The night the mountain came down

Tim Willert

Almost 25 years after he and his family cheated death, Scott

Genofile still shakes his head in disbelief.

"We thought the whole damn mountain came down," Genofile, 40,

recalled this week. "We were luckier than hell."

In the early morning hours of Feb. 10, 1978, Mother Nature

hammered the Markridge Road home of Robert and Jackie Genofile and

their two teenage children, leaving a path of destruction in her

wake.

Back then, the window in Scott's room looked straight up Pine Cone

Road, a steep, winding, pine tree-lined street that resembles a ski

run. Scott's 18-year-old sister, Kim, called to her mother, who

joined her in Scott's room as they looked up the street.

What they saw was hard to make out because it was pitch black and

pouring rain. It turned out to be a wall of water, mud, rocks and

boulders rushing down the street, unleashed when Upper Shields Debris

Basin overflowed. Weeks of heavy rain -- including more than 5 inches

in a 48-hour period -- proved too much for the basin, situated at the

foot of Shields Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. A 1975 fire in

the foothills above La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge contributed

to the erosion spilling from the basin.

"That's when the rumbling started," Scott Genofile said.

The fast-moving debris flow, which included uprooted trees, power

transformers and more than a dozen automobiles, was heading straight

for the Genofile home at the foot of Pine Cone.

"All of a sudden, we see this big, black thing rolling down on

us," Jackie Genofile, 79, recalled this week. "I yelled, 'Run, we're

being flooded!'"

The family made a beeline for the master bedroom on the far side

of the single-story house, and prepared for the worst.

"I remember shutting the door and stepping back," Scott said.

"Then the door just burst open and mud came pouring in like water."

The Genofiles took refuge on Bob and Jackie's mattress as the room

began filling with mud and other debris.

Robert Genofile kicked out the sliding-glass doors to give the

muck a place to exit. When the mattress started to drift toward the

opening, Scott and Kim jumped off to redirect it, but were instantly

pinned between the bed's brass railing and the wall.

"Once that stuff hardened, it was like we were in cement," Scott

said. "We couldn't move."

The bed began to rise. The house was being buried to the eaves.

Boulders landed with a thud on the roof. Robert and Jackie reached

for their children.

"I said, 'Oh, my God, what a hell of a way for us to die,'" Jackie

recalled. "My daughter said, 'Oh, Mom, don't talk like that. God

isn't going to take us yet.'"

The rumbling subsided. The Genofiles had been spared, and waited

in total darkness for help to arrive. Scott was buried up to his

chest in mud; Kim had it up to her chin.

Several minutes passed before a neighbor called out, "Are you

alive?'" Jackie recalled. By the time rescue personnel freed Kim --

the last family member to be dug out -- it was 4 a.m., she said.

In the Genofiles' frontyard, the mud and debris was 12 feet high.

It was possible to walk straight onto the roof, without climbing.

Automobiles were packed around the structure, and five were in the

pool. Kim Genofile's Camaro was among them.

Aside from some ripped clothing and bruises, the Genofiles were

fine, Jackie recalled. "We may have been cold and sore, but we sure

didn't notice it," she said.

WREAKING HAVOC

In all, nearly a dozen homes on Pine Cone, Hopeton Road and Ridge

Pine Drive sustained mud and structural damage during the flood.

Miraculously, no one was injured, but several residents were trapped

inside their homes by mud and boulders.

Before it reached the Genofile home, the renegade flow of mud and

rocks knocked down the front door of Kiko Brenneisen's home near the

top of Pine Cone. Brenneisen grabbed his mother and sister and ran to

safety through sliding-glass doors on the other side of the house.

"It sounded like a big, roaring river," said Brenneisen, now a

56-year-old aerospace engineer. "Once we got outside, we were

standing in waist-deep mud."

Brenneisen's Chevrolet was knocked into his next-door neighbor's

yard. His German shepherd was swept up by the current and washed down

the hill, but returned three hours later, unhurt.

