Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Day The Baldwin Hills Dam Burst!

( Photo source: http://laist.com/attachments/la_kemp/Damnbreak1.jpg )

I. Introduction:

"On December 14, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir situated up in the Baldwin Hills began to crack. Within a few hours, the leak from the small crack had expanded to a gaping hole, releasing a sudden torrent of water that rushed down the Cloverdale Avenue canyon. Many expensive homes were destroyed and washed away. Most of Baldwin Vista below the canyon, including the historic Village Green community, was flooded as well. The crack in the dam was ultimately attributed to subsidence caused by overexploitation of the Inglewood Oil field. The disaster caused the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to phase out small local reservoirs, such as this one and the Silver Lake Reservoir. The dam was not repaired, and the basin was later filled in as part of Kenneth Hahn Regional Park."

( Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_Hills,_Los_Angeles )

Additional Historical Resource and Information:



In terms of the lifeguard response to this swift water event, we now know that this event was even earlier than the deployment to the Van Norman Dam at the north end of the San Fernando Valley in the immediate aftermath of the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 and that the Baldwin Hills incident was and maybe the very first multiple lifeguard agency swift water deployment in Southern California. Confirmed as present that day after the dam burst were L.A. County lifeguards, Santa Monica City lifeguards, and L.A. City lifeguards, not to mention the LAPD, the LACo Sheriff's Dept., the L.A. City Fire Dept., and LADWP.

This particular blog post came about after we published the recent story about the swift water deployment to the Van Norman Dam in the immediate aftermath of the Sylmar Earthquake on Feb. 9, 1971, as written by LACo Lifeguard Chief, Ret., Bob Burnside. After the publication of that story a few of our readers recalled the earlier Baldwin Hills Dam incident. Therefore, we felt it important to chronicle this even earlier swift water event. Many thanks to Jim Norris, Herb Barthels and Tom Viren for being among the first to mention this to us for our follow up and consideration.

The deployment by L.A. County lifeguards was the strongest and we received a great deal of emails and follow up from veteran LACo recurrents which we will share with you herein. We were also pleasantly surprised to hear from Herb Suskin, a Santa Monica City and LACo recurrent of many years, who told us that he and two of his colleagues at Santa Monica City deployed to the Baldwin Hills dam affected area with one of their department's vehicles and a dory in tow. The dory was not needed but the fact remains that Santa Monica City did deploy to this early swift water incident.

We also were thrilled to hear from veteran/retired L.A. City recurrent (and M.D.), Herb Barthels, Jr. who told us that on the day of the dam break he was at home watching it all unfold on television when he saw the tv news cameras focus in on an L.A. City lifeguard dept. Willy's jeep with four L.A. City lifeguards in it, all in uniform, which he recognized, including the L.A. City insignia or logo. L.A. City and later LACo Lt. Richard Heineman, who was on stand by for the City of L.A. during this event also recalls that two L.A. City lifeguard units were assigned to Ballona Creek to drive from Lincoln Blvd. to the ocean to check for bodies and any people in washed away vehicles, of which there were many. We also spoke to former Santa Monica City Captain, Jim Richards (and later Capt. Jim Richards with LACo at Zuma for many years), now retired in Florida and he said he started with Santa Monica in 1964 and didn't know anything about this incident in terms of lifeguard response, but it was sure fun to talk to him and so we asked him what he remembers about the "Zuma buoy swim" fitness routine and he said, "everybody made it!"... after which we both laughed.

In any case, we have been able to substantiate that three separate lifeguard agencies deployed to the Baldwin Hills Dam swift water incident in Dec. 1963.

The balance of this article will include the emails and remarks of some of our recurrent and permanent lifeguard corp who shared their first hand accounts of this event or what they witnessed or heard from colleagues.

From: Robert Burnside

Subject: Re: Baldwin Hills Dam Break
Date: February 8, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Well///Willie my boy...If you're going forward with another Dam bust...Just call on me old pal..I'm the Dam man... Cal and Howie, spoke about the old International... I vividly remember Haddock, Garr and I... sirens and red lights howling, heading from Zuma to the location immediately after the dam let go.. Embarrassing again... Code 3 and only going 40mph...

