by Jan Dean
Today, the wild flowers are springing up in multi-colored beauty on the hillside of the Santa Monica Mountains. But in the Topanga Canyon area, residents like actress Sara Lane, the female lead in The Virginian, are still digging out after the worst flood ever to hit their peaceful community. Entire hillsides were swept away in the disastrous January floods. And five persons living along Topanga Canyon were buried alive when tons of mud swallowed up their homes.
Because of its serene beauty, Topanga Canyon has become a favorite haven of the flower children, or hippies. Many celebrities, especially horse lovers, also have built expensive homes in this scenic area only a half hour’s drive from Hollywood. The Virginian’s Sara Lane lives with her father, veteran actor Rusty Lane, and mother Sara Anderson along the usually dry creek bed. But they have had to rebuild most of their home. Acres of mud had ripped the walls like toothpicks.
And Sara is a very, very lucky girl to be alive today. For, at the height of the holocaust, she refused to be evacuated.
Why? “Because of my four beautiful quarterback horses,” she said. “I couldn’t leave my horses to die.” For nine straight days it rained. More than 13 inches of rain fell in Southern California’s worst storm in 30 years. And for Topanga Canyon’s residents, the result was disaster.
“We knew we were to evacuate on morning around 4 A.M.,” Sara related. Her voice still trembled from the sickening memory of it all. “There was no longer any electricity or gas in the house, or water to drink. The water in the creek was sweeping up to our doorstep, and rising, and the only exit was across the creek to the highway. There was no longer any bridge: it had been swept away. I managed to get to neighboring homes to ask for help. My father had been in a motorcycle accident. He’d broken his leg and was unable to walk. God! I was scared – for him and my mom.”
Sara did get help. A rescue unit set up a cable line across the rampaging waters. Her father was towed across the stream on a stretcher. Sara’s mother followed in a chair lift. But Sara remained. Nothing anyone said would make her leave. One of her horses had become hopelessly mired in the mud, with the waters rising nearly to its neck.
“I was in tears,” Sara recalled. “The only decent thing would have been to shoot the animal and put it out of its misery. One of the rescue men had a shotgun with him and was ready to pull the trigger – when a bulldozer came along. We were able to attach a rope to my horse and the dozer pulled him free.”
Already Sara had led her other three ponies to safety. And at one point she herself was nearly swept to her death!
This happened when she slipped on a rock while in the stream helping rescue someone else. A neighbor, 21-year-old Mike Payne, had fallen into the torrential current and was being carried away to what seemed a certain death. Sara and several others jumped into the water and finally were able to pull him to safety. Then Sara slipped into the treacherous stream. “I thought I was a goner.” And she would have been except for the quick thinking of neighbors who managed to get her back to the bank.
Later, convinced that her beloved horses were all safe, Sara finally was persuaded to cross over on the cable lift. But she could not in good conscience leave the area. There might be something more she could do for someone. So she camped out with friends. Next day the waters had receded somewhat and she was able to return to what was left of the family home.
“I became sick at the sight of it,” she related. “Mud had destroyed everything.”
She wept with happy tears, though, when her little dog Sloopy came running down from a hill – barking and with his tail wagging. Downstream a few hundred yards away, a neighbor, Donald Dorris, was found buried beneath the wreckage of his home, which had been demolished by a mudslide. And the bodies of four other people in the area, neighbors of the Sara’s, were still missing.
For Sara, the tragedy had come in the wake of a most happy experience. She had just returned from eight days in Africa, the trip having been a prize she won on TV’s The Dating Game. Producers of The Virginian had even had her written out of the last segment of the season that she might take advantage of the prize. She returned from this memorable experience to a heartbreak that affect not only herself and her family, but all their friends and neighbors.
In a nearby canyon, actor James (My Friend Tony) Whitmore worked for 25 hours to save the home of a neighbor, Mrs. Brenda Fox. He shoveled away as mud, like lava from a volcano, threatened to surge into the house. With other, he piled sandbags around the front of the house – and it was saved.
Other celebrities’ lives were affect. Ann-Margret and husband Roger Smith feared for their lives and home, as a mudslide piled up five feet deep in their driveway, barely missing their home…. Dean Martin’s daughter Claudia was among those rescued…. Actress Dana Wynter and her son had to evacuate their home…. A six-foot boulder crashed down from a hill landing within inches of the house David Janssen was renting.
Would you believe, though? All the survivors in the Topanga Canyon area, including Sara Lane and her parents, have picked up the torn pieces of their lives and begun rebuilding their homes. All have moved back to greet the spring’s wild flowers – the most beautiful in the state.