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50 years after the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse, a survivor tells her story

by John Rabe with Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

Firemen escort flood victims in Baldwin Hills in the aftermath of the Baldwin Hills Dam disaster. They wade through the street using a safety rope. Joe Rustan/LA Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

On December 14, 1963 — 50 years ago Saturday — the dam in front of the Baldwin Hills reservoir broke. 290 million gallons of water rushed down, killing five people and destroying or damaging 277 homes.

(Dec. 20, 1963, the break in the Baldwin Hills Dam. Doug Wilson/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection)

Among those displaced by the flood was Rhea Coskey, whose house was destroyed. 

Rhea and her family had lived in their home for seven years when the dam broke; a property they owned and a home they built themselves. "It grew as our children grew," says Coskey. 

Rhea was at a wedding shower when the dam broke. Her husband was playing golf. Inside their Baldwin Hills home, a babysitter watched one of their children.

"It was only during the course of the wedding shower that there were problems up here in Baldwin Hills," said Coskey. "My sister had just had a baby. Her babysitter was called by my babysitter who was frightened by helicopters overhead."

Soon, Coskey turned on the TV and began frantically calling family members. Nobody answered at first, but she eventually reached her father-in-law, who had all three of her children with him.

KTLA carried a live feed of the disaster from above. It was one of the first breaking news events covered by helicopters. But Coskey couldn't watch.

"I hysterically turned off the television," she says. "I didn't want the children to see that their house had washed away." Large items like pianos and washing machines ended up hundreds of feet from the home.

Rhea says she and her family found support from neighbors.

"A couple weeks later — at one of the community meetings — someone held up a very small little book of photography. Of our children's pictures," says Coskey. "And it was mud soaked. And they asked 'does this belong to anyone?'" Coskey still has the photo album, but not much else from that time. 

The collapse could have caused much more damage. David McNeill, head of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, credits the advanced warning government received from engineers who noticed a leak. "By 1 or 2 o'clock, they decided to do a warning and get people out," says McNeill.

Authorities evacuated nearly 8,000 people from the surrounding neighborhoods. Coskey and McNeill credit then-City Councilman Tom Bradley for organizing the recovery and helping get the city to accept some responsibility for the disaster.

Saturday from noon to 4, there'll be a gathering at the former dam site -- now the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area -- to commemorate the anniversary with music, storytelling, politicians, and community groups. They'll pause at 3:38pm for a moment of silence, when it will be exactly 50 years since the Baldwin Hills Dam collapse.

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