In the Wake of Tragedy
The Collapse of the Erath Water Tower

In the Wake of Tragedy: The Collapse of the Erath Water Tower

In the wake of tragedy,
In the wake of a storm,
In the wake of disaster,
A small town mourns.

Triumph and tragedy lie intertwined within each community. In Erath's history, triumph has emerged in many situations, while its counterpart, tragedy; has also played a vital role. Although the town has experienced tragic events through the decades, one horrendous tragedy in the fall of 1964 mesmerized the entire area.

During the first of week October in 1964, Hurricane Hilda made landfall along the Louisiana coast near Marsh Island, leaving behind death, devastation, and destruction. Along her path, she took with her, the lives of several local men, as well as thirty one other Louisiana citizens. The aftermath of this disastrous storm left a number of grieving parents, wives, family members, friends, and children. In the wake of this horrible tragedy, eight Erath men were laid to rest, while the rest of the community was left paralyzed with grief. The ordeal began on the afternoon of October 3, 1964, when some Erath citizens gathered in town to assist the Civil Defense Department.

The City Hall also housed the town's Police Department, Jail and Fire Station. The building was located in the center of town on Broadway Street, with the water tower standing tall and erect above it. As Hurricane Hilda was waiting to make landfall, Erath citizens, who lived only miles from the coast, knew the full effects of a hurricane. Town officials, working in conjunction with the Civil Defense crew, were ready to weather the effects of this storm.  While Hurricane Hilda was approaching the Louisiana coast, tornadoes were spawning in the midst of the storm system, which began causing damage in local areas. Many citizens offered their services at the Civil Defense Headquarters. One helper on that bleak afternoon was David Broussard, the local funeral home director and owner of the ambulance service in Erath. He had been working the desk earlier that day, when Scotty Bernard, a nineteen year old U.S.L. student had replaced him as the CB operator. Upon being relieved, David Broussard returned home to rest.

At 1:30 P. M., David Broussard’s 17 year old son, Martial, left his home and went to the Civil Defense Headquarters at the City Hall to assist with the radio. The younger Broussard had experience with CB Radios, because his father owned the local ambulance service. So, he Broussard was on hand to help operate the radio during the storm. The CB radio was located in the back of City Hall, where many of the volunteers were sitting along the walls, waiting out the storm. When Broussard arrived, he stopped to check the plotting chart on his way to relieve Bernard at the radio. At 5:15 P.M., he walked in and said hello to Scotty Bernard and proceeded to hang up his rain coat. Within minutes, Martial Broussard heard a deafening noise, which was followed by an unending amount of water that engulfed the group. He was thrown by the blow and his arm was pinned by some metal beams and building debris. Trapped and unable to break free, water kept rapidly raging toward him. At the time, Broussard thought a tidal wave had hit.

Cleve Thibodeaux, a town councilman at the time, had been at the police station, but left to check on his home.  Upon leaving his home at that time,  he saw an image that is forever branded in his mind and in his heart. He literally saw the 125 foot water tower and giant cylinder case holding 40,000 gallons of water, “twist and fall” upon the City Hall Building. At that time, Thibodeaux.” called for help on the radio and announced that some heavy equipment would be needed because the water tower had collapsed on the small structure.

Upon his arrival at the scene, men could hear cries of help. They found the young Erath High School student trapped under the rubble of the building. David Broussard, father of the teenager, and the original ham operator that afternoon, lived about two blocks from City Hall when he heard the horrible crashing sound. He returned to the building to find the area flooded among the remnants of the brick building. The older Broussard then realized that his son was trapped under building debris and he was surrounded by water.

Stories told later stated that Steve Granger, Arthur "Booga" Sandoz,  Jackie Jesse, Vermilion Parish Deputy Sheriff Harold Dyson, and area other men managed to lift the metal beam that trapped the young Martial Broussard.  With the use of jacks, the group then was able to lift the steel beam from his arm.

