Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

Dec. 15, 1963: An aerial photo taken from inside the Baldwin Hills Dam shows the collapsed section in the north wall. This photo was published in the Dec. 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: John Malmin / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: In a photo taken by 17-year-old Richard Levine, water begins to drain from the Baldwin Hills Reservior before a complete collapse of this section of the dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: ©1999 Richard N. Levine

Dec. 14, 1963: Water breaks through a gap at the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: ©1999 Richard N. Levine

Dec. 14, 1963: Water from the Baldwin Hills Dam pours down a ravine, washing out rows of homes. This photo was published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: ©1999 Richard N. Levine

Dec. 14, 1963: The Baldwin Hills Reservoir is nearly empty after the dam collapse.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

A map published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times shows the location of the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. The shaded area indicates where flooding occurred.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: ProQuest

Dec. 14, 1963: An aerial photo shows flooding from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. The reservoir is at the top of the photo. This photo was published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Nelson Tiffany / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: A Coast Guard helicopter rescues people stranded on the roof of a building at La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road after the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam. This photo was published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Nelson Tiffany / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: Rescued by helicopter from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse were Sol Zlotnikow, center, his wife, left, and their daughter. This photo was published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ed Gamer / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: A flooded Safeway parking lot is shown at dusk after the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: Police help residents after the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: A car is precariously propped against support wire after flooding caused by the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: Cars stacked by floodwaters can be seen in front of a gas station after the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: A car is caught in a ditch after flooding caused by the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: Cars are pushed up against a building at Rodeo Road and Genesee Avenue after flooding from the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 15, 1963: A car is pushed up against a house on Cloverdale Avenue a day after the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. This is the left portion of two-photo panorama published in the Dec. 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 14, 1963: Floodwaters from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse damaged this home on Cloverdale Avenue. This photo was published in the Dec. 15, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Cormier / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 15, 1963: Mr. and Mrs. David Matthews, left and center, and Harry Suvalle survey the scene at 3930 Cloverdale Ave., where one room of the house was knocked off by floodwaters from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. This photo was published in the Dec. 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 15, 1963: Ten-foot-deep gullies show exposed water and sewer lines in the 3900 block of Cloverdale Avenue the day after the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ed Gamer / Los Angeles Times

Dec. 15, 1963: Mrs. Jack Flatau, right, embraces Mrs. Gene Gilbert, whose Duray Place home, in background, was hit by floodwaters from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. This photo was published on the front page of the Dec. 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 15, 1963: Workers use heavy equipment to remove debris from Coliseum Street and Duray Place after flooding from the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse. This photo was published in the Dec. 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Dec. 3, 1970: An aerial photo, looking north of the former Baldwin Hills Dam, is shown. Today the location is a park.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times

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The 1963 Baldwin Hills Dam collapse

Ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary of the Dec. 14, 1963 Baldwin Hills Dam collapse, Los Angeles Times staff writer Bob Pool reported:

The Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed with the fury of a thousand cloudbursts, sending a 50-foot wall of water down Cloverdale Avenue and slamming into homes and cars on Dec. 14, 1963.

Five people were killed. Sixty-five hillside houses were ripped apart, and 210 homes and apartments were damaged. The flood swept northward in a V-shaped path roughly bounded by La Brea Avenue and Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards.

The earthen dam that created a 19-acre reservoir to supply drinking water for West Los Angeles residents ruptured at 3:38 p.m. As a pencil-thin crack widened to a 75-foot gash, 292 million gallons surged out.

It took 77 minutes for the lake to empty. But it took a generation for the neighborhood below to recover. And two decades passed before the Baldwin Hills ridge top was reborn.

The cascade caused an unexpected ripple effect that is still being felt in Los Angeles and beyond.

It foreshadowed the end of urban-area earthen dams as a major element of the Department of Water and Power’s water-storage system. It prompted a tightening of Division of Safety of Dams control over reservoirs throughout the state.

The live telecast of the collapse from a KTLA-TV Channel 5 helicopter is considered the precursor to airborne news coverage that is now routine everywhere.

The dam break was Richard N. Levine’s big break, too.

Levine was a 17-year-old Dorsey High School photography student who was doing homework at his house two miles from the dam when he heard one of the KTLA reports by helicopter pilot Don Sides and cameraman Lou Wolf.

He grabbed his own camera, jumped into his 1948 Plymouth and hurried toward the dam. He parked in what he hoped would remain a dry spot behind the Baldwin Hills Theater. Then he hitched a ride on a firetruck up Punta Alta Drive and soon found himself standing atop the threatened dam.

