Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them.
It began as a deep, steady rumble, they would say; then it grew louder and louder until it had become an avalanche of sound, “a roar like thunder” was how they generally described it. But one man said he thought the sound was more like the rush of an oncoming train, while another said, “And the sound, I will never forget the sound of that. It sounded to me just like a lot of horses grinding oats.”
Everyone heard shouting and screaming, the earsplitting crash of buildings going down, glass shattering, and the sides of houses ripping apart. Some people would later swear they heard factory whistles screeching frantically and church bells ringing. Who may have been yanking the bell cords was never discovered, but it was later reported that a freight engineer named Hugh Clifford had raced his train from above the depot across the stone bridge, his whistle going the whole way; and a man named Charles Horner blew the whistle over at Harry Swank’s machine shop.
Those who actually saw the wall of water would talk and write of how it “snapped off trees like pipestems” or “crushed houses like eggshells” or picked up locomotives (and all sorts of other immense objects) “like so much chaff.” But what seemed to make the most lasting impression was the cloud of dark spray that hung over the front of the wave.
Tribune editor George Swank wrote, “The first appearance was like that of a great fire, the dust it raised.” Another survivor described it as “a blur, an advance guard, as it were a mist, like dust that precedes a cavalry charge.” One young man said he thought at first that there must have been a terrible explosion up the river, “for the water coming looked like a cloud of the blackest smoke I ever saw.”
For everyone who saw it, there seemed something especially evil about this “awful mass of spray” that hovered over “the black wreck.” It was talked of as “the death mist” and would be remembered always.
The fact was there had been something close to an explosion up the river, at the Gautier works, when the water rolled over the fires there, which undoubtedly accounted for a good part of what they saw. Horace Rose, who witnessed about as much as anyone, thought so.
At the first sound of trouble he had rushed to the third floor of his house on lower Main Street and from the front window could see nearly a mile up the valley. Only a few minutes before he had been playfully teasing his neighbors’ child, Bessie Fronheiser, from another window downstairs, telling her to come on over for a visit. The distance between the two houses was only about five feet, so he had put some candy on the end of a broom and passed it over to her. That was so successful that he next passed across a tin cup of coffee to Bessie’s mother in the same way. She was just raising the cup to her lips when the first crash came.
From the third floor Rose could see the long line of the rolling debris, stretching from hill to hill, slicing through the Gautier works, chopping it down and sending up a huge cloud of soot and steam.
The sight took his breath away. Once clear of the wireworks, the wave kept on coming straight toward him, heading for the very heart of the city. Stores, houses, trees, everything was going down in front of it, and the closer it came, the bigger it seemed to grow. Rose figured that he and his family had, at the most, two or three minutes before they would be crushed to death.
There would be slight differences of opinion later as to precisely when the wave crossed the line into Johnstown, but the generally accepted time is 4:07.
The height of the wall was at least thirty-six feet at the center, though eyewitness descriptions suggest that the mass was perhaps ten feet higher there than off to the sides where the water was spreading out as the valley expanded to a width of nearly half a mile.
It was also noted by dozens of people that the wave appeared to be preceded by a wind which blew down small buildings and set trees to slapping about in the split seconds before the water actually struck them. Several men later described how the wind had whipped against them as they scrambled up the hillsides, grabbing at brush to pull themselves out of the way at the very last instant.
Because of the speed it had been building as it plunged through Woodvale, the water struck Johnstown harder than anything it had encountered in its fourteen-mile course from the dam. And the part of the city which took the initial impact was the eastern end of Washington Street, which ran almost at right angles to the path of the oncoming wave.
The drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes.
For most people they were the most desperate minutes of their lives, snatching at children and struggling through the water, trying to reach the high ground, running upstairs as houses began to quake and split apart, clinging to rafters, window ledges, anything, while the whole world around them seemed to spin faster and faster. But there were hundreds, on the hillsides, on the rooftops of houses out of the direct path, or in the windows of tall buildings downtown, who just stood stone-still and watched in dumb horror.
They saw the eastern end of Washington Street, the block where the Heiser dry-goods store stood, disappear in an instant. From there the wave seemed to divide into three main thrusts, one striking across the eastern end of town behind the Methodist Church, one driving straight through the center, and the other sticking more or less to the channel of the Little Conemaugh along the northern side of town. Not that there was any clear parting of the wave, but rather that there seemed to be those three major paths of destruction.
