Advertisement
Share

City to Honor 29 Who Died Fighting Griffith Park Fire

Times Staff Writer

Little remains to remind hikers and picnickers of the deadly fury that once engulfed a Griffith Park canyon.

On a sweltering October afternoon in 1933, sudden winds fanned a lackadaisical brush fire into an inferno. More than 3,000 civilians were drafted to fight it, armed with only shovels and pickaxes. They clambered down the steep canyon walls in pursuit of stray embers and found a death trap.

Twenty-nine died in the deadliest blaze in Los Angeles city history; more than 150 were injured.

At 11 a.m. today, 71 years after the tragedy, the city will honor those who lost their lives. On Vista Del Valle Drive, overlooking Mineral Wells Canyon, officials will place a stone marker and plant a memorial tree to replace the original bronze plaque, which vanished nearly seven decades ago.

“I think it’s important to never forget the past and this tragic moment that took place marking one of the darkest days in our history,” Councilman Tom La Bonge said.

Advertisement

On Oct. 3, 1933, in 100-plus degree heat, more than 3,700 Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers were maintaining bridle trails, pulling weeds and building roads that visitors use today.

The Depression-era New Deal programs, which provided work for the jobless, were meant to give hope to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “forgotten man.”

A little after 2 p.m., a blaze began in a small pile of leaves near the parking lot of the golf course clubhouse. A careless smoker might have been responsible; a man in a dark suit was seen running away but never identified.

Bernard Mack, 19, a high school dropout from Boyle Heights, was clearing a road when his supervisor ordered his WPA crew to fight the fire. “We were kibitzing about the upcoming USC football game,” Mack, now 90, recalled in a recent interview. "[We] didn’t think it was that big a deal as we threw buckets of sand on the fire.”

“Smack it out with your shovels and cut a firebreak,” one of the supervisors yelled.

Most of the men and supervisors had little or no firefighting experience. Some workers later testified that their bosses had threatened to revoke their work permits if they hesitated.

As the fire started moving faster, foremen flooded the canyon with workers and set a few backfires in hopes of blocking it. Those were the worst things they could have done, then-Fire Chief Ralph Scott later testified. They didn’t know how or where to set the fires, and the canyon was the most dangerous place to be.

When Los Angeles City Fire Engine Company 56 arrived, the professionals found it impossible to control more than 3,000 inexperienced workers. While most firefighters stationed themselves on higher ground, WPA and CCC supervisors kept sending their men into the ravine. A city fire captain stood at the bottom of the canyon, sending them back up as fast as they could go.

“Get out of here, you fellows,” he bellowed. “There’s some wind.”

John Loa, now 94 and a retired Southern Pacific Railroad employee living in East Los Angeles, was working on a road with the CCC when he and six others were called to help put out the fire with their shovels.

“I remember that our shoes and pants caught on fire too,” Loa said. “So we had to extinguish them as well as the brush fire at the same time.”

By 3 p.m. the breeze had shifted, and ushered in hell.

“The wind came up all of a sudden,” said Mack, the WPA worker. “I had this fear and started to climb back up the slope. My foreman yelled at me to get back down there, but I kept climbing up anyway, eventually all the way home. And I never returned to work, either.”

Those who hesitated were lost. With the fire roaring like a locomotive, terrified workers clawed up the sides of the canyon as flames licked their heels.

From the ridge, a few thousand workers and firefighters watched in horror as other workers stumbled and pushed their way upward ahead of the fire. Some crawled on their bellies, clinging to the undergrowth, as others walked over them.

“Most of us got out in time,” survivor Leo McCormick said in a 1933 interview. He burned his left arm pulling someone to safety.

“The horrible cries of those caught by the flames echoed through the canyon,” McCormick said. “We had to hold our hands to our ears to drown out the terrible sound.”

One man could be heard crying out, “My God, my family.”

Miguel Holquin survived by jumping into a stone planter that surrounded an oak tree and throwing sand over himself. Others jumped into the swimming pool at the Girls Camp.

Happenstance saved Loa.

“We were working down in the ravine when my crew chief called out to us, saying, ‘You don’t belong to that [work] gang, get back up here,’ ” he said. “When we changed locations, the wind shifted and our lives were spared. Later we learned that the other crews we had been working beside had been trapped and had lost their lives.”

By nightfall, firefighters and workers had confined the fire to 47 acres. Twenty-nine charred bodies were recovered -- all facing the same direction, their arms outstretched toward the safety of the summit.

“Two of the bodies lay with hands joined together,” McCormick said. “One was a young man. The other apparently was older. The body of the younger man was a little higher on the side of the canyon than that of his companion. Evidently he had endeavored to assist his more aged fellow worker to safety and had perished in the attempt.”

Anxious weeks passed before all the workers were accounted for. Most bodies could be identified only through personal effects, such as keys, watches and two belt buckles emblazoned with the initials D and B. Roy Brown’s body was identified by his high school class ring.

Margaret Miles Drew, 79, was 8 when the fire claimed her father, Robert R. Miles. “My father was a contractor and builder [who was out of work], and it was his first day on the job,” she said. “He was identified by his teeth through dental records.

“Times were rough then,” said Drew, of Garden Grove. “I don’t think my mother would have gone on living if it weren’t for me.”

More than 150 people suffered smoke inhalation and burns, including two children who were playing nearby.

The coroner’s and grand jury inquests concluded that many of the dead were killed not by the original fire but by the backfires, set by inexperienced men.

“There was no incident commander like we have today, telling them how and where to light backfires,” park ranger Anne Waisgerber said. “Low humidity, high temperatures, shift in wind and the types of brush were most likely factors.”

“It was a mistake to let anyone down in the bottom of that canyon,” then-Fire Chief Scott testified.

Those left jobless or disabled pretty much had to fend for themselves. In February 1934, the state Supreme Court decided that the workers were not entitled to workers’ compensation because their work was welfare, not a regular job.

On Nov. 23, 1933, at the Vermont Avenue entrance to the park, city officials and the Los Feliz Women’s Club planted a tree and dedicated a plaque to the men who lost their lives. The plaque later vanished.

As part of the WPA arts project, Finnish American sculptor John Palo Kangas of Ojai honored CCC workers with a 10-foot bronze he called “Conservation of Man and Nature,” depicting a worker with an ax in his hands. Others called it “The Spirit of the CCC.”

Roosevelt came to Griffith Park on Oct. 1, 1935, to unveil the statue. “The CCC has done wonderful work,” he told 4,000 spectators. “Carry on.”

The statue was swept away in a devastating 1938 flood, ranger Waisgerber said.

The new marker is supposed to be flood- and fireproof.


Advertisement