Call or email...if you need something... BB

Editor's note: We were able to follow up with Dick Haddock on Feb. 11th on the phone and Dick remembered clearly this deployment and confirms that he mustered with Bob Burnside and Garth Steiner, Code 3, in the infamous late 40's International Zuma Call Car, pedal to the metal and topping out at 40 mph! Once on scene at the LAPD Command Center, they were provided with boots and flashlights by the large discount store, Fedco, which was flooded. They were then assigned the task of starting from the top by the dam, which had now disgourged all of its water, and to start looking for bodies. During this search, Dick says that they started to get shocked while in the water from the electrical current until they were able, with their walkie-talkies, to get through to the Command Station to have the LADWP shut off the electricity to the area. Dick also recalls that houses and trees were ripped out by the dam break and that they helped some elderly residents and escorted them to Sheriff's vehicles for transport to the first aid stations.


Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2011
From: Jim Norris
Subject: dam breaks
To: lifeguard_alumni


...... December 14, 1963 Baldwin Hills Dam break - 3 inches of water and flooded Fedco.

Multiple services - from Rosecrans we were much too late to do anything but wade in the remaining water

jim norris


From: Jim Norris

Subject: Re: dam breaks
Date: February 8, 2011
To: Will Maguire


We arrived late in the day after very confusing directions from headquarters. There was very little coordination from anyone at that time. The water had receded and only a trickle was coming down the hill. By the time of our arrival the water around Fedco was around 6" deep and receding into Ballona Creek - no one needed help that we could see, there was nothing for us to do and we left after about a 1/2 hour.

Talk to Jerry Cunningham.



*** Editor's note: I called Jerry Cunningham and he told me he watched the dam break on tv from his couch at home...... but he did give me a couple of names of L.A. City guards to follow up with to see if they deployed as well. Incidentally, I heard from a Santa Monica City guard, Herb Suskin, who said he deployed along with a couple other guards, as follows:

From: Diane / Herb Suskin
Subject: Baldwin Hills Dam Break
Date: February 8, 2011
To: Will Maguire


I was one of the lifeguards who responded to the Baldwin Hills Dam break back in 1963. I was working for Santa Monica at the time but later on was an L. A. County Guard for many years (mostly seasonal then). I don't remember a whole lot about the incident except that there were about three of us who towed a dory down there with one of the lifeguard vehicles to see if we could help in some way. We looked around for victims to assist, but there wasn't much we could do by the time we got down there. We never actually had to use the dory. That's about all I remember. I don't recall who the others were who were there with me, but I do remember seeing a bunch of cars in a parking lot that had been washed into a pile against a lamp post. Wish I could help more.

Herb Suskin


From: Tom Viren
Subject: Baldwin Hills Incident
Date: February 9, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Hi Will

I was at college when it happened, but worked shortly afterward. As I recall, Dick Haddock and Jack Campbell took a dory to the incident. The water was shallow, but people still need assistance getting to dry land. Bob Burnside may have a photo of the Dory at the location.

It interesting that you have requested this information. I just read Bob's account of the Earthquake incident, and said to myself this wasn't the first time we did flood rescue, it was Baldwin Hills.

By the way, I was at the Sylmar Dam incident. Jack Campbell and I took Unit 4 (the Zuma sand unit) and picked up the Boston Whaler from Paradise Cove (It was used to get to the moored Baywatch) and drove to the scene. The strangest thing was driving down the 101 and 405 freeways with no other cars on the road. It was a cold night and we took turns sleeping in the cab. Our Job was to rescue the police that had taken up looter prevention post on each block of the residential area below the dam.

In those days there was no such thing as payed overtime, but we actually got paid for this gig because it was a national disaster. I couldn't believe it when I got a couple hundred extra dollars in my next check. I remember I bought my first stereo with the extra cash.

There were other time when we performed do it yourself swift water rescue, before we actually had any training. One big one I can remember was when the Sepulveda Basin flooded in a big rain storm. City Fire ask for our help, and we sent teams with IRBs to the scene. I didn't go but I remember Shelly Butler and some others made a great rescue. A city Fire Engine got flooded out on the Burbank overpass, and we had a photo of our IRB with a tow line attached to the front of it, in a mock rescue.