East of the park, Jackson and Clinton streets became rivers of rubbish churning headlong for the Stony Creek. On Main and Locust, big brick buildings like the Hulbert House collapsed like cardboard while smaller wood-frame stores and apartment houses jumped from their foundations and went swirling away downstream, often to be smashed to bits against still other buildings, freight cars, or immense trees caught by the same roaring current.
Every tree in the park was torn up by the roots and snatched away as the water crossed through the center of town. John Fulton’s house caved in, and other big places went down almost immediately after—the Horace Rose house, the John Dibert house, the Cyrus Elder house. The library, the telegraph office, the Opera House, the German Lutheran Church, the fire station, landmarks were vanishing so fast that no one could keep count of them. Then, perhaps no more than four minutes after the water had plunged across Washington Street, it broke past Vine on the far side of town and slammed into the hill which rises almost straight up to nearly 550 feet in back of the Stony Creek.
It was as though the water had hit an immense and immovable backboard, and the result was much as it had been at South Fork when the wave struck the mountainside there. An immediate and furious backwash occurred. One huge wave veered off to the south, charging up the Stony Creek, destroying miles of the densely populated valley, which, it would seem, had been well out of reach of any trouble from the valley of the Little Conemaugh. Other waves pounded back on Johnstown itself, this time, very often, to batter down buildings which had somehow withstood the first onslaught.
Houses and rooftops, dozens of them with thirty or forty people clinging on top, went spinning off on a second run with the current, some to end up drifting about for hours, but most to pile in to the stone bridge, where a good part of the water headed after striking the hill, and where eventually all the water had to go.
The bridge crossed the Conemaugh River downstream from the Point where the Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh come together. Past the bridge, another mile or so west, was the great Conemaugh Gap, the deepest river gorge between the Alleghenies and the Rockies and the flood’s only way out of the mountains. But the bridge was never hit by the full force of the water. It had been built far enough down from the Point so that when the wave went grinding over Johnstown, it was shielded by Prospect Hill, and after the wave broke apart against the mountainside, the bridge had to withstand the impact of only a part of the wave.
As a result the bridge held. Had it been in the direct path and been struck full force, it would have been taken out just like everything else. But as it was, the mountainside took the brunt of the blow, the bridge survived, and the course of events for the next several hours went very differently.
Debris began building rapidly among the massive stone arches. And now it was no longer the relatively small sort of rubbish that had been clogging the bridge most of the day. Now boxcars, factory roofs, trees, telegraph poles, hideous masses of barbed wire, hundreds of houses, many squashed beyond recognition, others still astonishingly intact, dead horses and cows, and hundreds of human beings, dead and alive, were driven against the bridge until a small mountain had formed, higher than the bridge itself and nearly watertight. So once again, for the second time within an hour, Lake Conemaugh gathered in a new setting. Now it was spread all across Johnstown and well beyond.
But this time the new “dam” would hold quite a little longer than the viaduct had and would cause still another kind of murderous nightmare. For when darkness fell, the debris at the bridge caught fire.
No one knows for sure what caused the fire. The explanation most often given at the time was that oil from a derailed tank car had soaked down through the mass, and that it was set off by coal stoves dumped over inside the kitchens of mangled houses caught in the jam. But there could have been a number of other causes, and in any case, by six o’clock the whole monstrous pile had become a funeral pyre for perhaps as many as eighty people trapped inside.
Editor George Swank, who had been watching everything from his window at the Tribune office, wrote that it burned “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.”
By ten o’clock the light from the flames across the lower half of town was bright enough to read a newspaper by.
The water in front of the Heiser store had been knee-deep since early in the afternoon, which was a record for that part of town. In the other floods over the years there had never been any water at all so far up on Washington Street.
People had been coming in and out of the store most of the morning joking about the weather, buying this and that to tide them through the day. The floor was slick with mud from their boots, and the close, warm air inside the place smelled of tobacco and wet wool. George Heiser, wearing his usual old sweater, was too busy taking care of customers to pay much attention to what was going on outside.
But by early afternoon, with the street out front under two feet of water, hardly anyone was about, and the Heiser family was left more or less to itself. A few visitors dropped in, family friends, and an occasional customer. Mrs. Lorentz, from Kernville, sat visiting with Mathilde Heiser upstairs. She had come by alone, without her husband, who was the town’s weatherman, and, no doubt, a busy man that day.
