of the patio fence. I got out of the helicopter and worked my way across to where I could reach the older of the two women, and then we started back to the garage.”

To sum up, Chief Nelson’s report says it best: “These rescues involved not only the flying hazards but the problem of rescuing the victims from the water before getting them to the helicopter. Our men, with ropes tied to them, actually allowed themselves to be swept out by the swift current to a position for rescue of victims. It is my opinion that these men – Reynolds, Nelson, and Payne – not only proved beyond doubt the value and efficiency of our helicopter program but that they displayed a dedication to their profession and a courage that was beyond the normal call of duty.

The San Fernando/Sylmar Earthquake February 9, 1971 – The Van Norman Dam

An hour before sunrise on February 9, 1971, the San Fernando region was struck by one of the most devastating earthquakes in California history. With a Richter magnitude of 6.6, it claimed 65 lives and damage estimated at half a billion dollars It was California’s third worst earthquake in terms of lives lost, only exceeded by San Francisco, 1906 and Long Beach, 1933.

gv_apr-2017_lafd-history-dams1gv_apr-2017_lafd-history-dams2The greatest damage was near the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, where three hospitals were badly damaged (one of them accounting for the greatest loss of lives). Freeway interchanges collapsed (killing two men in a pickup truck under one fallen overpass), reservoirs were in danger of imminent failure, and many structures collapsed or caught fire.

The San Fernando quake could have been a catastrophe instead of just a costly disaster. That conclusion arises from its most striking episode: the near-collapse of the lower dam at the Van Norman reservoir. The 1,100-foot dam held 3.6 billion gallons of water, but it was only half full; the water level was 36 feet below the lip. The top 30 feet of the edifice crumbled, leaving the water only six feet from the top and fresh chunks of earth falling off with each aftershock.

With seismologists warning of heavier aftershocks, authorities ordered 80,000 people in an area bounded by the San Diego Freeway on the east, Victory Bl on the south, Balboa Bl on the west to evacuate. The evacuation lasted three days while engineers tried furiously to pump water from the dam. They succeeded in lowering the water level by about three feet a day. A UCLA study estimated that collapse of the dam could have killed between 71,600 and 123,400 people.

Frank’s notes: My Dad, Stan Borden was a Battalion Chief in the Valley at the time and was assigned to check on the status of the dam. He radioed back that it could possibly fail, setting in motion the evacuation order -the biggest in L.A.’s history. Several methods were used to lower the water level in the reservoir including LAFD engines pumping the water out.

The St. Francis Dam Collapse – March 12, 1928

The St. Francis Dam, completed in 1926, was a reservoir built as part of the city’s aqueduct water supply infrastructure. It was located in San Francisquito Canyon, about 40 miles northwest of Downtown, and approximately 10 miles north of Newhall.

gv_apr-2017_lafd-history-dams4On March 12, 1928, the dam catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood took the lives of as many as 400 people. The collapse is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history. The disaster marked the end of William Mulholland’s career.

Collapse and flood wave

Two and a half minutes before midnight, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed. There were no surviving eyewitnesses to the collapse, but at least five people passed the dam within the hour prior without noticing anything unusual.

Given the height of the flood wave, and that within 70 minutes the reservoir was virtually empty, the failure must have been sudden and complete. The main dam broke into several large pieces and numerous smaller pieces. All of these were washed downstream as 12.4 billion gallons of water began surging down San Francisquito Canyon.

The dam keeper and his family were the first casualties caught in the initially 140 feet high flood wave, which swept over their cottage a quarter mile downstream. The dam keeper may have been inspecting the structure immediately before its failure. Neither his nor his six-year-old son’s bodies were found.

The flood wave next destroyed the heavy concrete Powerhouse No. 2, taking the lives of 64 of the 67 workmen and their families who lived nearby. The mass of water followed the river bed and demolished Edison’s Saugus substation, cutting power to the entire Santa Clara River Valley. At least four miles of the state’s main north-south highway was under water and the town of Castaic Junction was being washed away. Approximately five miles downstream, a temporary Edison construction camp set up for a 150-man work crew was hit. In the confusion, Edison personnel had been unable to issue a warning and 84 workers perished.

Shortly before 1:30 a.m., a Santa Clara River Valley telephone operator learned that the dam had failed. She called a CHP officer who lived nearby, then began ringing the homes of those in danger. The CHP officer cris-crossed the streets in the danger zone with their sirens sounding. Within an hour the streets were empty, but little could be done for those on ranches and dairies in lowlands to the west of town.

The flood heavily damaged the towns of Fillmore, Bardsdale, and Santa Paula, before emptying both victims and debris into the ocean 54 miles downstream. Bodies were recovered as far south as the Mexican border; many were never found.

In a statement William Mulholland said, “I would not venture to express the cause of the St. Francis Dam disaster. Mr. Van Norman and I arrived at the scene and saw at once that the dam was completely out and that the torrential flood had left an appalling record of death and destruction in the valley below.”

Interesting note: The Van Norman reservoir was named for Harvey Van Norman who succeeded Mulholland as Chief Engineer of the Bureau of Water Works in 1929, holding that post until 1943.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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