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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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The Verdugo Hills Cemetery Landslide – The Cleanup

Last week I covered the landslide that occurred in February 1978 in Tujunga. After days of relentless rains, the steep hillside that Verdugo Hills Cemetery was perched on gave way and sent mud and decaying bodies down into residential streets below. The slide had occurred in the middle of a rainy night, and many of the coffins had tumbled and broke. Dawn revealed broken coffins, decayed corpses and body parts strewn everywhere.

Responding fire and police units were stunned. Rescue crews were used to dealing with death, but this was a new twist. No one had actually died in this disaster, yet there were dead bodies everywhere. Public works crews knew how to clear streets of mud and debris, but not when that debris included human remains. Geologists also immediately recognized that more of the unstable graveyard could slide down at any time.

The City of Los Angeles was hesitant on how deeply to involve itself. Whose jurisdiction would this fall under? The cemetery was private property and was in the process of claiming religious exemption, yet the owners would not assist. The exposed bodies should be treated with respect and shouldn’t be moved around haphazardly, yet they posed a potential health hazard and major logistical problems where they were. As well, there was the trauma experienced by average people who found themselves suddenly living a nightmare come true. What to do?

Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the L.A. County Coroner at that time, heard about the disaster and within hours was voluntarily on the scene to help. While other county agencies waffled over what promised to be expensive and legally sticky, Noguchi brought his staff to the chaos in Tujunga and began picking up human remains. Forest Lawn and Rose Hills cemeteries also voluntarily sent staff up to help.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

One local resident remembered that as a kid he rode his bike over to check it out. He found that a mortuary worker was offering kids a bounty to find the pieces of corpses that were strewn across the neighborhood – 50 cents a body part. In a twist on “Oliver Twist” the mortuary worker was a macabre Fagin, sending out the Artful Dodger to do his dirty work. The boy did indeed find one hand and turned it in for his half dollar. He joked today that had he been smart he would have broken off the fingers – rather than one hand (one piece) at 50 cents, he would have had six pieces earning $3.

The bodies were quickly gathered up from the neighborhoods. It’s hard to know how many in total as every paper quoted a different number – maybe 20 or so. Another 50-plus bodies were pulled out of the exposed slide area within the cemetery grounds. Noguchi was now faced with the challenge of cataloging the bodies and attempting to identify the corpses. In a couple of garages rented at a mortuary he began the sorting process and reassembly of those bodies broken apart. He first separated the males and females, and the newer corpses from the older, and finally by height. Once organized like this, he was able to make a few identifications via the fragments of cemetery records available. A handful was obvious. One corpse still had a legible hospital bracelet, and another was in military uniform with medals and could be ID’d by military records. But many were indigents, which the county had contracted with Verdugo Hills Cemetery to bury. Some of them had not even been ID’d when they were buried. Sadly, their remains would never be named.

The mud was cleared from the homes below (exposing a couple more bodies) and the rain abated. As the county tried to figure out what to do, plastic sheeting was laid over the destroyed graveyard in an attempt to temporarily stabilize the ground. Months later the nearly 50 unidentified bodies were reburied in a mass grave on the cemetery property. A sad single marker was placed on the plot reading, “Name was here perhaps, but certainly known to God.”

Next week – the cemetery today.

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