Sometime near tour o’clock George Heiser had sent his son, Victor, out to the barn to see about the horses. The animals had been tied in their stalls, and George, worried that they might strangle if the water should get any higher, wanted them unfastened.
The barn, like the store front, was a recent addition for the Heisers. It had a bright-red tin roof and looked even bigger than it was, standing, as it did, upon higher ground at the rear of their lot. To get back to it, Victor had left his shoes and socks behind and, with a pair of shorts on, went wading across through the pelting rain. It had taken him only a few minutes to see to the horses and he was on his way out the door when he heard the noise.
Terrified, he froze in the doorway. The roar kept getting louder and louder, and every few seconds he heard tremendous crashes. He looked across at the house and in the second-story window saw his father motioning to him to get back into the barn and up the stairs. Just a few weeks earlier he and his father had cut a trap door through the barn roof, because his father had thought “it might be a good idea.”
The boy was through the door and onto the roof in a matter of seconds. Once there he could see across the top of the house, and on the other side, no more than two blocks away, was the source of all the racket. He could see no water, only an immense wall of rubbish, dark and squirming with rooftops, huge roots, and planks. It was coming at him very fast, ripping through Portage and Center streets. When it hit Washington Street, he saw his home crushed like an orange crate and swallowed up.
In the same instant the barn was wrenched from its footings and began to roll like a barrel, over and over. Running, stumbling, crawling hand over hand, clawing at tin and wood, Victor somehow managed to keep on top. Then he saw the house of their neighbor, Mrs. Fenn, loom up in front. The barn was being driven straight for it. At the precise moment of impact, he jumped, landing on the roof of the house just as the walls of the house began to give in and the whole roof started plunging downward.
He clambered up the steep pitch of the roof, fighting to keep his balance. The noise was deafening and still he saw no water. Everything about him was cracking and splitting, and the air was filled with flying boards and broken glass. It was more like being in the middle of an explosion than anything else.
With the house and roof falling away beneath him, he caught hold of still another house that had jammed in on one side. Grabbing on to the eaves, he hung there, dangling, his feet swinging back and forth, reaching out, trying to get a toe hold. But there was none. All he could do was hang and swing. For years after he would have recurring nightmares in which it was happening to him all over again. If he let go he was finished. But in the end, he knew, he would have to let go. His fingernails dug deep into the water-soaked shingles. Shooting pains ran through his hands and down his wrists.
Then his grip gave out and he fell, backwards, sickeningly, through the wet, filthy air, and slammed down on a big piece of red roof from the new barn. And now, for the first time, he saw water; he was bumping across it, lying on his stomach, hanging on to the roof with every bit of strength left in him, riding with the wave as it smashed across Johnstown.
The things he heard and saw in the next moments would be remembered later only as a gray, hideous blur, except for one split-second glimpse which would stick in his mind for the rest of his life.
He saw the whole Mussante family sailing by on what appeared to be a barn floor. Mussante was a fruit dealer on Washington Street, a small, dark Italian with a drooping mustache, who had been in Johnstown now perhaps three years. He had had a pushcart at first, then opened the little place not far from the Heiser store. Victor knew him well, and his wife and two children. Now there they were speeding by with a Saratoga trunk open beside them, and every one of them busy packing things into it. And then a mass of wreckage heaved up out of the water and crushed them.
But he had no time to think more about them or anything else. He was heading for a mound of wreckage lodged between the Methodist Church and a three-story brick building on the other side of where Locust Street had been. The next thing he knew he was part of the jam. His roof had catapulted in amongst it, and there, as trees and beams shot up on one side or crashed down on the other, he went leaping back and forth, ducking and dodging, trying desperately to keep his footing, while more and more debris kept booming into the jam.
Then, suddenly, a freight car reared up over his head. It looked like the biggest thing he had ever seen in his life. And this time he knew there could be no jumping out of the way.
But just as it was about to crash on top of him, the brick building beside him broke apart, and his raft, as he would describe it later, “shot out from beneath the freight car like a bullet from a gun.”
Now he was out onto comparatively open water, rushing across a clear space which he judged to be approximately where the park had been. He was moving at a rapid clip, but there seemed far less danger, and he took some time to look about.
