From the Archives: 1952 Los Angeles River rescue

Jan. 23, 1952: Fireman James Hassen lifts Jim Rossetto, 13, by the hair after the boy and fireman John Reeves reach the bank of the Los Angeles River near Glassell.
(Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Rossetto, 13, Jerry White, 12, and Louis Kolisar, 13, were rescued from the Los Angeles River on Jan. 23, 1952. A Los Angeles Times story the next morning explains:

Three boys were plucked from possible death yesterday by firemen, police and private citizens as waters of the Los Angeles River became a roaring, muddy millrace with the sudden release of waters from Hansen Dam. …

[The boys] were trapped on rocks in the center of the torrent after they and two other youngsters had started across the all-but-dry river-bed on their way home from Washington Irving Junior High School.

The other two, Alton Ferguson, 12, and Robert Muller, 12, were able to outrun the sudden onslaught of waters and escape high and dry.


Screams of the stranded trio were heard by Herbert Cain, worker in a factory on Riverside Drive. He cleared an 8-foot fence topped with strands of barbed wire and raced down the steep concrete sides of the channel and dove in 100 feet above the youngsters.

Half swimming and half carried by the waters he managed to reach Jerry White, who clung with a faltering grasp to rocks and debris. The two struggled mightily for another 200 feet before Cain could get his feet under him and scramble out, exhausted and chilled but still clinging to the frightened child. Radio Officer Norman Moore, at the scene by this time, helped pull them out.

When three firetrucks and a rescue unit arrived, the rocks on which the remaining boys crouched were all but submerged and a crowd of thousands hemmed the river banks on both sides of Allesandro St. and the Southern Pacific Railroad yards to witness the rescue.

Firemen Tom Headrick and John Reeves plunged in and swam a rescue line out to the rocks as firemen and police yelled to the boys, who seemed about to be swept away:


“Hang on. We’ll get you off. Hang on.”

The men steadied the youngsters, although it was all they could do to maintain their own purchase on the debris-cluttered island of rocks. With the aid of another line, shot over to them, they prepared to come back across the 40 feet of boiling channel running 6 or 7 feet deep then.

Reeves set out first with the Rossetto boy lashed firmly in a rescue belt ahead of him and firemen and police directed by Battalion Chief W. H. Bennett heaved mightily on the line.The two were sucked under water immediately and pelted with rolling rocks. They made almost half the trip under water and were pulled out blue and gasping.

The trip was repeated by Headrick with the Kolisar boy. They were dragged out by a dozen firemen who plunged out after them along the line. The boys were treated for shock and exposure.


The photo by retired staff photographer Art Rogers was published in the Jan. 24, 1952, Los Angeles Times.

In 1953, this image was selected for the National Exhibition of Honor in the 10th Annual Competition and Exhibition for Press Photographers by the National Press Photographers Association.

This post was originally published on Jan. 24, 2014.

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