Day of the Deadly Mud : 1969 Floods: Tragedy and Heroism Mix

Times Staff Writer

Robert Schrowe never saw his wife’s final heroic act--saving the life of a pregnant woman just before being crushed to death beneath tons of mud and debris that plunged through the Silverado Canyon Fire Station on that February morning in 1969.

A tree trunk had torn through the rear wall, opening it to the cascading mud. In the frenzy, the couple became separated.

“We were all clamoring about (afterward), trying to make sure everyone was OK,” Schrowe recalled recently. He was trying to bore through the wall when his friend, Bob Morris, told him his wife’s body had just been pulled out.

“Bob came up to me as I started to break the wall to get the ones inside. He told me what Janie had done. . . .

“He saved me from having to suffer more pain.”

Twenty years ago today, massive rainstorms and floods created one of the worst natural disasters in Orange County history.


Five people were killed and 17 injured in the Silverado Canyon mudslide, the worst of many throughout Southern California. For a solid month, an average of 7 inches of rain had fallen each day, swelling creeks and flooding streets throughout the region.

In Silverado Canyon, a community of about 1,000 homes north of Mission Viejo near Irvine Lake, cars and houses had been floating down the canyon road for 3 days.

By Feb. 25, the flooding had caused nearly $1 million in damage in more than a dozen cities, wrecking hundreds of homes and businesses and leaving scores of residents homeless.

100-Year Storm

It was a 100-year storm, a rare, devastating storm that is expected to occur only once every century. But the devastation from the ’69 flood forced officials and builders to seek ways to prevent the damage and death when the next flood occurs.

The county Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has since established a flood-control center in Santa Ana that studies the potential flooding and rainfall patterns throughout Orange County.

And most cliff-top homes are now equipped with special drains and ditches to handle the runoff from heavy rains and help prevent mudslides, said Alan Nestlinger, the hydrology section chief for the EMA.

But there were no safeguards then to help the 35 Silverado Canyon residents seeking refuge from the storm in the small adobe fire station.

Orange County Fire Capt. John Sleppy and his wife Sharon had watched their canyon home float down the street the day before. They were in the station that morning, she in the kitchen and he in front.

‘Like a Dream’

“It was like a dream. One minute I heard my wife say, ‘The water’s changing direction, running closer to the station.’ The next minute, ‘Bam!’ ” he recalled this week.

Rain-loosened soil had slipped from the steep slope behind the station and lumbered down the cliff. It uprooted an oak tree that then became a battering ram, crashing into the station’s back wall. “When the tree hit the wall, people ran

every which way trying to get out of the mud’s way,” Schrowe said. “It was so fast, we had no time to think.”

Schrowe, then assistant fire chief at the volunteer-run station, was with two other people in the station’s office when the mud pushed the room, intact, into two fire engines in the front of the station, dragging some people under the vehicles, which protected them from the mud.

Sleppy was not so lucky.

Standing near the rear of the building, he managed to push a young boy out one of the station’s side doors before mud filled the building from floor to ceiling. Sharon was buried nearby, seriously injured when she was crushed under fallen ceiling beams.

They were among 10 people who were caught near the fireplace when the mud flowed in. Some of them were saved by pieces of furniture that had fallen on top of them, creating a barrier from the debris.

Montell DeWitt, Richard Black, Robert Hendricks and Max Nell were not among the survivors.

Moments before DeWitt died, he spoke to Sleppy.

“He kept saying that he was OK and not to worry, and then all of a sudden he stopped,” Sleppy said.

‘Pinned by My Leg’

Marc Hawkins, then a 17-year-old seasonal volunteer firefighter, had cut classes to help sandbag the canyon area. He was in the front of the station when the slide hit.

“I was pinned by my leg and took about 20 minutes to yank my foot out of my boot to get free,” he said. “It seemed like forever.”

He said that as they remained imprisoned inside the building, “the creek rose up to the station and took fire helmets and equipment down the road. . . .”

Hawkins and others who were able to escape the slide “were trying to get ourselves together and scrape up what we could to help those stuck on the inside,” he said.

They joined Marines from the nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in trying to dig out Sleppy and others buried in the building.

Field-Type Hospital

“The Marines landed a small helicopter, took some people out and set up a field-type hospital in an abandoned house to treat the injured,” Hawkins said. Meanwhile, Schrowe and other volunteers used a jackhammer to break the wall and dig out the buried, while Hawkins climbed through a nearby window to work from the inside.

“All I can remember is Jane Wareham screaming for help, saying that she was 8 months’ pregnant and didn’t want to lose her baby, and Captain Sleppy being buried under there and coaching us about the first aid he taught us,” said Hawkins, 37.

Sleppy broke several bones and was comatose for almost a month. It was a year before the fire captain could return to work. His efforts during the slide earned Sleppy the state’s Medal of Valor.

At the time of the accident, Hawkins’ only recognition was a reprimand from his school nurse for cutting school.

But now his reward comes each year as he returns to the station’s old site with his three sons and points out the different parts of the old station in which he pulled people out of the wreckage.

He points out the bronze plaque that stands in front of the new Silverado Fire Station, a steel structure built in 1970, right next door to the old station’s shell. The plaque commemorates the five who died.

Why Them?

“The only question I keep asking myself is why my good friends were killed and I was spared,” he said. “To this day, I can’t figure it out.”

Schrowe started a new life after his wife’s death when he married one of her longtime friends in 1970. They moved around the country but 2 years ago resettled in Silverado Canyon, this time for good.

“February is a bad month, and when it rains it brings back memories,” said Schrowe, now 63 and pastor of the Silverado Community Church.

“I told my wife when it starts to rain hard like it did then, she’s got to pack her things, because I don’t want her to stay here during the storm.”