There were people struggling and dying everywhere around him. Every so often a familiar face would flash by. There was Mrs. Fenn, fat and awkward, balanced precariously on a tar barrel, well doused with its contents, and trying, pathetically, to stay afloat. Then he saw the young Negro who worked for Dr. Lee, down on his knees praying atop his employer’s roof, stark naked, shivering, and beseeching the Lord in a loud voice to have mercy on his soul.
Like the Mussante family, they were suddenly here and gone like faces in nightmares, or some sort of grotesque comedy, as unreal and as unbelievable as everything else that was happening. And there was nothing he could do for them, or anybody else.
He was heading across town toward the Stony Creek. As near as he could reckon later, he passed right by where Horace Rose’s house had stood, then crossed Main and sailed over the Morrell lot, and perhaps directly over where the Morrell greenhouse had been. Almost immediately after that, about the time he was crossing Lincoln Street, he got caught by the backcurrent.
Until then he had been keeping his eyes on the mountainside, which looked almost close enough to reach out and touch, and on the stone bridge. Both places looked to be possible landings, and either one would do as well as the other.
But now his course changed sharply, from due west to due south. The current grabbed his raft and sent it racing across the Stony Creek a half mile or so, over into the Kernville section, and it was here that his voyage ended.
“I passed by a two-and-a-half-story brick dwelling which was still remaining on its foundations. Since my speed as I went up this second valley was about that of a subway train slowing for a stop, I was able to hop to the roof and join a small group of people already stranded there.”
When he had been standing on the roof of his father’s barn, looking across the housetops at the avalanche bearing down on Johnstown, he had taken his watch out of his pocket to look at the time. It was a big silver watch with a fancy-etched cover, which had been his fourteenth birthday present from his father. He had snapped it open, because, as he would say later, “I wanted to see just how long it was going to take for me to get from this world over into the next one.”
Now, on the rooftop in Kernville, realizing that he had perhaps a very good chance of staying on a little longer in this world, he pulled out the watch a second time.
Amazingly enough, it was still running, and he discovered with astonishment that everything that had happened since he had seen his home vanish had taken place in less than ten minutes.
Agnes Chapman had watched her husband walk to the front door in his bedroom slippers about four o’clock, open it, peer out, and turn around looking, as she told it later on, “pale and affrighted.” The Reverend had just seen a boxcar with a man standing on top roll down the pavement in front of the parsonage. As he passed under the tree in the Chapmans’ yard, the man had caught hold of a limb and swung himself up onto the roof of the front porch, from which he stepped through the second-story window directly over the Reverend’s head.
The man was the ticket agent from the B & O station, across Washington Street from the Heiser store. Upon hearing the commotion up the valley, he had climbed on top of the car to see what was going on. Then the car had started running with what must have been a small but powerful current preceding the main wave. It swept the car down Franklin, across Locust, too fast for the man to do anything but hang on until he was within reach of the Chapmans’ tree.
The whole scene meant only one thing to the Reverend. The reservoir had broken. He shouted for everyone to run for the attic.
Agnes Chapman, with her seven-year-old granddaughter, Nellie, Mrs. Brinker (their neighbor from across the park), Mr. Parker, and Lizzie, the cook, all made a dash up the front stairs, while Chapman ran to the study to shut off the gas fire. As he turned to go back out to the hall, he saw the front door burst open and a huge wave rush in. He ran for the kitchen and scrambled up the back stairs. A few seconds more and he would have been swept against the ceiling and drowned. The water was up the stairs and into the second floor almost instantly.
By now the whole family was in the attic, along with the B & O ticket agent and two other young men who had jumped through an open window from a whirling roof.
“We all stood there in the middle of the floor, waiting our turn to be swept away, and expecting every minute to be drowned.” Mrs. Chapman said. “When our porches were torn loose, and the two bookcases fell over, the noise led us to think the house was going to pieces.”
The noise everywhere was so awful they had to shout to hear one another. Outside other buildings were scraping and grinding against theirs, or crashing in heaps, and the thunder of the water kept on for what seemed an eternity.
“We knew…that many of our fellow citizens were perishing, and feared that there could be no escape for us,” the Reverend Chapman wrote later. “I think none was afraid to meet God, but we all felt willing to put it off until a more propitious time…”
About then a man Chapman thought to be “an Arabian” came bounding through the window, clad only in underdrawers and a vest. He was drenching wet, shaking with cold and terror, and kept shouting at them, “Fader, Mudder. Tronk! Tronk! Two, tree hooner tollar, two, tree hooner tollar.”
