Monday, July 30, 2012

Did Coder and his father survive when the dam collapsed?

It was nearly 85 years ago that the 185-foot St. Francis Dam collapsed and sent as many as 450 people to their watery graves. It was the worst disaster in Southern California's history. Only the San Francisco earthquake killed more people in California.

35 years ago, my journalism professor and I set out to write a book, "Without Warning; Diary of a Disaster," in which many of those who survived the disaster could tell their first-person stories.

It was in 1977 that Bill Thomas and I sent "An Open Letter to Coder" to the largest 100 newspapers in the United States. We had hoped that we might be able to solve one of the disaster's most intriguing mysteries. We wanted to know if the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger and his son, Coder, actually survived that night back in 1928. And if we couldn't find proof, at least we could spread the word that we were organizing a memorial reunion of the survivors of the disaster on the 50th anniversary of its collapse.

No, we didn't find Coder, but we succeeded in reaching dozens of survivors and their families. 50 years to the day following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, more than 200 survivors and their family members gathered for a luncheon in what's now Santa Clarita, about 10 miles downstream from where the dam once stood.

Bill and went to the homes of many of the survivors we had found and we interviewed them about their experiences. We sent sample chapters of the book to a boatload of publishers, but none of them were interested in "more disaster stories." You see, there had been a series of disaster movies in recent years --- "Towering Inferno," "Earthquake," "The Poseidon Adventure," etc. --- and they were afraid the market had been glutted.

Then, over the next three decades, both Bill and I focused our energies on our careers. And in the meantime, most all of the people whose stories we had promised to tell had passed away. Now, however, The Endangered History Project, Inc., is gearing up to finally publish the long-awaited book. Bill is clear off on the Right Coast, so he has giving me the green light to complete the book. I'm not doing it alone, however. Many of my friends and family members participated back in 1978 and some of them are eager to pitch in to complete the project. So please consider this an open invitation to be a part of this historic book project. We can use your help. E-mail me if you want to be part of the team.

Our target date to have the book available is March 12, 2013. That will be the 85th anniversary of the disaster.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Don Ray is a sniffling, sobbing sentimental --- but jumping for joy today!

Officer Joe Wilson was first my nemesis, later my hero and, for decades now, an obsession. Today, a dream came true for me. Today I was able to connect with Joe Wilson’s family. Now I’m typing as quickly as I can on a salty, sticky keyboard.

In 1961, Burbank Police Officer Joe Wilson died at the corner of Buena Vista Street and Thornton Avenue in Burbank. He was on duty on his motorcycle. Someone plowed into him and killed him. His life and his death would change my world forever.

Two years before the accident, Officer Joe Wilson began stalking me. OK, he wasn’t stalking, he was looking out for me and hundreds of other 10-year-olds who he felt were at risk. We were bicycle riders without a clue. We were tragedies waiting to happen, he believed.

So with the support of the Burbank Police Department, he waged a campaign to ticket as many of us as he could. We didn’t have to pay fines, we had to show up at the police department on Saturday mornings and face Officer Joe Wilson. We had to learn traffic laws and bicycle safety. Let me cut to the chase here — I’m sure he saved my life and the lives of others. We became safe, law-abiding drivers.