Martial Broussard later learned, that the legs of the water tower standing high above the City Hall, had collapsed and literally crushed the one story red brick building under its impact. With 40,000 gallons of water in the tower rushing out of the cylinder case, the men standing at the door were literally shoved out by the tremendous force of water, but not all were as lucky. Death had called for some of the volunteers, although nothing more could be done about those who were lying beneath the fragments of the structure until the equipment arrived.

During this time, heavy equipment, including drag lines and two massive cranes were struggling in the midst of the storm, in an attempt to reach the City Hall. But the strong winds prevailed and they were hampered by the storm. The search finally began on Sunday morning. Rescue workers labored through the early morning hours to locate and remove the dead bodies, with the search concluding at 10:00 A.M. The final count of fatalities totaled eight on the morning of October 3, 1964. As the bodies on that solemn morning were located, they were wrapped in canvas tarpaulins, with their names written on the side. They were taken to a shed about four blocks away from the scene. Numb and grief stricken family members and friends sat silently outside until a truck arrived loaded with caskets. Relatives of the dead men shaken beyond belief stood as the caskets were unpacked from the pine crates. As the coffins were ready, each man was transferred into the appropriate casket.

Hilda’s deadly storm led this community toward an immense disaster, the worst seen in the history of the town. With the spin of her deadly winds, the legs of the water tower had buckled and collapsed leaving a trail of death and destruction that would haunt area residents for a life time.

Dr. Leroy Suire, Erath Mayor at the time, said most of the survivors of the crash had been standing in the doorway of the building when the structure gave way to winds. Suire also told reporters that one man had his hand on the guy wire to the tower when he felt it suddenly go slack. In the realization of what was about to take place, he fled as the building was crushed to its foundation. Some of the survivors of this tragic event were Martial Broussard, Joseph Schexnaider, Willie Bodin, Clemile Dubois, Nuda Trahan and Obrey Choates. The cause of the collapse remains a mystery. Many speculate the high winds caused by the hurricane caused the collapse, while others blamed a twister.

Eight men died horribly tragic deaths due to the repercussions of Hurricane Hilda’s wrath.

Those who lost their lives in this horrendous tragedy were: Joseph Camile Brown, 50, was a former sheriff’s deputy, city councilman, and mayor pro tempore. Surviving family members at that time included his wife, the former Sadie Broussard and his two daughters. Josie Brown (Arceneaux), and Mrs. Wilmer (Barbara) Dugas. He had one brother L. J. Brown and four sisters, Mrs. (Beatrice) Wiltz Leblanc, Mrs.(Regina) Simon Dubois, Mrs. (Rosie) C. L. Quoyser, and Mrs. (Euphemie “Mimi”) Lloyd Guillot. He was preceded in death by his sister, Mrs. Priscilla Harrington. He was the son of Camile and Aelmire Brown. He was a veteran of World War II. Brown’s nephew Richard Dubois followed in his uncle’s political footsteps, when he served as Erath Mayor. Joe Brown’s great nephew Jimmy Domingue served as the Vermilion Parish Registrar of Voters and his brother Bob (‘T-Bob”) Domingue is presently an Erath Alderman.

Brothers Vernice and Duffy Broussard were two other victims in the water tower tragedy. Vernice Broussard, (a 1963 graduate of Erath High School) was a twenty year old hardware store employee. His brother Duffy, 28, was a 1954 Erath High School graduate, who worked as an appliance store employee. Their parents were Mr. and Mrs. Jules Broussard. The brothers left behind a sister Vivian Broussard (Gilbert). Maternal grandparents were Mr. and Mrs. Nollie Menard and their maternal grandparents were Mr. and Mrs. Edias Bouillion.

The fourth victim was Eutis “Noo Noo” Menard who was 53. Mr. Menard was the Erath High school janitor. Surviving him was his wife. Noelia Dore Menard, a daughter Nora. his mother Mrs. Ubal Menard and his sister Mrs. C. D. (Eola) Goutierrez. He was preceded in death by his brother Murphy Menard and his father Ubal Menard.