“I think he wanted to tell us he had lost his trunk with two or three hundred dollars he had saved to bring his mother and father over here,” Chapman later explained.
The man got right down on his knees and started praying over a string of beads with such frenzy that the Reverend had to quiet him down, as he “excited and alarmed the ladies.”
But despite everything happening outside, the parsonage appeared to be holding on. And when the roar began to die off, Chapman went to the window to take a look. It was, he wrote afterward, “a scene of utter desolation.” With darkness closing down on the valley and the rain still falling, his visibility was quite limited. Still, he could make out the tall chimneys and gables of Dr. Lowman’s house across the park, poking above what looked to him like a lake spread over the town at a depth of maybe thirty feet. There was not a sign of any of the other houses that had been on the park, but over on the left, where Main Street had been, he could see the dim silhouettes of the bank, Alma Hall, which was the Odd Fellows new building, and the Presbyterian Church sticking up out of the dark water. There were no lights anywhere and no people. “Everyone is dead,” Chapman thought to himself.
Mrs. Brinker asked him to look to see if her house was still standing. When he said it was not, the others did what they could to console her. The room grew steadily darker, and from outside came more sounds of houses cracking up and going down under the terrible weight of the water.
The Hulbert House had been the finest hotel in town. It was not so large as the Merchants’ Hotel on Main, but it was newer and fitted out “with all the latest wrinkles” as one paper of the day put it. Drummers made up most of the trade, and things were arranged to suit them. Breakfast was served early, dinner at noon (a custom most big-city hotels had long since abandoned), and like the other chief hotels in town, each of its rooms had a long extension table where the salesmen could display their wares. “Through some open door we can always see one piled high with samples of the latest fashions as adulterated for the provincial market,” wrote a visitor from New York. It was also, for some strange reason, the only hotel in town without a bar.
Located on Clinton Street, three doors from Main on the east side of the street, it was all brick and four stories tall. Earlier that morning it had looked to quite a number of people like one of the safest places in town.
For example, Jeremiah Smith, a stonemason who lived in a small frame house over on Stony Creek Street, brought his wife and three children (nine-year-old Florence, seven-year-old Frank, and a four-month-old baby) across town through the rain to the safety of the Hulbert House. How long Smith stayed on with them is not known, but the evidence is he soon went back home again. In any case, he and his house survived the flood. His wife and children were crushed to death when the Hulbert House collapsed almost the instant it was hit by the flood.
In all there were sixty people inside the building by four o’clock in the afternoon. Only nine of them got out alive.
“Strange as it may seem, we were discussing the possibility of the dam breaking only a few hours before it really did,” one of the survivors, a G. B. Hartley of Philadelphia, was later quoted.
“We were sitting in the office shortly after dinner. Everyone laughed at the idea of the dam giving way. No one had the slightest fear of such a catastrophe.”
As the afternoon passed, Hartley moved to the second-floor parlor. He was sitting there talking to a Miss Carrie Richards, Charles Butler of the Cambria Iron Company, and Walter Benford, brother of the proprietor, when they heard shouting in the streets, immediately followed by loud crashes.
“At first sound,” Hartley said, “we all rushed from the room panic-stricken. Why it was I do not know, but we ran for the stairs. Mr. Butler took Miss Richards’ hand. She called to me, and I took hold of her other hand. Then we started up the stairs. Mr. Benford did not go with us, but instead ran downstairs where his brother had an office. The scene in the hotel is beyond imagination or description.
“Chambermaids ran screaming through the halls, beating their hands together and uttering wild cries to heaven for safety. Frightened guests rushed about not knowing what to do nor what was coming. Up the stairs we leapt. Somewhere, I do not know when or how it was, I lost my hold of Miss Richards’ hand. I really cannot tell what I did, I was so excited. I still rushed up the stairs and thought Miss Richards and Mr. Benford were just behind and I had reached the top flight of stairs and just between the third and fourth floors, when a terrific crash came. Instantly I was pinned by broken boards and debris…”
Hartley then looked up and saw that the building’s big mansard roof had been lifted right off and he was looking at nothing more than a sullen sky. In what must have been no more than thirty seconds or so, he managed to scramble out from under the debris and climb onto the roof, which was floating to the side of the crumbling hotel.
F. A. Benford, proprietor of the house, was already on the roof, along with his brother Walter, a traveling salesman from Strawbridge & Clothier named Herbert Galager, and two chambermaids, one of whom had a dislocated shoulder. The roof floated off with the current. The rest of the building just disappeared; the walls fell in and it was gone.