Nearby, DWP workers were examining the crack in the sloping, paved inside wall of the reservoir. Suddenly a warning was shouted.

“Somebody yelled ‘There she goes!’ and men started scrambling back toward where I was. The dam didn’t go that quickly — there was a kind of whirlpool at first and then pieces of it started disappearing,” Levine recalls.

The youngster captured a striking record of the dam failure, showing the progression of the collapse in a series of photos. Then he ran down the hill from the dam, documenting the wall of water crashing through homes on Cloverdale Avenue and Terraza Drive.

“Water was rolling and boiling like it was in a Colorado River gorge. Waves were washing away a row of homes. I was thinking these poor people are losing very nice houses. When I ran out of film I ran down the hill to my car. It was axle-deep in muddy water.”

Levine sold eight of his photos — which were later reprinted worldwide — to the Los Angeles Times for $200. He used the cash to buy a pair of lenses and an electronic flash for his Miranda T 35-millimeter camera. The incident launched a photojournalism career that included war coverage in Vietnam and newspaper work in the Los Angeles area.

Now 57, Levine turned to digital photo and computer work before relocating to Santa Fe, N.M. There he is a computer-support technician and fine-arts landscape photographer.

Back in Los Angeles last weekend, Levine revisited Baldwin Hills for the first time in years. “It was surreal. It’s changed — the same fence I shot pictures through is still there. But the top is all grass and trees instead of asphalt and concrete,” he said.

The reservoir was never rebuilt. Instead, L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn proposed in 1968 that it be turned into a park. Fifteen years later, the empty lakebed was partially filled in and the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area was created.

Many of those whose homes were destroyed never returned to Baldwin Hills. Some remained haunted by the experience — and the thought that hundreds could have died if the dam had collapsed without warning.

Cheryl Merrill was 3 when the dam failed and her home was destroyed. Her family rebuilt within a year. But recently she has tried to learn who alerted her family and her neighbors in time to run for their lives.

“Though it was a disaster, some person enabled a lot of people to escape in time. That foresight saved my life, as well as a lot of other people. I just want to find out the name of the man or woman who spotted the crack in the dam,” said Merrill, a website designer in San Francisco.

The hero, according to a Times report from 1963, was “appropriately a man named Revere” — Revere G. Wells, a caretaker at the reservoir.

At 11:15 a.m. the day of the collapse, Wells heard a gurgling noise and sounded the alarm to his boss. Supervisor Pat Daugherty in turn summoned engineer Richard Hemborg. An hour later, Hemborg was authorized by DWP manager Samuel Nelson to ask Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker to evacuate the area beneath the dam. Between 1:30 and 2 p.m. an evacuation zone was mapped out, and at 2:20 p.m., the first SigAlert aired.

Sixty motorcycle and patrol car officers were sent to knock on doors in the danger area. When the dam broke, 29 motorcycles were lost as police scrambled to housetops to escape the water. Eighteen residents trapped on rooftops and in debris were rescued by firefighters in helicopters.

Numerous hearings and investigations followed the collapse. Engineers argued over why the dam — hailed as a $10-million state-of-the-art structure when it was built in 1951 — failed. Many blamed an earthquake fault beneath the reservoir.

But federal geologists in 1976 concluded “exploitation of the Inglewood oil field” beneath Baldwin Hills caused land under the dam to sink.

The above photo gallery includes several images recently scanned from the original negatives. Most of The Times’ photographers used 120/220 film. At least one Times photographer shot 35mm film.

Levine, now retired, still lives in Santa Fe.

Bob Pool’s article was originally published in the Dec. 11, 2003, Los Angeles Times.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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2 Comments

  1. December 14, 2013, 4:18 pm

    Thanks Los Angeles Times, great pictures, as an employee of the So. Cal. Gas Co. at the time, I was there the day / night it happened, and several days after, you did an excellent job in reporting this story

    Again great job, and many thanks
    jwj1@ca.rr.com

    By: jjwj1jjwj1@ca.rr.com
  2. December 15, 2013, 11:47 am

    I WAS THERE AND TOLD TO LEAVE. WE LIVED ON THE CORNER OF WEATHERFORD AND CLOVERDALE. SINCE THE HOME WAS L SHAPED, WE LOST A GARAGE AND TWO BEDROOMS ALONG WITH A WATERLINE FOUR FEET HIGH THROUGHOUT THE HOUSE. EVERY APPLIANCE WAS TURNOVER AND FACE DOWN IN THE MUD. WE ENDED UP WITH A PIANO IN OUR BEDROOM FROM THE HOME ABOVE. A REAL SHOCKER. THE PATMAN'S

    By: PETE PATMAN

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