Run For Your Lives!

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… In a moment Johnstown was tumbling all over itself; houses at one end nodded to houses at the other end and went like a swift and deceitful friend to meet, embrace, and crush them. Then on sped the wreck in a whirl, the angry water baffled for a moment, running up the hill with the town and the helpless multitude on its back, the flood shaking with rage, and dropping here and there a portion of its burden—crushing, grinding, pulverizing all. Then back with great frame buildings, floating along like ocean steamers, upper decks crowded, hands clinging to every support that could be reached, and so on down to the great stone bridge. …

The great stone bridge was the seven-arched bridge that still carries the Pennsylvania over the Conemaugh below the Point. The bridge held because it was not struck by the full force of the flood. Had it been, it would have gone just like everything else. But when the water smashed past the city, it plowed into the side of a mountain before it veered off downstream toward the bridge. The mountain took the brunt of the blow. Within minutes the debris began building at the bridge. Trees, boxcars, factory roofs, hundreds of houses and hundreds of human beings dead and alive, and hundreds of miles of barbed wire were driven against the stone arches, creating a new dam which would cause another kind of murderous nightmare. At first there was a violent backwash that swept up the valley of the Stony Creek as far as a mile and a half, causing tremendous damage all the way. Then, as night came on, fire broke out in the jam at the bridge. Stoves full of live coals dumped over inside mangled kitchens. Oil from a derailed tank car soaked down through the mass. By six o’clock the whole pile had become a funeral pyre for at least three hundred people trapped inside; it burned, Editor Swank wrote, “with all the fury of the hell you read about—cremation alive in your own home, perhaps a mile from its foundation; dear ones slowly consumed before your eyes, and the same fate yours a moment later.” It would be three days before the fire was put out.

That night, Attorney Horace Rose lay in pain listening to the crush of buildings as they settled into the water and watching the eerie light that came from the burning debris. Rose was among the lucky. He had survived the flood. The house in which he and his family awaited it had been one of the substantial brick houses of Johnstown that collapsed in an instant under the weight of the flood, instead of floating off down stream. His side was caved in by falling timbers; his shoulder was dislocated, his collar bone smashed, and a good part of his face was ripped open. But he was still alive and so, as he would discover later, were all of his family. After his house had gone under, he had floated about on a roof, shifting back and forth with the current, lying helpless under the cold rain. He had watched flames leap up the spire of St. John’s Church, watched the big hands still moving on the town clock, and heard the clock slowly strike five. Then he was pulled off the raft and taken into one of the few houses still standing on Vine Street.

J. L. Smith, a stone mason, lived in a frame house on Stony Creek Street. That morning when the creek started over its banks, he had rushed his wife and three children across town to the safety of Hulbert House, Johnstown’s new four-story brick hotel. He then went home again. Smith and his house survived the flood. His wife and children were crushed to death when Hulbert House collapsed almost the instant it was hit by the flood. In all, some sixty people had sought shelter in the substantial-looking hotel, thinking it about the best place in town to ride out the storm. More people died there than in any other building; less than a dozen got out alive.

Gertrude Quinn was the six-year-old daughter of James Quinn, who with his brother-in-law ran one of the best dry-goods stores in town. The two of them, she recalled later, looked like the Smith brothers on the cough-drop box. Her father was also one of the people who had been openly worried about the dam for some time, and especially that morning. If the dam gave way, he told his family, not a house in town would be left standing.

The Quinns lived in a three-story brick house newly built at the corner of Jackson and Main. When the flood bore down on the city, Gertrude’s aunt, convinced that the house was safer than any hillside, rushed the child to the third floor, despite the father’s shout to “run for your livesl” Ih the third-floor nursery, while her aunt prayed, Gertrude fixed her eyes on the interior of her playhouse, the tiny furnishings of which she would remember in sharp detail the rest of her life. When the flood struck, the big brick house gave a violent shudder. Plaster dust crashed down. The walls began to break up, and suddenly, the floorboards in the attic burst open and yellow water gushed through. Young Gertrude sprang into action. Somehow she managed to swing herself up and out of the building through an opening in the roof, leaving her aunt, a nurse, and an infant cousin behind. Within seconds the house was gone, and everyone in it.

The next thing she knew, Gertrude was whirling about on a muddy mattress that was buoyed up’ by debris. She screamed for help. A dead horse slammed against her raft, then a tree. Then she noticed that all her clothes had been torn off, except her underwear. Night was coming on and she was terribly frightened. A small white house went sailing by with a man on top clinging to the chimney. She called out for help, but he ignored her. She shouted back, “You terrible man. I’ll never help you.”