Gertrude Quinn was the six-year-old daughter of James Quinn, who, with his brother-in-law, Andrew Foster, ran Geis, Foster and Quinn; Dry Goods and Notions, which stood diagonally across Clinton from the Hulbert House. The two of them, Gertrude would later say, looked like the Smith Brothers on the cough-drop box.
James Quinn was one of the few prominent men in Johnstown who had been noticeably concerned about the dam since early that morning. He had been to the lake several times over the years and had a clear idea of the volume of water there. If the dam should let go, he had said, not a house in town would be left standing.
The Quinns lived in one of Johnstown’s show places, a three-story, red-brick Queen Anne house newly built at the corner of Jackson and Main. It was surrounded by an iron fence and stood well up off the street, perfectly safe, it was to be assumed, from even the worst spring floods. There were fruit trees and a flower garden in the front yard, a kitchen garden, a barn with one cow and some ducks out back. Inside, everything was the latest—plumbing, icebox, organ, piano, Arab scarves, Brussels carpets, a marble clock from Germany on the mantel.
Besides Gertrude, there were six other children in the family. Vincent, who was sixteen, was the oldest. Helen, Lalia, and Rosemary came next; then Gertrude, Marie, and Tom, who was only a few months old. Rosina Quinn, their mother, was the daughter of old John Geis, who had started the store back in canal days, soon after he arrived from Bavaria. She had worked in the business herself before marrying and was later teased for having five of her seven children in July, which, as everyone knew, was the slow season for dry goods.
Then there was Libby Hipp, the eighteen-year-old German nursegirl, Gertrude’s Aunt Abbie (Mrs. Geis), and her infant son, Richard. Aunt Abbie, who was probably no more than twenty-eight years old and a woman of exceptional beauty, had come east for her health from her home in Salina, Kansas. She had had three children in a very short time and needed rest.
James Quinn was most definitely head of the household. He was a trim, bookish man who had been an officer in the cavalry during the war and still held himself in a like manner. He was President of the Electric Light Company, a member of the school board, and, along with Cyrus Elder, Dr. Lowman, and George Swank, he was one of the trustees of the Johnstown Savings Bank. As a boy he had been taken by his father, a construction worker, to ask for a job in the Cambria mills but had been turned down because he looked too scared—for which he would be forever thankful. For a while before the war he had toyed with the idea of becoming an artist, and one of his early efforts, Rebecca at the Well, done in house paints, hung in the third floor of the new house on Jackson Street. (Later on, his wife would tell him, “The flood wasn’t so bad, when you realize we got rid of Rebecca so gracefully.”)
At home he was quite exacting about the use of the English language, abhorring slang and insisting on proper diction. He liked cigars. He was quiet, dignified, a strong Republican, and a good Catholic.
The advertisements he was placing in the Tribune that spring let it be known that Foster and Quinn were offering the finest in Hamburg embroideries, Spanish laces, Marseilles quilts, and “new French sateens.” But the store also dealt in carpets, umbrellas, hatpins, hairpins, flannel drawers, striped calico dresses, pearl buttons, black hose, bolsters, and pillowcases.
“I cannot separate thoughts of parents, brothers, sisters, or home from our store,” Gertrude would say later. “When we went there, we became personages…the clerks, vying with one another for our attention, were always doing thoughtful little things for us.”
The place was big and brightly lighted, with people coming and going, exchanging news and gossip. For the children it was all a grand show, from which they took home strings of stray beads or buttons or some other trinket.
For Foster and Quinn (father-in-law Geis had long since retired), the place represented an investment of about $60,000 and provided a very good living.
On the morning of the 31st, James Quinn had gone to the store early to supervise the moving of goods to higher levels. Before leaving home he had told everyone to stay inside. One of his children, Marie, was already sick with measles, and he did not want the others out in the rain catching cold. He did, however, allow young Vincent to come along with him downtown to lend a hand.
At noon, when he had returned for dinner, the water had been up to his curbstone. He had been restless and worried through the meal, talking about the water rising in the streets and his lack of confidence in the South Fork dam.
A few days before, he and his wife and the infant, Tom, and Lalia had gone to Scottdale for a christening, and Mrs. Quinn and the two children had stayed on to visit with her sister. Now Aunt Abbie and Libby Hipp were more or less running things, and he was doing his best to make sure they understood the seriousness of the situation.
