Leon Worden


'Historic' event with real life, real death

By Leon Worden

February 26, 2003

    "I run over to the car, and when I run over to the car, why, here's my sister in the back seat — it was a sedan. ... And when I opened the door, she started crying, and she was saying, 'Ivan, this is all that is left of my family.'"

— Henry Ivan Dorsett on
"Legacy: Santa Clarita's Living History"
Tomorrow at 6:30 p.m., SCVTV Channel 20

istory tends to reduce events into crude, dispassionate dates and places and numbers. But for the individuals who died, and for the family members who lived to tell about that awful March night in Saugus, it was every bit a human tragedy, and each victim was a very real person.
Ivan Dorsett    I recently had the privilege of interviewing Henry Ivan Dorsett, for whom the past 75 years haven't dampened the images that are seared into his psyche. The light glimmers in his nonagenarian mind's eye as Ivan recalls his own personal account of what we know as "America's worst civil engineering failure of the 20th Century."
    It was a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employee who brought the news to 18-year-old Ivan and his parents at their homestead.
    "We were just getting out of bed ourselves when the (DWP) caretaker got there. He told us the dam broke, and we think your daughter got out," the caretaker told Ivan's father, Oscar.
    Lillian indeed got out, with 3-year-old Danny in her clutches. So did the family dog, Spot, which had gone on ahead and managed to stay dry. Was it because animals can sense earth movement early and bolt when there's an earthquake or a dam failure? In any case Lillian huddled with Danny and pulled the dog into her lap for warmth, and shredded her nightgown to bandage her badly cut feet until relief came.
    Lillian's husband Lyman and their two little girls, Marjorie and Mazie, weren't so lucky.
    Lillian really thought her "big, husky cowboy" of a husband, to hear Ivan tell it, made it to safety. Lillian had woken with a start at three minutes before midnight and called out, "Lyman, the dam broke."
    Lyman implored her to run up the mountainside, and he would go back for the girls.
    Running up the path to the top of the hill above the powerhouse had always been the plan. Oscar, Lillian's father, a carpenter by trade, had worked with Lyman building the roads that led up to the great St. Francis, and Oscar expressed his concern when the young couple took up residence at the powerhouse just below the concrete behemoth. Oscar feared the dam would break, and he advised the newlyweds to make their home on higher ground.
    But Lillian would have none of it, telling her father they'd simply run up the hill.
    And so did Lyman entreat her that night.
    "If this is the last thing I do, I want you out of here," Lyman told his bride.
    "And it was the last thing he ever did." Ivan fights to maintain his composure.
    It was some time before the little girls' bodies could be identified at the makeshift morgue they'd set up in Newhall, covered as they were with oil and muck. Lyman's corpse was found elsewhere; perhaps the 10-story-high wall of water reached the girls before Lyman did. We'll never really know.
    Lillian's parents arrived by dawn's light, loaded her and little Danny into their Buick, and drove them out of harm's way to Spunky Canyon Road where Ivan met up with them in a separate vehicle.
    The city of Los Angeles proposed a settlement of $5,000 to compensate Lillian for the deaths of her husband and daughters. Many survivors of the hundreds of victims along the floodpath from Saugus to the Pacific Ocean accepted the offers from the city, which took responsibility for the catastrophic failure of its 12.5-billion-gallon reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon. Others didn't; Lillian hired an "ambulance chaser," in Ivan's words, and ultimately received somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000.
    The money, coupled with the loving support of her family, got her back on her feet. Eventually she remarried — Fritz Eilers gave her another daughter — and she purchased a tuberculosis hospital in Lancaster, completing the circle that originated in Indiana in 1913 when the Dorsett family decided to move to California in hopes that the warm, dry climate would cure her mother's TB. It did.
    "I remember it as vivid as if it was yesterday," Ivan reflects. "I'll never forget when I had to crawl in the back seat with my sister Lillian." He searches for the words. "And from that time on my sister Lillian was precious. Always."
    Throughout the interview he refers to Lillian in the present tense, as though she were still alive. For Ivan, she always will be.
* * *

    Ivan Dorsett's personal recollections of the St. Francis Dam disaster will be shown Thursday at 6:30 p.m., repeating Wednesday, March 5, at 9:30 p.m., on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers in the Santa Clarita Valley.
    This Sunday, a 75th anniversary exhibit opens at the California Oil Museum of Santa Paula, running through June 22. Call (805) 933-0076 for operating hours or visit www.oilmuseum.net.
    On Sunday, March 9, the SCV Historical Society will host a "75th Anniversary St. Francis Dam Talk and Tour" with a lecture from dam historian Frank Rock at 1 p.m. at the Saugus Train Station in downtown Newhall, followed by a three-hour tour of the dam site and other pertinent locations. The lecture is free and open to the public; a donation of $30 is requested for the guided bus tour. To sign up, leave your name and number with the historical society's message service at (661) 254-1275 or visit www.scvhs.org.
    On Monday, March 10, the Emmy-winning duo of Jon and Nancy Wilkman will present an excerpt from the documentary they're producing on the dam disaster, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Los Angeles Central Library, with a reprise on the anniversary itself, March 12, at 7 p.m. at Ventura City Hall. Joining them at both venues will be J. David Rogers, author of "The St. Francis Dam Revisited," with an illustrated lecture.
    On Sunday, March 16, Santa Paula will commemorate the disaster with the unveiling of a 3-ton bronze statue of a pair of allegorical Paul-Revere-like figures next to the old train depot. It's titled "The Warning" — something which, for Lyman, Marjorie and Mazie Curtis and 450 other people, didn't come soon enough.

Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

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