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A Job Where Success Means Sorrow : Floods: Crew members searching for a father and son caught in a flash flood have grieved as they worked. The man's body was found Tuesday.

March 17, 1994|MIKE CARLSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the past week and a half, every time the diesel revved and the blade lowered to take another chunk out of the mountain of mud that filled the Bailey Canyon Wilderness Park debris basin, all eyes focused on the bulldozer.

Conversations stopped. Heads turned. Lungs dragged in cigarette smoke and held it, exhaling only when the blade lifted clear of the muck and the dozer rumbled back to gouge out another load of mud.

That didn't necessarily mean everyone was ready Tuesday morning about 8 a.m., when county crews working the bulldozer unearthed the body of John Henderson, 33, who disappeared with his 9-year-old son March 6 during a flash flood at the Sierra Madre park.

It's been a long, painful vigil for the workers digging day after day in the mud in search of the bodies, knowing that success meant putting a tragic end on the story of a doting father who took the son he had raised alone since infancy for a Sunday walk in the park. Crews continued searching Wednesday for Matthew Henderson, who with his father was swept away by a vast wall of muddy water that tumbled through the canyon.

"It gets really hard to keep your composure," said David Roth, a crewman last week on the 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. shift, as he leaned on one of the floodlights set up to provide light for night work and smoked a cigarette. "I really sympathize with the family."

Roth, 25, said the pair's deaths affected him deeply because his girlfriend is a waitress at what was the Hendersons' favorite restaurant, a Coco's Family Restaurant in Arcadia.

"She knew Matt, she's been waiting on them for years," he said. "She's pretty upset."

After the flood, the boy's extended family came to the restaurant as usual, and included breakfast for Matthew in the order, he said. They left the boy's favorite breakfast meal, a grilled cheese sandwich, on the table when they left.

Workers discussed how hard it was to tell their own 9- and 10-year-olds what Daddy was digging for at the debris basin.

"My kids think I'm this big hero up here," said crew foreman Paul Turner. "It's hard to explain to them what I'm really doing."

The 48-year-old Turner, like many others on his crew, lives far away from the Sierra Madre work site. He has to drive home to Norco, near Corona, every night, and he can count on one hand the hours he sleeps.

Turner was visibly upset when Sierra Madre city officials informed him Monday that he would have to scale back his search for the bodies from 24 hours a day to 12 hours a day after neighbors complained about the noise from the dump trucks and heavy equipment.

Despite pleas from the Henderson family, who have kept vigil over the debris basin since John and Matthew were lost March 6, and statements from neighbors in support of letting the digging continue, Sierra Madre Mayor Clem Bartolai announced Monday that too many residents are bothered by the round-the-clock digging to allow it to go on. Crews were cut back to shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Turner said.

Crew member Jay Crosby just shook his head as he watched county coroner crews haul the remains of what family members believed to be John Henderson's body out of the mud Tuesday. His noon-to-midnight shift was forced to stop six hours early Monday night, and the body was found two hours into the morning shift Tuesday.

"We could have found him last night," he said. "We quit one shift too early."

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