“James, you are too anxious,” his sister-in-law said. “This big house could never go.”
In recalling the day years afterward, Gertrude felt sure that her father was so worried that he would have moved them all to the hill that morning, even though he had no special place to take them, if it had not been for Marie. He was afraid of the effect the light might have on her eyes.
After dinner he had gone back to the store, and Gertrude slipped out onto the front porch where she began dangling her feet in the water, which, by now, covered the yard just deep enough for the ducks to sport about among the flowers. Everyone who survived the flood would carry some especially vivid mental picture of how things had looked just before the great wave struck; for this child it would be the sight of those ducks, and purple pansies floating face up like lily pads, in the yellow water.
Shortly before four Gertrude’s father suddenly appeared in front of her. He took her with one hand, with the other gave her a couple of quick spanks for disobeying his order to stay inside, and hurried her through the door.
“Then he gave me a lecture on obedience, wet feet, and our perilous position; he said he had come to take us to the hill and that we were delayed because my shoes and stockings had to be changed again. He was smoking a cigar while the nurse was changing my clothes. Then he went to the door to toss off the ashes.”
It was then that he saw the dark mist and heard the sound of the wave coming. He rushed back inside, shouting, “Run for your lives. Follow me straight to the hill.”
Someone screamed to him about the baby with the measles. He leaped up the stairs and in no more than a minute was back down with Marie wrapped in a blanket, his face white and terrified-looking.
“Follow me,” he said. “Don’t go back for anything. Don’t go back for anything.” Everyone started out the door except Vincent. Just where he was no one knew. Helen and Rosemary ran on either side of their father, holding on to his elbows as he carried the baby. When they got to the street the water was nearly to Rosemary’s chin, but she kept going, and kept trying to balance the umbrella she had somehow managed to bring along. The hill was at most only a hundred yards away. All they had to do was get two short blocks to the end of Main and they would be safe.
James Quinn started running, confident that everyone was with him. But Aunt Abbie, who was carrying her baby, and Libby Hipp, who had Gertrude in her arms, had turned back.
When she reached the top of the steps that led from the yard down to the street, Aunt Abbie had had second thoughts.
“I don’t like to put my feet in that dirty water,” Gertrude would remember her saying. Libby said she would do whatever Aunt Abbie thought best, so they started back into the house.
“Well, I kicked and scratched and bit her, and gave her a terrible time, because I wanted to be with my father,” Gertrude said later. How the two women, each with a child, ever got to the third floor as fast as they did was something she was never quite able to figure out. Once there, they went to the front window, opened it, and looked down into the street. Gertrude described the scene as looking “like the Day of Judgment I had seen as a little girl in Bible histories,” with crowds of people running, screaming, dragging children, struggling to keep their feet in the water.
Her father meanwhile had reached dry land on the hill, and turning around saw no signs of the rest of his family among the faces pushing past him. He grabbed hold of a big butcher boy named Kurtz, gave him Marie, told him to watch out for the other two girls, and started back to the house.
But he had gone only a short way when he saw the wave, almost on top of him, demolishing everything, and he knew he could never make it. There was a split second of indecision, then he turned back to the hill, running with all his might as the water surged along the street after him. In the last few seconds, fighting the current around him that kept getting deeper and faster every second, he reached the hillside just as the wave pounded by below.
Looking behind he saw his house rock back and forth, then lunge sideways, topple over, and disappear.
Gertrude never saw the wave. The sight of the crowds jamming through the street had so terrified her aunt and Libby Hipp that they had pulled back from the window, horrified, dragging her with them into an open cupboard.
“Libby, this is the end of the world, we will all die together,” Aunt Abbie sobbed, and dropped to her knees and began praying hysterically, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Have mercy on us, oh, God…”
Gertrude started screaming and jumping up and down, calling “Papa, Papa, Papa,” as fast as she could get it out.
The cupboard was in what was the dining room of an elaborate playhouse built across the entire front end of the third floor. There was nothing like it anywhere else in town, the whole place having been fitted out and furnished by Quinn’s store. There was a long center hall and a beautifully furnished parlor at one end and little bedrooms with doll beds, bureaus, washstands, and ingrain carpets on the floors. The dining room had a painted table, chairs, sideboard with tiny dishes, hand-hemmed tablecloths, napkins, and silverware.
