Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Story of a St. Francis Dam Survivor

By Lauren Grokett
For The Signal Zone

Friday, November 23, 2001

Sierra Vista Junior High eighth grader Lauren Grokett interviews Margaret Morena, who recounts the chilling tale of survival handed down by her father, survivor Jose Montijo.

Jose Montijo
Ivan Dorset, another survivor of the St. Francis Dam Disaster, was also interviewed by students for Wilkman Productions. The company is putting together a television documentary on the events of March 12, 1928.
n the morning of March 12, 1928, Frances Montijo, awoke to find a strange smell permeating her home. She grew to be very worried, as the family dog was acting strange as well. A normally quiet dog, the family pet barked furiously and scratched at the door. The smell grew stronger, and Frances sought to wake her brother, Jose. Jose didn't get up at first, but the barking of the dog finally drew him out of bed.
    The early morning was silent, no birds, no sound at all, save for the barking of the dog, and a curious rumbling. As the rumbling increased in volume, the dog increased his agitation. Before anyone really knew it, the floor of the house was flooded, and Jose realized that something terrible had happened, that the dam had broken! He and his father told the family to get into the car, but as they all went outside, a wave, waist high swept across them, their home, and their car. The car was overturned, and pulled away from the Montijo family. The tremendous force of the water pulled the family apart, even though everyone tried desperately to stay together. As it happened, Jose managed to grasp his nephew, Ernest, and pull him toward a fallen tree. The turbulence of the water threw a heavy object against Jose, breaking his hold on Ernest. Jose felt utter despair, he held his nephews life in his arms, and had that life torn from him. Suddenly, a thin, piping voice called out, "I'm here, I'm here, Uncle!" Little Ernest grabbed a tree branch as he was pulled away and was safe.
    Finally the ferocity of the water abated, and the family, though scattered, escaped the waters fierce force; they were alive! Jose's father emerged from the muck and water, stripped of all clothing, and he calmly reached for an orange on the ground and began to eat, glad to simply be alive and to enjoy the taste of a ripe orange. While traversing the sludge to find a place to get cleaned up and eat, Jose and his father found a young woman buried up to the neck in mud and debris. If they had not rescued her, she would surely have died. Years after the tragedy, Jose and his family had changed. Each person gained inner strength and resilience, and their family unity held them together.
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    Editor's note: Lauren Grokett is an eighth-grade student in Frank Wright's United States history class at Sierra Vista Junior High School. Sierra Vista's School-to-Career program offered a unique opportunity for Lauren to experience the making of a documentary film. She was invited by Nancy Wilkman of Wilkman Productions to attend a film shoot on the St. Francis Dam disaster. Lauren is also working on the next edition of History for the Santa Clarita Valley: "Characters of the Santa Clarita Valley." The book is about the unique residents who have added to the colorful history of the Valley.
    Wilkman Productions is currently producing a documentary film for A&E Television about the St. Francis Dam disaster. Lauren was allowed to participate in the making of this historic film at the Oil Museum in Santa Paula on Nov. 3, 2001. They were interviewing people who had survived the tragic St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. Lauren was able to watch the production crew film survivors and their families. They were reliving the tragic morning in 1928.
    Wright said he was impressed with Lauren's account of Jose's story. "Lauren is an outstanding writer," he said. "She has quite a career ahead of her."
* * *

    Lauren adds: I spoke to Mrs. Moreno on Nov. 3, 2001, at the Oil Museum. I had been sent there to interview her for the "Characters of the Santa Clarita Valley" history book being written at Sierra Vista Junior High School. We had assembled there for the A&E filming about the St. Francis Dam disaster. As I listened to Mrs. Moreno telling me about what happened to her father and family, her words took on a whole new aspect. I could see her father, her whole family, being swept away by the wrath of the water, thanks to her skillful telling of the story.

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