Tam Canyon Tragedy


April, 2003

The Mill Valley Record called it the most spectacular disaster in the area since the fire of 1929. David S. Murdoch, 68, and William F. Shores, 72, were killed at 2 PM on Friday, April 4, 1941 when a slide caused three redwood trees to fall on a cottage on Laurel Way in Tamalpais Canyon. At 2:30 PM, a second slide buried them under mud, trees and debris. The winter was a wet one with 61 inches of rain. We now know it was an El Nino year. It wasn’t all that surprising that slides closed Magee Avenue for two months and Florence Avenue for four months. However, the two slides in Tamalpais Canyon after 2-1/4 inches of rain in 24 hours resulted in tragic consequences.

Shores had lived in Tamalpais Canyon for 11 years. San Francisco resident Murdoch had maintained a cottage there for 15 years. The two men had spent a week working on Murdoch’s cottage. Shores had come to say good-bye to Murdoch who along with his wife and son were about to leave. Shores was sitting next to the kitchen door. Murdoch and his son were on the other side of the kitchen table. Mrs. Murdoch was on the porch. At 2 PM, the son heard trees descending and ran toward his mother. He and his mother escaped, but the two elderly men were crushed.

A neighbor placed an emergency call. At 2:15 PM, a score of merchants from the Locust shopping district arrived with the fire chief and a police officer. They saw the men crushed under the walls and beams. Fifteen minutes later, while they were trying to chop away the shattered walls, an unoccupied home above on the nearly perpendicular hillside, buckled and burst open. The entire hillside of mud, trees and debris poured onto the cottage. The rescue workers barely escaped in time. A few seconds difference might have meant death. By 4 PM, large-scale rescue work was underway with scores of volunteers. Many worked all night. A dozen trees had come down in the two slides. Shores’ body was recovered Saturday afternoon.

Murdoch’s body was not recovered until Monday afternoon. American Legion Auxiliary women improvised a kitchen and serving table on four long planks over the mud thirty feet down the canyon from the collapsed houses. They served the rescuers coffee, sandwiches and hot meals starting on Friday and continuing until Monday afternoon with very few hours rest. A neighbor above the slide turned her home over to them for the cooking. Volunteers spent weekends in May working on the cleanup, with lunch served by women residents.

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