This incident was the catalyst that started the two lifeguard assigned to each Fire Rescue unit in the valley before we ever started working with the County in the late 80s early 90s.

Great job on the blog, a great way to reach all the lifeguards.

Tom Viren


From: Carol Hogan
Subject: Baldwin Hills Dam Break
Date: February 9, 2011
To: Will Maguire

My husband, Bob Hogan, was a permanent lifeguard at the time and he was deployed to the Baldwin Hills Dam. He doesn't do email, but I can have him tell me his stories and email them to you, if you like.

Carol Hogan


From: Mike McDonald

Subject: Baldwin Hills Disaster
Date: February 9, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Hi My name is Mike McDonald. I was a LACO recurrent lifeguard for 46 yrs. I was 'there' !

I was working Hdqts down at our temporary building in Redondo Bch when we saw the dam break on TV. Minutes later, we started rounding up all available equipment and personnel to rush to the scene.

I was one of many lifeguards from LACO that responded to the disaster. I was on scene for the entire time. Myself and another guard, Tom Hilligas, were attached to a fire unit and moved to a location next to Ballona Creek for the purpose of assisting in any water rescues that needed to be made. We didn't see much action, but later, heard a lot of rescue stories from other lifeguards.

I've got many stories pertaining to that day. I'm not sure what you want. It might be many pages. This topic is starting to warm up my memory!


From: Richard Fletcher
Date: February 12, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Hi Will,

Unfortunately, I can't help you on the Baldwin Hills event. You might try Tom Hargett or Dick Heineman. Also, I'd recommend Larry Hoffman who worked for a number of years as an attorney with the L.A. DA's office. I am no longer in touch with these alumni, but if they've made their presence known to the alumni association, or County Recurrent, I'd encourage you to contact them.

There's a couple of other guys, Alexander Keith and Bert Fickerson, who might be resources as well.

When it rains it pours. Max Curtis also comes to mind. Max doubled as an LACO Firefighter when I was at Del Rey. He might turn out to be one of your top resources.

I look forward with anticipation to the new article.

Best wishes,



From: Fred Findlay
Subject: RE: Hey Fred! Re: 1963 Baldwin Hills Dam Lifeguard Deployment
Date: February 12, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Hi will. I remember the incident but i did not have any involvement in it. I passed the letter on to Richard Heineman and Tom Estlow. My e-mail address for Darrel Willey is old and did not work.
good luck with a worthwhile project. fred s. findlay


From: Tom Estlow
Subject: Re: Tom; Re: Request for info. re 1963 Baldwin Hills Dam Blowout
Date: February 15, 2011
To: Will Maguire


1963 was Fred and my rookie year on the beach, and I don't think anybody back then (Venice Headquarters) would have called any rookies out unless they were standing there....or washing a truck. I was in between working Hansen Dam most of the time. The beaches were pretty geographically organized, in that I don't think Will Rogers or San Pedro crews would be involved. Venice and Del Rey were the close ones. Venice had Hal Dunnigan, Darrell Willey, Fuzzy Knight (all of whom were getting ready to start teaching careers) and Al Hart. Del Rey were, Don Rohrer, Freddie Beckner, and I think Bill Prewitt and Eddie Hoffman and a couple of others I can't recall.

Hope this helps.



From: Kathleen Matthews (daughter of Retired L.A. Chief, Bill O'Sullivan)
Subject: RE: Follow up: Re: Baldwin Hills Dam Blowout
Date: February 15, 2011
To: Will Maguire

Hi Will,
I talked to Dad and his first recollection was no LA City Lifeguard involvement but he'd like to let his mind percolate a little to see if any thoughts on the event bubble up to the surface. He suggested speaking with Dick Heineman. He might be able to help. I'll speak to Dad later tonight and see if he remembers anything more.


--- and

Hi again Will,

I went online to see what might help jog Dad's memory. There is a YouTube clip of the KTLA helicopter coverage of the dam breaking from a History Channel special. The clip is only 3 minutes long though. Maybe KTLA would share more of the coverage from their archives with you? Journalist to journalist as it were?

