December 14 Marked The Sixtieth Anniversary of the Baldwin Hills Dam Collapse
277 Homes Destroyed
January 11, 2024
On 14 December 1963, however, signs of lining failure began showing in the dam, with water from the reservoir leaking through the dam's east abutment.
Around 11:15 A.M. on December 14, 1963, during a routine daily inspection, the reservoir's caretaker noticed that water had begun draining from the pipes beneath the asphalt membrane liner. Concerned by the unusual circumstance, the caretaker and the operating engineer engaged the outlet works designed to lower the reservoir in emergency situations. Because the reservoir would take approximately 24 hours to drain safely and completely, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) asked that police execute an evacuation downstream. Within four hours of the initial signs of danger, approximately 1,600 downstream residents had been evacuated from their homes.
In the meantime, LADWP personnel worked furiously to clear debris from the emergency discharge pipes and stop the interior face of the dam from eroding. Despite their efforts, a section of the Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed at 3:38 P.M. unleashing a wave of destruction on the town below.
Less than an hour and a half later, water had stopped flowing from the opening in the dam leaving the Baldwin Hills Reservoir nearly empty. Only after the reservoir was drained was it revealed that the asphalt liner between the embankment and reservoir's contents had cracked allowing water to penetrate and erode the soil beneath it. There was much speculation of the primary cause(s) of the crack during the investigation of the Baldwin Hills Dam failure. The crack could have been caused by the movement of the schist below the dam, a combination of that natural phenomenon and the injection of pressurized liquid into the oil field near the dam, or the heavy equipment used during construction.
Though the Baldwin Hills Reservoir and Dam failed, the emergency action implemented by the caretaker, operating engineer, LADWP, and evacuation personnel was a great success. Routine maintenance of the dam led to the early discovery of the deficiency. While the failure of the dam resulted in the death of five individuals, the early detection and subsequent evacuation lowered the resulting death toll from potentially as high as 1,500.
Within three hours, the dam was breached, releasing some 250 million gallons of water into nearby neighborhoods and destroying 277 homes. Rescue efforts during the dam breach saved many lives, and in total, the disaster only killed five people. Pacific Ocean water along with debris from the destroyed homes flowed into Ballona Creek then through Culver City out to the Pacific Ocean
The Baldwin Hills Reservoir area was repurposed as a community park, named Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area named after the late Kenneth Hahn, longtime supervisor of the 2nd district of the Lods Angeles County Board of Supervisor though recently there have been discharges of oilfield gases at the site. Some consider this to be the result of continued oilfield injection at the Inglewood and Stocker-LaBrea oil fields (Stocker-LaBrea is also nearby). There is also significant continued ground movement along the faults in the area, which some also attribute to oil field activity. However, the Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP), the current operator of the oil fields, continues to assert that oil field activity does not affect fault movements, even as they continue to inject water – to aid in oil recovery – at pressures high enough to cause hydraulic fracturing of the geologic strata.
The following is an account of the Collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam from the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archives:
Firemen Save 18 Lives in Baldwin Hills Flood
On the afternoon of December 14th, 1963, with swift suddenness, improbable tragedy struck the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles.
Lost homes, ruined property and even death flooded downward on a broad river of rushing water from the broken dam at the head of Cloverdale Road. Automobiles, fragments of houses, and chunks of concrete were rolled and jammed like logs down the flume of the flood's path to the bottom and deposited in incongruous heaps on the ruins of Village Green, which minutes before had been a quiet Saturday-relaxed apartment community.
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. Distinguished among the rescuers were Fire Department members who reported to the scene. Their training, courage and knowledge of how to act in emergency situations made their help more significant than that of any other agency.
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.
The story is best introduced by excerpts from the official report of Battalion Chief Lynn W. Nelson.
"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 fire dep't. helicopter.
"Mr. Don Sides, KTLA-TV helicopter pilot and broadcaster, was flying over the flood area during almost all of the rescue operations. He personally saw and reported on much of the activity of the fire dep't. helicopter.
"Mr. Sides is a helicopter pilot of long standing and fully appreciated the hazards and flying problems involved. In conversation with him he stated that he saw the fire dep't. 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. He felt that no other pilot present, and certainly not himself, had the training and the ability to make the rescues performed by our pilots."
Incidents quoted from official reports of the pilots speak for themselves of heroism.
From Firemen Ross H. Reynolds' report: "Two elderly women were spotted in the Baldwin Hills Village area 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: "There was no problem in finding people who needed assistance, only in determining where the need was the greatest. A woman was observed on a front porch waving frantically. It was possible to land the helicopter about two hundred feet north of her location on what remained of a front yard. The streets and sidewalks no longer existed, only rushing water. Upon reaching the woman, she informed me that she was a nurse and had 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 . . ."
And another . . . "At 5:10 p.m. a man was observed at a second floor window unable to get out because of debris piled against the door. The building was crumbling and only three walls remained. A landing was made on a sandbar, surrounded by swift flood waters, in a courtyard adjacent to the building . . . Fireman Payne left the helicopter to assist the woman . . ."
Most dramatic of all is the report of Fireman Bud Nelson. In a few short paragraphs the rescue drama unfolds. Bud had sighted people in distress, and returned from a mission to rescue them: "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 on the North and East sides and the limbs hung over the garage just enough so that there was not enough room for the rotor blades to clear.
I decided to gamble a little as the water was still getting deeper 9about 8 or 9 feet deep by now). I hovered in very slowly from the Southwest corner of the garage with my skids about 1 to 2 feet above the roof and started to clip the smaller lower branches from the trees 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 or fence by the apartment next to the garage. 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, then his report continues: "Fireman Pilot Ross Reynolds (with whom I had made previous arrangements before leaving Van Nuys Airport) met me at this time and I told him about the two old ladies in the water. He quickly obtained a rope and although attired in expensive civilian slacks, shoes and white shirt 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 . . .
"As soon as I dropped off the man I returned to the garage roof and clipped a few more branches while trying to find a good solid spot to land because this time I could see that I would have to get out of the helicopter to help Reynolds. By the time I had landed, Reynolds had the older of the two women inside of the patio and was lifting the other one into 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 over to them in the first place because all I remember seeing was a torrent of water racing between the garage and the back of the patio fence when he got out of the helicopter.
"When I got out of the helicopter to help a lot of floating rubble had lodged between the garage and the apartment against a tree and the patio wall. I worked my way across this to where I could reach the older of the two women, and then we started back to the garage."
There is more--much more--that tells of resourcefulness and devotion to the saving of lives. To sum up, Chief Nelson's report says it best.
"May I call to your attention," he says, "that these rescues involved not only the flying hazards but, in many cases, 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. I do not differentiate between the men on specific rescues because each man risked his life several times during the day . . .
"It is my opinion that these men--Reynolds, Nelson, and Payne--not only proved beyond doubt the value and efficiency of our helicopter program and the training that has gone into it, but that they displayed a dedication to their profession and a courage that was beyond the normal call of duty. They each placed their lives on the line time and time again, without regard to their own safety to save the lives of citizens of this city, and were successful in so doing."
Parts of this story were from an articlethat appeared in thethe February, 1964 issue of the Fireman's Grapevine.