On January 17th 1969, Robert Samples and six adolescent boys; Bobby and Ronny Cassol, Eddie and Danny Salisbury, Frank Donato and Frank Raugh drove into the Sespe Wilderness for a weekend of target shooting and camping. None of them would make it out alive. Over the next four days―despite a forecast of clear skies and sunshine―over 16 inches of rain fell, turning the Sespe Creek into a raging river. To this day, it remains the heaviest rainfall on record for the area. Besides the seven campers, Scott Eckersley of Ojai was also in the backcountry that weekend. When the rain began on January 18th, Eckersley immediately attempted to leave, but his truck became stuck in the mud. Samples’ 4X4 truck didn’t fare any better and he and the six boys were also trapped. On Sunday Eckersley joined the group and by Monday all eight took refuge from the worsening rain in a cabin on Coltrell Flat, near the Sespe Hot Springs. Their plan was to wait out the storm, and with sufficient food and a warm fire, it seemed the best option.
Meanwhile, a rescue party had been formed to look for the now overdue campers. Deputy Sherriff Chester Larson and Forest Ranger James Greenhill met up with Chief Equipment Officer Robert Sears at the nearby Rose Valley U.S. Navy Seabees Training Center. The Navy maintained the road for training purposes and Larson suggested they drive one of the 15.5 ton bulldozers down the muddy road and across the numerous river crossings to reach the campers. Around 7p.m. Eckersley heard a rumbling outside the cabin and ran outside waving a flashlight. Moments later the trio atop the bulldozer appeared. Larson, Greenhill and Sears were adamant that the group leave as soon as possible. The march from the cabin to the safety of Lion camp was 12.5 miles in pouring rain, and on Sears’ order they would ride the bulldozer for river crossings only. Eckersley thought otherwise―with plenty of food and adequate shelter there was no reason not to stay inside the cabin. But the rescuers said another storm was coming and the bulldozer would get them out, just as it had gotten them in.
At 8:12p.m. Chester Larson radioed the sheriff’s department that he had found the missing group and they were on their way out. With no rain gear and only tennis shoes on their feet, the six boys must have been exhausted and numb from cold. Four hours and multiple crossings later they came to the last intersection of the Sespe Creek and the muddy road. They all hopped on the monstrous bulldozer and Sears drove into the creek once again. The freezing water was deeper than before and soon rose up over the front blade and onto the hood. In an instant the engine stalled and they were stuck in the middle of the surging river. Over a period of about half an hour, all eleven people were swept into the roaring water one by one. Only six of the bodies were ever brought home and all that was found of Ronny Cassol was his jacket—14 feet up in a tree.
Scott Eckersley and Chester Larson were the last to be dragged in. Eckersley slammed into a rock and was knocked unconscious, woke up on the river bank and seeking shelter, dug a hole in the mud. He spent a sleepless night in that hole, with lightning crashing and rain pounding all around him. In the morning he shuffled his way back down the road to three school vans in a campsite they had passed the night before. Hypothermic, bleeding and in a half-dead state, Eckersley collapsed into an unlocked van. That afternoon, he was rescued by a helicopter crew.
I remember hearing versions of this story as a teenager growing up in Fillmore. It always seemed so distant, an event that happened long ago to unfortunate people that I never knew. “Why did they leave the cabin?” This was always the question when the tale came up over the years. A lapse in judgment is the simple answer. In extreme situations with emotions running high, we make mistakes. The amount of rain that fell over those four days is staggering and I doubt any of the people involved even realized just how much elemental power they were dealing with. The natural world does what it does, and we are simply at its mercy despite our attempts to dominate it. The ten who lost their lives that night in 1969 were just like you and I―souls seeking pleasure in the glory of nature or dutifully trying to save lives―except they paid the ultimate price. There are certainly lessons to be learned from this event but sometimes nothing can prepare you for the flash floods life springs on you.
The Sespe easily won my heart and soul years ago with its smooth, sun-warmed boulders and glittery, bubbling pools. But I have no doubt that in an instant of poor judgment or simply a chance wild occurrence, I could lose it all . . . in the indifferent place I love most.
* * *
The cold is sharp and biting as we all squeeze into the tiny cabin near Willett Hot Springs. I’m on the top bunk above Paul, and Willow is above Erik on the other rusty, bare framed bed. Luke and Kyle―the last to claim a spot― are on the floor near the small wood burning stove which is doing little to keep us warm. Throughout the night, I catch myself mid-roll―remembering the squeaking wire mesh and springs beneath me, which could snapsending me dead weight onto my brother’s face. I imagine he’s slightly more worried at the thought than me. It would almost be worth his pain for the comic relief and I’m sure he would agree. The night passes quickly with intermittent periods of sleep and shivering attempts at comfort.
Sleeping bag cocoons begin to stir as I look around sleepily from my perch. Willow’s spot is empty and through the open door I hear the crunch of his boots on the dirt outside. “Buuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrroooooo,” a long pent up morning fart squeezes out from someone and I take it as my cue to evacuate the cabin. Kyle and Paul also sense the urgency of the situation and laughing, escape while they can. “Awwwww,” Erik says chuckling, and pulls his sleeping bag over his head. Still on the ground, Luke remains in his bag, thoroughly enjoying his self administered gas chamber.
It’s a bluebird morning and our wet clothes from the night before hang on the teepee of logs next to the fire pit. A sycamore tree with curled brown leaves and bunches of green mistletoe hangs overhead. The cold is still penetrating and everyone bundles up in their jackets and some wear gloves. Kyle’s neon green Patagonia jacket looks especially cozy. On the picnic table we brew strong, dark coffee, eat breakfast and bask in the radiant warmth of the sun.
“Dude, I went to take a shit over there and some guy with a beard behind a bush was watching me.” Kyle says while walking back to the picnic table across the grassy flat. The rest of us are childishly amused and somewhat skeptical.
“Where’s Erik?” someone asks.
Moments later Erik strolls over from the same direction as Kyle had, toilet paper in hand. “This guy just walked up,” Erik says motioning to Kyle “And dropped his pants right in front of me. I thought damn, this guy just doesn’t care.”
“I didn’t even see you!” Kyle says, shaking his head and smiling.
Our belly bursting laughter erupts through the canyon. Erik and Kyle look at each other and know this one will be hard to live down.
In the midst of our chummy antics I find it hard to fathom the sheer terror of that January night in 1969, which occurred a mere two miles down the trail. Last night we obliviously walked right past the spot where the bulldozer had stalled, and there hadn’t been even a trickle of water let alone a raging torrent. We’re at the tail end of the driest year on record but on that night, six boys and five men experienced the liquid ferocity of the Sespe unseen since that fateful weekend. But things happen in the wild I suppose; some spectacular, some enjoyable, some destructively cruel and others flat out bizarre. The consecutive years of 1969-1970 proved to contain occurrences on the darker side of the aforementioned wild happenings. Only 22 months after the failed bulldozer rescue, the body of Charles Manson’s lawyer was found near the Sespe Hot Springs and his cause of death is still open for debate.
Oh hell, since I’m on the topic of strange Sespe stuff, you might as well check out this guy and his Bactrian friend.
Wild places are inherently unpredictable and unforgiving. But I will say―depending on your outdoor experience or common sense of course―that you’re more likely to find yourself in mortal danger within an urban setting. In fact, unforeseeable tragedies in cities seem to be on the rise. Given a choice, I’ll take my chances with wild unpredictability any day of the week. But that’s just me.