Fire of '33, Part 2

Suddenly, the wind shifted and the fire began to chase the workers.
Those who ran across the path of the advancing flames to the road
below generally found safety and help. Those who tried to run directly
away from the flames--downwind and uphill--were in many cases
less fortunate. This was the scene on the road between the Golf
Clubhouse and Girls' Camp.

Photo: USC Regional History Center

PART TWO Fighting the Fire

Men poured into Mineral Wells Canyon and spilled onto the nearby ridge. Without piped water, the ragged army of fire fighters were left to bludgeon the fire to death with shovels, wet sacks and their bare hands.

Sidney Heyser, an off-duty county fire engineer, saw the fire from a point near the intersection of San Fernando Road and Colorado Boulevard and immediately drove to the scene. He saw thousands of men running around the fire, apparently leaderless. Heyser estimated there were two or three times more men fighting the fire than was necessary.

The fire department had arrived by now. They received simultaneous calls from Roewekamp and the Glendale Fire Department at 2:26 p.m. Company 56, located on Rowena Avenue in Silverlake, was the first dispatched.

Fire Chief Ralph Scott said the fire fighters found an estimated 3,000 workers in a 40-acre fire area that included Mineral Wells Canyon, nearby Dam Canyon and the ridge that separated the two. The workers were making well-intentioned but often inefficient efforts to contain the blaze. Chief Scott said his men could not effectively fight the fire and ensure the welfare workers' safety at the same time, largely because they had no way to control the workers' actions. "It was absolutely impossible for firemen to control them because of their great numbers," he told the Coroner's Inquest.

Around 3 p.m., the wind--which had been blowing gently and steadily down the canyons from the northwest--shifted. The fire advanced on the workers quickly, taking them by surprise. Said Richard D. Meagher, a foreman, "Suddenly there was kind of a whirlwind and the fire broke loose." It jumped a fire break some workers had hastily made in the canyon.

Some of the foremen rode their workers hard to hold the line. One worker said he and his work gang were "being yelled at like a bunch of cattle." When another worker, L.J. Green, decided to retreat from the flames, a foreman yelled at him to "get the hell back in there." Worker Frederick Alton saw a man running away from the fire struck on the jaw by a foreman and knocked down.

But as the flames crept closer, survival instinct took over. Most of the men ran directly away from the fire, climbing up and out of the canyon. Others chose to run sideways to the rapidly-advancing flames. This route required no climbing and provided fairly quick access to the main road. As it turned out, this second choice--for the workers who had a choice--was the better of the two.

Running directly away from the flames meant running downwind and uphill. This was a deadly mistake. Even the most able-bodied men could only climb up and out of the canyon at two or three miles per hour. Witnesses said that the wind was pushing the fire up the canyon wall at up to 20 miles per hour.

Men scrambled madly up the canyon wall, trying to outrun the advancing flames. Workers watching from the new road above heard a particularly grisly transcript of the proceedings. "You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams," said John Secor. "The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence. Then you would hear somebody scream and then it would be silent again. It was all over inside of seven minutes."

It was a few minutes after 3 p.m. That much is well pinpointed because in some cases the dead workers wore watches that stopped when the flames reached them.

Meantime, some of the men in Dam Canyon weren't just being chased by the fire--they were surrounded by it. "I didn't know if I was going away from the fire or toward it, because we were hemmed in by flames," said G.B. Carr. Just how some of the workers became surrounded was a key topic of the inquests.

Some of the men tried diving through the advancing wall of flame like it was an ocean wave. "I heard someone yell "Look out!" and a wall of flames was on us," said Anton Schaefer. He was cutting away brush in a ravine with some other men. "It was exactly like the big waves of the ocean came over you, except it was fire. The only way out was straight up the hill in front. It looked like a cliff."

Some survived in unique ways. Miguel Holquin, originally listed among the dead, survived by jumping into a stone planter he was building around an oak tree and covering himself with sand. Several men dove into the swimming pool at what was then the girls' camp, and survived.

Fate, intuition or maybe just luck played a role. Foreman H. N. Claypool was about to order his 20-man crew to cut a fire break, then decided against it. "Something told me to stop," he said. Shortly afterward, a tornado of flame swept over the place they were headed. "Six or eight men in the squad just beyond us were trapped," Claypool said.

Then it stopped. The fire department had the blaze under control before nightfall.

While the sun went down for the rest of Los Angeles on Oct. 3, Dam Canyon and Mineral Wells Canyon remained aglow. Warner Brothers-First National Studios brought in klieg lights. Welfare workers searched for lost friends. Wives and families arrived at the park when their loved ones did not arrive home. The Glendale Salvation Army set up a relief station and served coffee and food.

The decentralization and impersonal nature of the welfare work system made matters worse. There was no accurate way to tell just how many were dead or if there were injured still laying out on the hillside.

Early death estimates were high. Coroner Frank A. Nance placed the death toll between 70 and 80. Park Foreman S.G. McCullogh believed at least 58 were dead. T.J. Brennan, supervisor of time keepers, set the death list at 52.

Arriving at an accurate death toll wasn't easy. A hasty survey of the 108 time keepers was made to see how many names were on the payroll. But its size, decentralization and impersonal nature made the welfare work system susceptible to payroll padding. How many of the missing were truly missing and how many of them were phantom employees whose wages were being quietly pocketed by a time keeper or foreman? One possible phantom was Peter Derus of Mar Vista. Originally listed as missing, Derus not only turned up alive and well, he told puzzled authorities that he had never worked in any capacity for the Bureau of County Welfare.

Furthermore, in the smoke, horror and confusion, work groups became divided and mixed. Foremen had no opportunity to count noses. Shift Boss Roy Stockton said that in the wild scramble to get out of the canyon, "all of the gangs got mixed up and you couldn't tell what men got in or got out."

Adding to the confusion, not all of the workers had the inclination or energy to attend the mass roll call held Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. at the golf clubhouse. And it's possible that some of them simply didn't hear about it.

Finally, 347 workers were serving their last day of work in Griffith Park on Oct. 3. It is possible that some of these workers--many of whom were transient--had simply left town.

Three weeks after the fire, the Grand Jury was still trying to find out if all the men working in the park on Oct. 3 were accounted for. More than a month after the fire, the District Attorney's Office set the official death toll at 29--27 dead at the scene and two dead in hospitals afterward.

A group of the fire victims' dependents told the County Board of Supervisors that the actual death toll was 52, not 29. The International Labor Defense League, described by the Coroner's Inquest and local newspapers as a communist organization, claimed a death toll of 58. William H. Schraeder, chairman of the organization's investigating committee, accused the District Attorney's Office, the Coroner's Office and sheriff's deputies of burying many of the casualties in the park soon after the fire. Schraeder, who made the accusation before the Coroner's Inquest panel, was unable to provide evidence to back up his charges.

But all could agree on one point. It was the deadliest fire in the city's history. It still is today.

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

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Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

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