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90th Anniversary Of St. Francis Dam Break; Deadliest Disaster In Ventura County History

This month marks the 90th anniversary of one of the biggest, yet almost forgotten disasters in California history.  The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse killed more than 430 people in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. 

A number of events are taking place during the next week in Ventura County to commemorate the anniversary.

KCLU's Lance Orozco has a look back at the disaster through his 2003 interview with one of the last known living survivors of the dam collapse.

On March 12th, 1928 the 200 foot high, 700 foot long dam outside of what is now Santa Clarita failed. It sent what started as a 120 foot high wall of water through the Santa Clara River Valley, killing more than 430 people as it traveled 50 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1928, Thelma McCauley Shaw lived with her parents, and older brother Stanton on a ranch outside of Fillmore, south of Highway 126 and west of Highway 23.

A wall of water roared through the area, sweeping away houses, trees, and hundreds of people, including the then 13 year old girl. Shaw was carried away by the water, as she could see trees, animals, and the bodies of people being swept along with her. But, she admits she was so busy trying to keep her head above water she didn’t have time to be afraid, or panic.

It was about two in the morning on the 13th. She was exhausted, and trapped, and there was no one around as she screamed for help. Shaw says as the sun came up, she saw the horrible scene around her. Finally, about 14 hours after the ordeal started.

She had a glimmer of hope, as she saw two men off in the distance. She started shouting, and they came and rescued her. But, her ordeal wasn’t over. Between the measles, and the physical trauma of the disaster, Shaw was bedridden for about two months.

As for her parents, brother and sister, they were gone forever. Her brother’s body was eventually found, but her parents were never found.

After Shaw recovered, she went to live with relatives in the Fillmore area who survived the disaster. She graduated from Fillmore High School. That’s also where she met her husband Donald. They moved to LA, but returned to the Bardsdale area near Fillmore in 1946, where they raised their two sons. The Shaws were married for 72 years before Donald Shaw’s death in 2008.

Thelma McCauley Shaw died in 2014, at the age of 99. She says she was always grateful that she was a fighter, and survived when so many others didn’t, to go on and have such a wonderful life.

Link to calendar of St. Francis Dam collapse 90th anniversary events

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