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Griffith Park Fire Tragedy October 4th, 1933

on May 4th, 2009
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Griffith Park Fire 1933
Griffith Park Fire 1933 From “A Centennial History by Mike Eberts”

Unemployment Relief Workers Trapped in Canyon Which Is Suddenly Turned Into Furnace of Death—Thousand Men Had Streamed Into Pit to Extinguish Small Fire Which Suddenly Flared Into Conflagration, Hundreds in Hospitals, Many Severely Injured.

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 4—AP—With thirty-six bodies recovered and county officials reporting that the fire-swept 1,000 acre tract in Mineral Wells canyon holds from 20 to 25 additional victims of yesterday’s brush fire, police today took in custody a man and booked him for suspicion of arson. The suspect, Robert D. Barr, an unemployed motion picture projectionist, was traced through the license number of an automobile which was reported, to police today to have been parked near the scene of the fire. 

Witnesses, whose names police did not disclose were reported to have told police they saw a man leave the automobile, enter the canyon, and set fire to the brush. When arrested, Barr had several kerosene-soaked rags in his possession, police said. He made no statement to them. The arson angle into the investigation of the blaze was injected after police had been working on the theory that a cigarette tossed into the brush by one of the victims had caused the fire. 

Besides the 36 recovered R.C. Huston, assistant superintendent of county charities, said 20 or 25 more bodies lay in a deep ravine. Approximately 100 men were in hospitals, many of them injured seriously in the mad scramble up the sides of the box-like canyon that became a raging inferno when a strong wind fanned the brush fire they were attempting to extinguish. 

Robert D. Barr, 29, an unemployed motion picture projectionist, was arrested by police and booked for suspicion of arson. He was traced through the license of an automobile which had been parked near the scene where the blaze started and from which a man had been seen to enter the canyon and reportedly start the blaze. Police said they found rags soaked with kerosene on the man when he was arrested. Barr made no statement to police. He has a police record of having been arrested on a drunk charge. 

Throughout the night thousands of relatives of the more than 3,700 workers on the roads of the park crowded about the county morgue and a hastily improvised mortuary. A cordon of police was required to hold them to check as they watched through tear-dimmed eyes the long string of stretchers carried through the doors. So badly were the bodies burned that not a single victim of the fire had been Identified this morning. Relatives were to be permitted to view the bodies at 9 a.m. in an attempt to identify them. 

Frank Merrill, superintendent of Griffith Park, blamed the catastrophe to “lack of experience in brush fire fighting” on the part of those who died and the men who sent them into the canyon of death. Fire chief Ralph Scott corroborated Merrill’s views by the statement, “It was suicide to send those men into a walled-in canyon whose entrance was blocked by raging flames and whose only other means of exit was a winding cow path up the wall of the ravine.” 

Blindly following orders of their foreman, more than a thousand work men streamed into the box-like Mineral Wells canyon.  Deep in the canyon a small area was burning. There was little or no wind, the flames and smoke from the burning scrub oak growth in the canyon’s floor shooting straight upward. Suddenly a wind whipped down into the canyon, fanning the blaze into a furnace of death sweeping outward from its center.  In a few seconds the approximately 1,500 men who had entered the canyon were scrambling up its steep sides. The cowpath became a line of fighting, sweltering, cursing, praying humanity.  The strong clambered over the week.  With death crackling at the heels the workmen struggled upward.  survivors said the flames jumped as high as 100 feet at the time catching up with and bringing down the struggling men. 

The men died in twos, suffocated by the walls of smoke that rolled over them or struck down by flames which leaped as much as 100 feet at a time. One gruesome pair had almost reached the canyon’s rim. One of the two a stalwart had been pushing his fellow struggler upward when the blaze cut them down. Always they were side by side, these pairs, when the end came.  And always their backs were arched, with hands upthrown and eye sockets staring grotesquely at the canyon’s rim.  While a crew of men stood on high ground, arguing against their foreman’s command that they rush to a lower level to aid a squad fighting flames the fire at the lower point suddenly spurted into a new fury and engulfed a dozen new workers.  

“Our foreman orders us to go to the lower level,” a man said “Someone shouted no. While we were arguing a sheet of flame leaped up and covered the lower crew.  A few seconds later the flames receded. The whole party below was dead.” 

In another section H.N. Claypool, a foreman, had a second to make a decision. He made it and saved the lives of a score of men. “I started to take my men into the path of the blaze to clear a break,” Claypool said, “Something told me to hesitate.  I gave the order to halt. In an instant a whirlpool of flame whipped across the spot where we would have been had we gone ahead.  Eight men in a squad just beyond us were trapped.  It was all over in an instant.” 

The men were a pick and shovel workers recruited from all walks of life in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Los Angeles county’s move to combat unemployment with farm work. They were working on the roads of the park; largest in the Los Angeles recreational system, when they were ordered into the ravine and told to beat the fire out with the shovels and cut a fire break. 

Mayor Frank L. Shaw ordered a thorough investigation of the circumstances which caused so great a toll to be taken. He said if carelessness or negligence are found to be the blame the city will co-operate with the county in fixing the responsibility. He promised also that the city will provide relief for the families of the victims. The workmen were insured by the city under the state compensation act. On Sept. 13, the city notified the board of supervisors that the insurance, costing $8,000 weekly, could not be carried beyond Oct. 8.

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