Another web page highlighted excerpts from the Fire Department report detailing their exploits. Lifeguards were not mentioned, only dramatic fire helicopter rescues.
I shared the info that I read with Dad but he can't remember any LA City Lifeguard involvement. He thinks either Dick Heineman or Tom Hargett may remember something... He thinks Tom lives in Las Vegas but doesn't have his number. The Alumni Association might be able to help with that.

Sorry we couldn't be more helpful. Would love to see your final article though.



From: Henry Stuart
Subject: The Baldwin Hills Dam Break
Date: February 14, 2011
To: Will Maguire


My name is Henry Stuart and I was on duty at 2nd Street, Hermosa when I was taken out of the tower to respond to the dam break. I, along with Carter Smart, and John Reinhardt took one of the lifeguard trucks to the north side of Baldwin Hills. L.A.P.D. was coordinating the efforts.

The first thing that was done was issue any lifeguards canvas basketball shoes to wear. because we had to walk in a lot of mud. For the most part we were sent separately out among the wreckage of apartment houses and other dwellings to see if there were dead bodies or anyone that needed assistance. For the most part, we didn't find anything.

Realistically, everything bad that happened had already happened. At the end, we were fed sliced beef on rolls from Tracton's Restaurant.

Henry Stuart


Editor's note: Since we began to unearth this earlier swift water deployment in Dec. 1963 and discovered that 3 lifeguard agencies were involved, we have been trying to find out the names of the L.A. City lifeguards on scene or otherwise involved. To date, we have only been able to confirm that L.A. City guards were involved in this deployment, but not any names. We are hopeful that the publication of this article will reveal some of these names so that these lifeguards can be acknowledged.

Several conversations and multiple emails have been flying out to L.A. City lifeguard personnel. To be specifically acknowledged in their efforts to help us in our research have been Darrell Willey, Dee Golles, Fred Findlay, Bob Williams, Bud Williams, Kathleen Matthews, Tom Estlow and Richard Heineman.

In a phone conversation with Dick Heineman last nite, Feb. 15th, we learned that Dick was called in to Venice HQ and was on "Stand By" status throughout the initial hours of this incident. Dick also told us that one to two L.A. City vehicles and lifeguard personnel were placed on patrol duty along the road above Ballona Creek from Lincoln Blvd. to the ocean with specific instructions to look for people, bodies, vehicles and people in vehicles as there were many vehicles that got washed away and into Ballona Creek by the flood of water from the dam. Dick also informed us that he had spoken to Bill O'Sullivan who had no information to add. Same thing re Don Rohrer. So that is where we are going to leave it for now.

It is anticipated that these recollections above may help our readership to recall other names of lifeguards and perhaps we will get lucky in identifying the L.A. City lifeguards on scene that day that Herb Barthels saw on the tv news as the event was unfolding, in an L.A. City red Willy's Jeep with their L.A. City insignias visible and recognizable by Herb.



Many Thanks to Nick Steers for his cooperation and fielding many email requests for phone numbers or emails for our alumni. Thanks as well to all the guards we've mentioned and included above for their participation and efforts to help this research project along.

The Baldwin Hills Dam incident on Dec. 14, 1963 may very well turn out to be the first multiple lifeguard agency swift water deployment.
Time will tell. On the other hand, we are half expecting an email from LACo Veteran Recurrent and Prof. Arthur C. Verge, Ph.d, History, to forward us information on the March 12, 1928 St. Francis Dam Break, just north of the present city of Santa Clarita, that he deployed on, er, has researched... Hey Now!

*** *** ***

Until next time.....

Will Maguire, Editor
"County Recurrent" News

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1 comment:

William Maguire said...

When the Baldwin Hills Dam broke I was watching it at home with my dad. I was 8 years old at the time and the tv news showed an aerial shot of the Fedco parking lot and the Fedco store and it was all flooded under several feet of water. I remember looking at my dad and saying something like, "Dad, that's the store you take us to sometimes on saturdays!" There is even a photo of my older sister and I that was taken at this same Fedco on a Saturday earlier that same year by the Fedco staff that would take photos of kids who were lost or got separated from their parents, or in our case, because my sister, Nanette, recognized this as an opportunity to have our names announced over the public address system and to have our picture taken. The next thing I asked my dad after seeing the flooded Fedco parking lot was something like, "Does this mean you won't be bringing home any more of those really good frozen pizzas?"...