(Here is the second part of a 2008 interview I conducted with some survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928.)
The official death toll from the disaster was 450, but many believe it claimed dozens of additional lives, mostly those of Spanish-speaking migrant workers who refused to leave their homes because the language barrier prevented them from fully understanding what was happening.
“The man who went down there was Constable Messer, and he could speak Spanish, and he knocked on doors. But many of the families came out to see the stars and they thought ‘no agua, no flood,’” recalled 86-year-old survivor Robert Procter.
None of the survivors saw the water come through town because it hit Santa Paula while it was still dark between the hours of two and three o’clock in the morning. But they do recall the sounds from that night.
“The Union Oil Company had a refinery in Santa Paula that had a big steam whistle that in the case of a disaster they would toot instead of blow,” said 87-year-old survivor Robert Daries. “The ‘toot, toot, toot’ is what woke us up.”
Donald Grainger remembers being on top of Seventh Street Hill with his family for about a half hour before hearing a “terrific crash” when the flood slammed into the Williard Bridge.
“It was a steel bridge, and (the water) just mangled the thing. There were pieces of it up and down the river for years,” he said.
The dam break didn’t come as a complete surprise to all the survivors. According to Daries, there was talk of substandard materials being used in the dam’s construction long before it actually crashed down.
“My uncle used to haul gravel to the dam when it was being built,” said Daries, “and he told my parents never to buy property in Santa Paula below Main Street.”
Eva Griffiths remembers that her mother heard about other problems at the dam shortly before the disaster.
“My mother had a friend who lived up above the dam who called earlier in the week and said there was a quite a crack in it,” she recalled.
Some of the survivors have recollections about the disaster and its aftermath that are in contrast to the official stories.
Robert Procter, whose father was instrumental in the relief efforts after the dam break, as well as for the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, remembers the Salvation Army, and not the Red Cross, as being the first relief agency on the scene.
He, along with some of the other survivors, also take offense at the notion that Thornton Edwards – one of the two motorcycle policemen who warned the residents of the coming flood, and was subsequently honored with a statue a few years ago – was a hero. He contends that he was a racist bully.
The Santa Paula St. Francis Dam survivors are, as a group, in remarkably good health for octo- and nonagenarians. They all possess a sense of inner strength that is often found in those who have overcome adversity at a young age.
“Someone found our piano,” remembered Robert Grainger. “Some carpenter took it and cut it down and made a desk out of it, and it’s still in the family.”
That desk was about all the Grainger family kept out of the disaster. That, of course, and lots of memories.