The fifth of the eight victims was Otto “Cowboy” Bourque who was also 53. He was the patrolman at Erath High School. He was survived by his foster mother. Mrs. Amedia LaSalle. He was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Ovey Bourque of Erath. “Cowboy” had four brothers. Paul, Otto, Larsay and Durphy Bourque.

Clifton J. Dugas was the sixth. He was a 33 year old construction worker. Survivors at the time of his death included his wife. the former Anna Mae Morvant, a son Clifford Lee, two daughters, Ledia Mae and Wanda Marie Dugas had two brothers, Stafford Dugas and Jimmie Lee Romero and five sisters; Mrs. Eluse Choate, Mrs. Isidore Broussard, Mrs. Mary Spandoni, Mrs. Gladu Badeaux and Theresa Ann Dugas.

The seventh life lost was Felix Dubois who was a 53 year old farmer. Survivors at the time of his death included his wife, the former Mabel Boudreaux and four daughters, Alice Dubois LeBlanc, Gladys Dubois Romero, Verline Dubois Bernard and Helen June Dubois. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. Theophile Dubois and his sister was Mrs. Gladue Perrin.

The final and youngest victim found was that of the young nineteen year old college student who was working as the ham operator at the time of the crash Rane Scott Joseph “Scotty” Bernard was a student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. The 1963 Erath High School Graduate was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Voorhies Bernard. His maternal grandparents were Otis and Elias Landry and his paternal grandparents were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bernard Sr.  Scotty was a member of the “Five Watts” Club who trained him as a ham operator. He was also a U. S. Civil Defense Member. In 1982, Bernard’s goddaughter Telisa Bernard Lege’ gave birth to a son and he was given the name Scott in memory of her late godfather, Rane Scott Joseph Bernard.

Upon locating and identifying all eight bodies, a multiple Catholic service was held. The Services were held at 10:00 A. M. on Monday, October 5, 1964, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, only blocks away from the scene of the tragic event. All eight men were exposed in the Catholic Church in Erath. With photographs surrounding the eight caskets lined up in the front of church, family members and friends gathered to bid these brave men good bye. Governor John J. McKeithen, on an aerial inspection of the Louisiana southern coast, stopped by briefly to attend part of the service held for the town’s eight victims. The governor extended his sympathy to Mayor Leroy Suire.

Monsignor Gustave Berube, pastor, was celebrant of the solemn requiem mass. Father Charles Dubois, (Joe Brown’s nephew, who was a Transitional Deacon at the ‘time) and Reverend Carroll Lee Dupuis, the associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church preached the funeral eulogies. Reverend Emery Labbe, a former priest from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, returned to Erath for the Funeral Mass. During the service, Reverend Labbe was quoted as saying, “that these men had died a hero’s death. They were brave men 8 who stayed to protect what belonged to others.” Assisting in the services were Reverend Charles Soileau, associate pastor at the Erath Catholic Church and Reverend Kenneth Morvant, of St. John’s Cathedral in Lafayette.

Present in the sanctuary also was Reverend Raphael Gauthier, Pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Delcambre. Eutis Menard’s body was taken to the Delcambre Catholic Cemetery, while the other seven were buried in the Erath Cemetery.

Almost the entire town gathered to offer it’s prayers for their neighbors taken from them in this tragedy. At the time of the service, mourners filled the church yard, as well as the school yard located across the street.

On October 5, 1964, a mesmerized town watched parents bury children, wives bury husbands, and young ones bury fathers. A tragic turn of events, eight deaths and a multiple funeral service, which forever changed lives in a small town. A mark in Erath’s history labeled “The Tragedy of the Century.”

Citizens of Erath will never forget the stories, multiple funeral or the loss of so many human lives. Although a vast number changes have occurred since the collapse of the 125 foot water tower details are vivid in the minds of residents, the crash of the giant cylinder case containing 40,000 gallons of water onto the old City Hall Building will be remembered as a bleak time period for this community.

