Fire of '33, Part 3

The county morgue
wasn't big enough to
hold all the victims, let
alone their desperate,
grieving relatives and
the inquisitive press.
A temporary morgue
was opened in a
county warehouse.

Photo: USC Regional History Center

PART THREE Aftermath: Heroes and Villains

The county morgue wasn't big enough to handle all the remains, let alone the victims' grieving families and the inquisitive press. A temporary morgue was set up in a county warehouse downtown.

The bodies were laid in a row on a concrete floor under a huge canvas shroud. Most were so badly burned that they could not be identified, except by their belongings, which were kept in an old apple crate. This odd, macabe little collection of trinkets included two inscribed belt buckles, a high school class ring, a chauffer's badge, a Ford ignition key, a collapsable cup, a little square glass bottle, a blue sunglass lens and a human foot.

But identification through belongings required belongings, which were scarce among men getting paid 40 cents an hour. Observed the Herald-Express, "Most of the dead wore no jewelry. Many had pawned all personal ornaments before appealing to the county for aid."

Furthermore, some of the dead were not who their work permits said they were. Several days after the fire, 32-year-old Fernando Valenzuela was officially listed as dead. Actually, Valenzuela (who had also been listed as injured in some accounts) had gotten a job in a vineyard and lent his work permit to his nephew, William Lozano. It was Lozano who had not come home from the fire.

The Los Angeles Times reported the tale of an unidentified good samaritan who met an "emaciated and hungry" man on the morning of Oct. 3. He took the man to a diner, bought him breakfast, and gave him his work permit. It turned out to be a death sentence.

The city was shaken and stunned. Newspapers and authorities looked for villains. The Times speculated that "the blaze was caused by some Red, some half-unhinged firebug or some person with a fancied grievance against society." For several days after the fire, a 29-year-old unemployed studio technician named Robert D. Barr looked like he fit the Times' description perfectly.

Barr set a fire in the park on the night of Oct. 3, but police eventually concluded that he did not start the big fire. According to police, Barr was at home in Culver City, drinking, when the fire started. That evening, he heard about the Griffith Park fire from the radio. He decided to go help fight it.

Still tipsy, Barr arrived at Fern Dell, on the western edge of the park, several miles from the fire site. Around 10:30 p.m., Ernest and Jack Borchard, father and son, were sitting on the porch of their home overlooking Fern Dell. They saw Barr stop his car, get out, and light a small fire. The younger Borchard walked down to the road and got the car's license number before Barr drove off.

Police apprehended Barr elsewhere in the park shortly after midnight. He told authorities that he decided to set a fire of his own, since he couldn't find the big blaze. "I was just drunk enough not to realize what I was doing," Barr told police. Barr's fire burned two acres, threatened no structures and caused no injuries.

Police were convinced that Barr was not the man in the dark suit who had been seen fleeing the vicinity of the fire shortly after it was first spotted. That man was never identified.

Back fires ordered by foremen apparently were much more destructive than anything Barr might have done. Several workers claimed that back fires were started shortly before 3 p.m. These fires were quickly caught by the wind and caused more than 300 workers in Dam Canyon to be surrounded by flames.

Although the back fires appear to have been well-intentioned, setting them was a lethal mistake. The Coroner's Inquest panel, comprised of nine fire fighting experts, concluded that many of the dead were killed not by the original fire, but by the back fire.

One worker, Frank George, admitted setting a back fire. He said he and two other workers set fires in order to stop the main blaze. "The fire was advancing," George told the Coroner's Inquest panel. "It looked like the next best thing to do."

George said he lit the fire at the direction of his foreman, Frank Thompson: "He said, 'Who's got any matches?' I said, 'I have.' He said, 'Let's start a back fire," so I went to work and started a back fire."

Thompson denied instructing anyone to start a back fire. But others lent credibility to George's account. Charles Chandler, a crew boss, said he saw Thompson set a back fire that was soon caught by the wind. James McGuire said Thompson admitted setting the back fire, telling him afterward, "I thought it was the right thing to do."

There was just enough evidence pointing toward a communist plot to torch the park to get the authorities and newspapers--particularly the staunchly-conservative Times--interested. LAPD Captain of Detectives Tom Murray investigated the possibility that the fire was set by communists angry about being ejected from the park and having their work permits revoked. A few days before the fire, police overheard several communists at a downtown hunger march say that something "was going to happen soon." The Times added that "agitators also were reported to have been busy among the county welfare workers in Griffith Park shortly before the fire began." No arrests came from this, however.

But perhaps more than anything, the carnage was the result of basic tactical errors by welfare work foremen not trained to fight fires. "It was a mistake to let anyone down in the bottom of that canyon," Fire Chief Scott said the day after the fire.

Worse, the foremen flooded the canyons with workers, bringing them down narrow, twisting paths. Quick evacuation under such circumstances was destined to be chaotic, if not impossible.

Most of the professional fire fighters battled the blaze from higher ground, while a few did what they could for the workers in the canyons. According to Police Inspector David Davidson, "One fire captain took up his position in the bottom of the canyon and as fast as these green men were sent down, he sent them back."

The newspapers and authorities found a few unlikely heroes amidst the chaos. One was Marvin Page, a park employee. He was cutting a fire break with other men on a steep slope when he saw the fire coming over the ridge. "It was hissing and roaring terribly," he told the Park Commission inquiry. Page ran out of the canyon and saw a man parked alongside the road in a Model T. "I jumped in and made him drive me like hell, around to another canyon, where I had my bulldog tractor."

Page said he drove the tractor "full blast" to the top of the ridge. "I put the scraper blade down and gave her the gun. The blade ripped up the brush and dirt just ahead of the fire, which was nearly to the top of the ridge.

"The heat was awful. It was blowing right at me and sometimes the flames rolled around the tractor. But I got across to a place where an old fire break was and the fire stopped."

Page received a framed commendation from Mayor Frank Shaw for his heroism.

Mayor Shaw proposed "a suitable and lasting monument" to commemorate the 40-cent-an-hour workers who lost their lives protecting Griffith Park. The Los Feliz Women's Club suggested to the Park Commission that a deodar tree and a bronze plaque be placed at the Vermont Avenue entrance to the park. On Nov. 23, 1933, the tree was planted and the plaque dedicated.

Years later, after several relandscapings of the park entrance, the plaque was impossible to find. Like the 29 men it commemorated, the plaque was lost in Griffith Park.

But a fitting epitaph for these men resides in half-forgotten spools of microfilm that contain the Oct. 4, 1933 issue of the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Reporter Caroline Walker wrote:

They were unemployed men working there in Griffith Park. They were laborers and clerks and executives and even ministers. In their hearts a little candle of hope had been burning again because they had a chance to earn a little money.

It was only a brush fire that they were asked to extinguish. It was the sort that skilled fireworkers know how to handle. But the men in the park weren't fire fighters. They did not know that canyons become flutes in a brush fire, or that flames travel with such deadly swiftness over grass and trees grown brittle with the summer drouth.

It was work. That was all that mattered.

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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