By Mike LAWLER
Last week I wrote about the new memorial at the CV Sheriff Station and the info on Deputy Horr, one of the two names on the plaque. This week I’ll tell the story behind the other name on the memorial’s plaque, Reserve Deputy Charles Rea, a member of the famous all-volunteer Montrose Search and Rescue Team.
In the winter of 1969, Los Angeles was in the grip of the fabled “100 year flood.” The mountain communities were the hardest hit, as over 50 inches of rain poured down on the San Gabriels, turning every creek into whitewater rapids. The raging river in Big Tujunga Canyon had spread across the entire canyon floor, and the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam was full of debris from further upstream. Water and logs plus big sections of dredging equipment from work being done at the reservoir itself were coming over the top of the dam and were blasting down the canyon. As bridges and roads washed away, the Montrose Search and Rescue Team patrolled the canyon, helping with evacuations and checking the safety of those choosing to stay behind.
On Jan. 26 the team got the call to the Big Tujunga Ranger Station where 32 residents of La Paloma Flats were trapped on the wrong side of a washed out bridge, and a sick child desperately need medical aid. Reaching the stub of the bridge, the 10 members of the Search and Rescue unit split into two teams. One team would try to get a line across the bridge gap, while the other would go upstream and try to “island hop” across the many debris piles in the rushing water.
The bridge team had early success by using a bow and arrow to shoot a fishing line across the gap. Successively larger lines were pulled across, until finally a taut cable was fixed and a team member was able to hand-over-hand his way across the torrent. They would be able to retrieve the sick child.
The upstream team, which included Charles Rea, used equal ingenuity. Scrambling over loose and slippery debris piles they bridged the biggest stream torrent by cutting down a tree so that it fell across the gap, about four feet above the now rising water. They strung handlines across their makeshift bridge to create a walkway and Charles Rea got across. Rea clipped his safety harness onto the handline and started back across the slippery fallen tree. Halfway across he lost his footing and, still tethered to the handline, plunged into the water on the upstream side of the log and disappeared.
Another team member scrambled out on the log where Rea’s safety tether was attached, and reached down into the raging water. At one point he felt Rea’s hand, grabbed on and pulled with all his strength. The incredible power of the rushing water was holding Rea down, and no amount of pulling on Rea’s arm or his safety harness could budge him. As team members frantically tried to pull Rea’s body up, the rising water began to wash away the debris islands that were the team’s bridge to safety, and even the log bridge began to shift. The anguished survivors had to retreat.
Agonized Montrose Search and Rescue members, along with sheriffs and crews from the Forest Service, spent hours trying to retrieve the body. Finally the damkeeper upstream was able to temporarily cut off some of the flow from the dam, and the next day the water lowered enough to retrieve Rea’s body.
Rea was a successful young man and left behind a wife and four young daughters. His loss, the first and only for the Montrose Search and Rescue Team, sobered our community and reminded us what a sacrifices they make for us.
The recently installed memorial itself was funded and built by local volunteers, and contains stones from the site in the canyon where Charles Rea died. When it is dedicated next month, I hope you’ll take the time to attend and honor the many men and women alive today who daily risk their lives for our safety.