Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Dam Disaster to be Topic of Documentary

By Amber Joy Blair
Signal Staff Writer

Monday, September 4, 2001

he St. Francis Dam disaster will be explored in a major new documentary planned for distribution in time for its 75th anniversary.
    Jon and Nancy Wilkman, winners of four Emmy awards for documentaries, are assembling historical and engineering resources of local and national interest to ensure that their new project accurately captures the drama of the disaster, which struck at three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928.
    That was when the dam gave way, unleashing 12.5 billion gallons of water down San Francisquito Canyon. The torrent coursed westward for 54 miles, destroying towns and killing more than 450 people until it finally reached the Pacific Ocean near Ventura.
    The California Council for the Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has granted $10,000 to the Wilkmans for script development for their forthcoming 90-minute documentary, titled "The St. Francis Dam Disaster."
    "What excites us is the fact that this is a story with all the action and drama of a Hollywood epic," said Jon Wilkman. "But, also it has powerful educational potential, as well as social and political significance with relevance today."
    A board member of the Historical Society of Southern California, Wilkman and his wife are documentary filmmakers by trade. Their work has appeared on all major documentary networks including PBS, A&E and the History Channel. The couple received support from the society and from the Ventura County Museum of History and Art for their CCH grant request.
    "The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered the greatest American civil engineering failure of the 20th Century," said Tom Andrews, executive director of the Historical Society of Southern California. "The catastrophe is a California tragedy second only to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire."
    Tim Schiffer, executive director of the Ventura museum, said in a statement that the teachings from the disaster "made major contributions to the creation of modern civil engineering. ... It's also part of the saga of (dam builder) William Mulholland, the legendary engineer who brought water to Los Angeles. Mulholland's efforts made modern Los Angeles possible, but his career came to a tragic end when he accepted responsibility for the collapse of the St. Francis Dam."
    The Wilkmans are working with organizations in towns throughout the expanse of the flood, from Santa Clarita to Ventura, and they envision the development of several corollary educational projects. They are collecting research and survivor accounts from a team of historians and engineering experts.
    "A major goal is to find and videotape survivors, and we ask anyone who has direct or indirect experience of the disaster to get in touch with their local historical societies or us," said Nancy Wilkman.
    As planned, the documentary will include state-of-the-art computer animation to simulate and analyze the geological and physical forces that led to the disaster. With dramatic recreations, based on actual interviews and testimony, it will also tell the human stories of heroism, survival and personal tragedy that filled those early morning hours and the days that followed.

    For information leave a message for the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society at 254-1275, or Wilkman Productions Inc. at (323) 461-7028.

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