The 1964 funeral service, which captured the attention of the state, was held at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, October 5th, only blocks from the tragic scene. With no funeral parlor large enough to house the eight men, the caskets were exposed in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Photographs surrounded the eight caskets, which were lined up in the front of church. At the time of the service, mourners filled the church yard, as well as the school yard located across the street. Though categorized as a “group” who experienced similar deaths, the memorial mass and reception allowed families to gather and remember the lives of each man they loved. Through this reunion, each man’s legacy of “life” became evident, not his death.

Without a doubt, this stark tragedy tied these men in death, however family and friends were the ties that bound them in life. As individuals, each man lived in his own right, just as each possessed an individual spirit, heart, and family. As with a sunrise, the horizons brightened as fond memories were shared. Amazingly though, no longer physically present, each victim managed to live on through the love experienced during their lives. In short, these were men who loved their families and who were loved in return.

On the morning of, October 3, 1999, as part of the Erath Centennial, a new day dawned at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, as one hundred sixty relatives and community members gathered to remember the lives of the eight men who died during Erath’s Water Tower Collapse in the mid sixties. The memorial mass and reception paid tribute to the eight victims, survivors and the families.

Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community, the Erath Mayor, Town Councilmen and Centennial Committee, hosted a memorial ceremony and reception this past Sunday. Celebrant Reverend Wayne Duet presided over. the 35th Anniversary Mass, which reunited families of the eight victims. The 11:00 a.m. Memorial Mass which was held on the actual 35th anniversary date of the accident. Family members and friends gathered from Houston, Sulphur and connecting Acadiana areas, to remember their loved ones. Though not a celebrated moment in time, this historical date was part of Erath’s Centennial Program. Following the mass, family and friends gathered at Erath City Hall, which was dedicated to these victims when the new City Hall was built in 1966.  Many later stated that the memorial mass held in 1999 brought closure to the old wound still alive in their hearts 35 years later.

An unusual twist of fate brought unexpected disaster to Erath that unforgettable October evening in 1964. Walking hand in hand, grief, and death claimed Erath. The harsh reality of the multiple deaths numbed the rural community when Hurricane Hilda hit the Louisiana Coastline bringing with her, tremendous disaster.

On October 5, 1964, many relatives buried a part of their family, as well as a part of their heart. On that tragic autumn day, family pyramids changed…work places changed…Erath changed. Yet, among the changes, intense sadness, and tears which accompanied this accident, family legacies were born. In fact, never to be forgotten legacies, which have been passed on to younger generations within each family structure. Stories of grandfathers, fathers, relatives, and friends surfaced within each family unit. Just as the first ray of sunlight peers through the darkest of nights at the break of dawn, light eventually entered hearts through the years. While family members gathered to remember loved ones, the dark atmosphere present so long ago disappeared into a new day, as the love of each man managed to transcend time to touch the next generation.

A different tide has seemingly turned fifty years later.  The raging force of Hurricane Hilda’s natural disaster brought a horrendous moment in time. Disaster spawned darkness in 1964, but after five decades, it appears that healing has finally brought light to Erath community.

Spirit of Erath Articles (Keys to the Past Series)

Written by Stacy Bodin, Erath's 100th Anniversary Erath Centennial Historian (1999)

A Special Thank You goes out to Attorney Warren Perrin;
 the Acadian Museum in Erath;
Kermit Bouillion;
Curney Dronet, (Erath Author);
the Abbeville Meridional (Local Newspaper);
(The late) Clement Bourgeois Jr., (Erath Historian);
John LeBlanc (Town Official);
The 1999 Centennial President Jackie Vincent;
Robert Vincent (Acadiana Museum Director);
and my parents Larson "Cap" and Gertie Hebert Bodin
who assisted me in my research in this project.

The articles presented in memory of
Relie LeBlanc III
whose enthusiasm and love of Erath
inspires me still today in my quest of
researching and writing about our community. 
His "Unity in the Community" motto
will forever remain in my heart.

Photo of LeBlanc is
Courtesy of Dickie Durr's Thrifty Way of Abbeville

Questions or comments?
Email Stacy Bodin

Erath Map (MapQuest)

Erath July 4th Celebration
The Acadian Museum in Erath, Louisiana

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