It was a moment of reflection for families, elected officials and many others as they bowed their heads in silence at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, remembering that awful day, December 14, 1963 when the old Baldwin Hills Reservoir collapsed. More than 280 million gallons of water gushed into Baldwin Hills, scooping up homes and vehicles and killing five people and the tragedy forever changed the nature of emergency response in Los Angeles.
Although 50 years later, while birds sang in the sunny field now called Janice’s Green Valley, it was difficult not to contrast the view with the destruction that once blighted the landscape.
“It was a day of tragedy, but also a day where the true spirit and strength of Angelenos shone,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a co-host of the event. “Residents, families and communities came together – literally wading through the water and the mud – and rebuilt. And it was then that my predecessor, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, came up with the vision to turn a site of devastation into one of hope – and by 1983 he opened the beautiful park that we all enjoy today.”
The dam had been built on an active fault line and when it breached, it took only 77 minutes for all the water to pour out into Cloverdale Avenue, La Brea Avenue, La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards. The tragedy also marked the first time a television station—KTLA—used a helicopter to cover a disaster as it unfolded, something that is now a ubiquitous part of LA culture.
Following the disaster, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn began to set aside funding for a park that would include the former site of the reservoir. The 308-acre state-owned park opened as Baldwin Hills State Recreation Area on Nov. 14, 1983, and was officially renamed for Supervisor Hahn in 1988.
Tom Bradley, who later would become L.A.’s first black mayor, was the district’s new councilman at the time, and he went door-to-door warning residents of danger as the water-releasing crack was widening. Police cars were swept along rivers of mud as officers scrambled out to warn residents.
The father of Barbara Whitaker, a 76-year-old retired executive assistant from Irvine, was one of those who died.
“Mom got across to the car, but Dad went back to see if he’d locked the front door. The water just picked him up and carried him off,” Whitaker told the Los Angeles Times. “Mom held onto a tree and was rescued by a helicopter.”
Fred Kong, now an 81-year-old retired city inspector, was shopping in the nearby Fedco discount store when the dam burst. “Water started coming in, and I didn’t pay any attention until it got to my ankles. Then they announced over the P.A. to get out right away, and people started running,” Kong noted in the newspaper. The Baldwin Hills of 2013 looks quite different than it did 50 years ago, with more improvements such as upgrades to picnic shelters, and construction on segments of
the Park to Playa Trail that will run throughout the park and down Stocker Avenue, one day connecting the Baldwin Hills all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In addition, the design on a nature center in Blair Hills has begun.
At the end of the tribute, a plaque was unveiled honoring the five men and women who lost their lives in the flooding that followed the dam collapse at 3:38 p.m.: Hattie Schwartz, Maurice Clifton Carroll, Arch Young, Orra G. Strathearn and Archie V. MacDonald.
“This is a wonderful tribute,” said John Wicker, chief deputy director of the LA County Department of Parks and Recreation. “And this plaque will make a great addition to this park.”