The torrent continued downhill, wiping out William Hall's

frontyard at 5438 Pine Cone and taking two of his cars and depositing

them on the Genofile property a block away.

"Both of the cars were totaled," recalled Hall, now 80. "I could

only describe them by their color."

D.J. Shepard's freshly landscaped frontyard was destroyed, but her

home at 5804 Pine Cone -- two doors up from the Genofiles -- was

undamaged by the onslaught.

"It was very hard to comprehend what had happened," Shepard

recalled this week. "I distinctly remember the intense smell of wet

earth."

Regina Campillo and her two small children were asleep inside

their home at 5444 Pine Cone Road when the basin overflowed.

"I thought it was an earthquake," Campillo remembered this week.

"I looked out my window and couldn't believe my eyes."

Betty Barr, a retired Rosemont Middle School teacher who lives at

5448 Pine Cone, remembers hearing her daughter scream, followed by a

"terrible roar."

"We were very fortunate," Barr said this week. "It did more damage

to the houses below us."

The Genofiles and others were forced to find temporary shelter

until their damaged homes and yards could be repaired. The Genofiles'

story was well publicized, and they received unwelcome visits from

outsiders curious to get a look at their mud-covered residence.

"They're very courageous people," Shepard said of the Genofiles.

"One day they had it all, and the next day it was ripped away from

them."

Some passersby even looted the Genofile property, where valuables

were found mixed in with the mud for days afterward. As a result,

friends and employees of Robert Genofile kept watch on the house for

the first few weeks.

"Honestly, that part got annoying," Jackie Genofile said. "People

routinely trespassed day and night."

For days on end, dump trucks hauled mud and debris down Pine Cone,

and work crews repaired damaged sidewalks and streets. Neighbors

banded together, cooking meals for one another and shoveling mud out

of homes and yards.

Many residents received federal aid because the foothills were

declared a disaster area. Brenneisen, whose home sustained more than

$50,000 in damage, received a low-interest loan to make repairs.

"We didn't count on having floods, so we didn't get flood

insurance," Brenneisen said. "I thought you only needed flood

insurance if you lived in the flatlands."

A FORT OF A HOUSE

Jackie, Kim and Scott say they are alive today because Robert

Genofile knew how to build a house. Genofile, who died two years ago

at 84, was a prominent general contractor who built dams, department

stores, hospitals, schools and churches. The home on Markridge Road

was built in 1958 out of concrete block, rebar and reinforced steel.

"People used to kid him about that house being built like a fort,"

said Kim Genofile Flotron, who lives in Newport Beach and is married

with two children. "Thank God he built it like that. If it was a

standard house, there's no way we'd still be here."

Robert Genofile ended up suing the county, claiming that Upper

Shields Debris Basin had not been cleaned out and that the channel

below was improperly designed. The county settled for $337,500.

Upper Shields Debris Basin was enlarged in 1992 from 5,600 cubic

yards of capacity to 35,400 cubic yards, according to Ken Pellman, a

spokesman for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, which

operates Upper Shields and dozens of other debris basins.

"A bigger basin would have trapped more debris, and there may not

have been a significant problem at all," Pellman said. "We just

didn't anticipate something like this happening."

Although some of their neighbors chose to move, the Genofiles

decided to rebuild. Robert Genofile added a second story, and moved

the bedrooms upstairs. He changed a floor-length window in the front

hall, filling the lower half of it with a cement block.

No structural repairs were necessary because the house was so

sturdy.

The family moved back in nine months after disaster struck, while

the remodel was still in progress. The house was complete by the

first anniversary of the flood.

After their home was repaired, the Genofiles received a

Beautification Award for Best Home from the local Chamber of

Commerce. Among the criteria by which houses are selected: "good

maintenance" and "a sense of drama."

Jackie Genofile finds it hard to believe that on Feb. 10, 25 years

will have passed since she and her family cheated death.

"We had such a mess for so long, but I don't want to forget what

happened," she said. "I love it up here, and I feel safe."

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