Five million gallons of water burst through an aging storage tank and slammed into a condominium complex early Monday, tossing cars and flattening garages in a disaster that some former city officials said could have been avoided.
Residents scrambled against the wave, and firefighters at a station across from the tank clung frantically to their fire engines as water gushed from a 22-foot-tall hole in the concrete structure. Six people were injured and at least 30 were left temporarily homeless.
"I thought we were going to die," said Capt. Bob James, one of four Orange County Fire Authority officials who was inside the Hefley Street station at 5:47 a.m. when the flood hit. "It just started blasting through here, and I didn't think it would ever stop. It was ruthless. You can't believe the power."
The cause of the break in the wall of the 30-year-old tank hasn't been determined. But former City Manager Bill Smith said he had warned city officials about the system after a 1992 engineering report found that the city's two 5-million-gallon tanks had developed cracks and leaks. The city on Monday could not provide the report.
In three 1996 memos, Smith said the system needed more than $20 million in capital improvements, including earthquake retrofitting and repairs to its holding tanks. He said in an interview then that the city had spent $1 million in repairs up to that time.
"They were built before we had earthquake standards, and they're like 30 years old," Smith, who left last year to join the Ventura County Sanitation Districts, said Monday. "It was certainly something to be concerned about. I was very concerned about it."
Former Mayor Charles V. Smith, now an Orange County supervisor, also said the city had ignored warnings about the safety of the tanks and rejected a proposal to turn the system over to the private sector.
Several city officials denied that they ignored the memos. Kim Barlow, assistant city attorney, said: "There was no indication there was anything wrong with these tanks or a need to repair them."
City Manager Don Vestal, who was the public works director under Bill Smith's tenure, said the recommendation for capital improvements referred to future replacement, not current repairs.
At any rate, the city has spent $10.2 million on improvements since 1991, said Brian Mayhew, the city's finance director.
City officials, who inspect the precast concrete tanks weekly, said they lowered the level of the other above-ground tank near City Hall by 1 million gallons after Monday's accident.
The rupture of the dome-shaped water tank sent a 6-foot-tall current sweeping through the back door of Fire Station 65 and into a neighboring condominium complex, where residents awoke to what they thought was the soothing sound of rain.
Within minutes, water was pouring into their living rooms and kitchens. Blayne Parenteau, 65, was carried through his broken front window, along with the couch he had been sleeping on. He was not seriously hurt.
"The water came through and I started rising," said Parenteau, who ran back into the house and found his wife, Ida, trapped on the fireplace mantel.
Greg Williams, 24, who lives with his parents, said he heard water rushing and looked outside.
"My cat was swimming," he said. "Our garage is gone and our neighbor's car is in our patio and kitchen. It was literally Class III rapids in our backyard."
As the water continued to rise, pummeling surrounding buildings for up to five minutes, residents said they worried that their walls--shaking and creaking under the pressure--wouldn't hold.
They waded through their two-story homes in the dark, without electricity or telephones, hearing only glass breaking and relatives calling for help. Trees, branches and pieces of plywood drifted in their family rooms. Slabs of concrete swirled by their front doors. Sirens blared outside.
"I thought the world was coming to an end," said Salome Vamdermade, 44, who woke up to find her son trapped in the living room downstairs.
Alfred Vamdermade, 22, had been sleeping on the couch when the water burst inside and began to drag him around the room. His mother said she looked down the hall and saw him clawing at the walls, struggling to pull himself to the stairs.
"He was being carried toward the front window," Vamdermade said. "It was terrifying."
He managed to escape and, along with his parents, joined nearly 70 residents who were evacuated to nearby First Christian Church of Westminster.
John and Troy Van der Hulst, who had carried their 10-month-old daughter over their heads to escape the flood, said they were grateful just to be safe. The couple returned briefly to their waterlogged home Monday and rescued the family cat, a 10-pound Himalayan named Aladdin.
"It's unbelievable," John Van der Hulst said of the destruction. "It's like a war zone. There was a refrigerator in our frontyard."
His wife added: "Praise God that everyone is safe. Material items you can always replace."
Several people were hurt during the flood, including Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Craig Campbell, who suffered a fractured forearm and a nearly severed finger while trying to brace himself against the roaring water. He was listed in stable condition after surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center, a spokeswoman said.
The destruction overwhelmed even the most veteran firefighters, who poked through the rubble and used a team of Labradors to search for trapped residents. They paused occasionally to absorb the site around them--cars and trucks slapped on top of one another, toppled street lamps and trees, a silver car perched on the roof of a garage. Ceiling fans and bookcases littered the streets.
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Fire Authority spokesman Dennis Shell. "Not in my entire career."
Search and rescue crews reported no fatalities by late Monday, which officials attributed largely to the timing of the flood.
"It happened so early in the morning and a lot of people were still in their homes, sheltered inside," the Fire Authority's Brown said. "If this had been in the daytime and people were outside, there would have been fatalities. It's a miracle."
City Council members met early to declare a state of emergency for that area of Westminster and immediately toured the scene, arriving just as residents were being shuttled back to their homes to retrieve some of their belongings.
About 35 residents of the most heavily damaged units were sent to Westminster High School overnight, unable to return to their homes at least for now. Officials were still trying to estimate damages late Monday, but said 22 of the 59 units were hit the worst.
Times staff writers Janet Wilson and Jean O. Pasco and Times correspondent Harrison Sheppard contributed to this story.