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25 Years After the Day the Dam Burst : Baldwin Hills Residents Remember the Sudden Devastation and Horror When a Reservoir's Waters Inundated Their Quiet Neighborhood

December 15, 1988|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Dec. 14, 1963, was a clear and sunny Saturday.

"It was a day for shopping," recalled Laura Treiger, who said she left her Baldwin Hills house about noon, thinking life finally was returning to a semblance of normal after the assassination of President Kennedy three weeks earlier.

"We were just getting our equilibrium back," she said. "It was a beautiful day, you couldn't ask for a better one. Everybody was out. It was the Christmas and Hanukkah season and there was a lot of activity."

On that day, as Treiger and thousands of other Baldwin Hills residents were preparing for the holidays, workers at the Baldwin Hills Reservoir discovered a crack in the dam about the width of a pencil.

Within a few hours the crack had become a 75-foot-wide breach in the earthen dam, unleashing 300 million gallons of water, mud, concrete and other debris on the homes below. The torrent destroyed or damaged more than 300 houses and buildings, resulted in five deaths and caused numerous injuries and more than $12 million in damage. Hundreds were left homeless, escaping with only the clothes they were wearing.

Today, 25 years later, there is little evidence of the torrent that swept through the Baldwin Vista community starting at Cloverdale Avenue near the base of the dam and rumbling downhill in a fan-shaped pattern of destruction to Rodeo Road between La Cienega Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

The city eventually compensated the property owners for their losses. Most of the houses were rebuilt and the roads repaired. But the reservoir was left empty.

And soon the only visible reminder of the disaster--the dam and the empty 19-acre reservoir--will be filled in as part of a county project to extend picnic areas in the 300-acre Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Park.

The devastation in Baldwin Hills made headlines worldwide. But as often happens, it was soon overshadowed by other tragedies. Today, it remains a haunting memory for many of those who lived through it.

Laura and Henry Treiger still live in their house on Cloverdale Avenue, a quiet street that provides a spectacular view of downtown Los Angeles. They are among a handful of residents who have not moved on.

Laura Treiger said she was out shopping when the police began a door-to-door evacuation of the more than 1,000 residents in the area because the dam was about to go. Her husband was home with their 3-year-old son, Brian.

"The police came and told my husband he had to leave, but he thought he had time to shave before going," she said. "He was in the house shaving when a policeman walked in the house a second time and said he had to leave now."

As he was leaving she said, her brother, Bernard Krem, called and asked Treiger to check his house across the street, where his housekeeper was watching his 7-month-old son. The housekeeper could not speak English and didn't understand the police warnings to leave.

'It Was Close'

Treiger ran over and picked up the housekeeper and his nephew. "They were able to get out before the dam went, but it was close," Treiger said.

Krem, who now lives in another section of West Los Angeles, said he still shudders when he thinks about what could have happened. "From time to time I still count my blessings," he said. "We were lucky. We lost our entire house, but we could have lost more."

Krem said the waiting was the most frightening experience. "I saw my house destroyed on the television, but I didn't learn until later that my son had been saved," he said.

Rhea Coskey, another Cloverdale Avenue resident, also experienced terrifying moments waiting for word on whether her 1-year-old daughter had been rescued. Coskey and her husband, Hal, had left their daughter with a housekeeper while they attended a wedding.

She said her father-in-law heard a news broadcast of the evacuation and rushed to the area to pick up her daughter and housekeeper.

"When my father-in-law got there, the police were ready to drive my daughter and housekeeper to the emergency shelter which was set up at Dorsey High School," she said.

Houses Flattened

The water racing from the dam flattened the houses owned by the Krems and Coskeys, washing away all their possessions. Both families moved away from the neighborhood.

The Treigers' house was spared major damage when houses above diverted the path of the destructive force. "We felt it was a miracle that our house was somehow saved," Treiger said.

Ann Seright, a resident on Cochran Avenue, moved back to the community after rebuilding her house in 1966. Seright said she and her late husband, John, were out of town when the evacuation effort began. She said they were able to get back to the house in time to gather some belongings before the dam collapsed. The water cascaded down the ravine with "a force so strong it ripped the wall-to-wall carpeting off the floor," she said.

"There were chunks of concrete in our bedroom," she said. "We were lucky. If we had been there it would have killed us."

The five who did lose their lives were unable to escape the torrent. One woman drowned in her car after it was trapped in the swirling waters, and the bodies of four other people were found in the debris hundreds of yards from their homes.

The contents of Seright's house were washed away and found a quarter of a mile away. "We saw my wedding dress and my husband's Army suit about a block from the house," she said. "The wedding dress and the suit were together. In a way it, it was touching.

"All I can say is, it was some Christmas, one that I'll never forget."

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