From where she crouched in the back of the cupboard, Gertrude could see across the dining room into a miniature kitchen with its own table and chairs, handmade iron stove, and, on one wall, a whole set of iron cooking utensils hanging on little hooks. Libby Hipp was holding her close, crying and trembling.
Then the big house gave a violent shudder. Gertrude saw the tiny pots and pans begin to sway and dance. Suddenly plaster dust came down. The walls began to break up. Then, at her aunt’s feet, she saw the floor boards burst open and up gushed a fountain of yellow water.
“And these boards were jagged…and I looked at my aunt, and they didn’t say a word then. All the praying stopped, and they gasped, and looked down like this, and were gone, immediately gone.”
She felt herself falling and reaching out for something to grab on to and trying as best she could to stay afloat.
“I kept paddling and grabbing and spitting and spitting and trying to keep the sticks and dirt and this horrible water out of my mouth.”
Somehow she managed to crawl out of a hole in the roof or wall, she never knew which. All she saw was a glimmer of light, and she scrambled with all her strength to get to it, up what must have been the lath on part of the house underneath one of the gables. She got through the opening, never knowing what had become of her aunt, Libby, or her baby cousin. Within seconds the whole house was gone and everyone in it.
The next thing she knew, Gertrude was whirling about on top of a muddy mattress that was being buoyed up by debris but that kept tilting back and forth as she struggled to get her balance. She screamed for help. Then a dead horse slammed against her raft, pitching one end of it up into the air and nearly knocking her off. She hung on for dear life, until a tree swung by, snagging the horse in its branches before it plunged off with the current in another direction, the dead animal bobbing up and down, up and down, in and out of the water, like a gigantic, gruesome rocking horse.
Weak and shivering with cold, she lay down on the mattress, realizing for the first time that all her clothes had been torn off except for her underwear. Night was coming on and she was terribly frightened. She started praying in German, which was the only way she had been taught to pray.
A small white house went sailing by, almost running her down. She called out to the one man who was riding on top, straddling the peak of the roof and hugging the chimney with both arms. But he ignored her, or perhaps never heard her, and passed right by.
“You terrible man,” she shouted after him. “I’ll never help you.”
Then a long roof, which may have been what was left of the Arcade Building, came plowing toward her, looking as big as a steamboat and loaded down with perhaps twenty people. She called out to them, begging someone to save her. One man started up, but the others seemed determined to stop him. They held on to him and there was an endless moment of talk back and forth between them as he kept pulling to get free.
Then he pushed loose and jumped into the current. His head bobbed up, then went under again. Several times more he came up and went under. Gertrude kept screaming for him to swim to her. Then he was heaving himself over the side of her raft, and the two of them headed off downstream, Gertrude nearly strangling him as she clung to his neck.
The big roof in the meantime had gone careening on until it hit what must have been a whirlpool in the current and began spinning round and round. Then, quite suddenly, it struck something and went down, carrying at least half its passengers with it.
Gertrude’s new companion was a powerful, square-jawed millworker named Maxwell McAchren, who looked like John L. Sullivan. How far she had traveled by the time he climbed aboard the mattress, she was never able to figure out for certain. But later on she would describe seeing many flags at one point along the way, which suggests that she went as far up the Stony Creek as Sandy Vale Cemetery, where the Memorial Day flags could have been visible floating about in the water. Sandy Vale is roughly two miles from where the Quinn house had been, and when Maxwell McAchren joined her, she had come all the way back down again and was drifting with the tide near Bedford Street in the direction of the stone bridge.
On a hillside, close by to the right, two men were leaning out of the window of a small white building, using long poles to carry on their own rescue operation. They tried to reach out to the raft, but the distance was too great. Then one of them called out, “Throw that baby over here.”
McAchren shouted back, “Do you think you can catch her?”
“We can try,” they answered.
The child came flying through the air across about ten to fifteen feet of water and landed in the arms of Mr. Henry Koch, proprietor of Koch House, a small hotel and saloon (mostly saloon) on Bedford Street. The other man in the room with him was George Skinner, a Negro porter, who had been holding Koch by the legs when he made the catch. The men stripped Gertrude of her wet underclothes, wrapped her in a blanket, and put her on a cot. Later she was picked up and carried to the hill, so bundled up in the warm blanket that she could not see out, nor could anyone see in very well.
Every so often she could hear someone saying, “What have you got there?” And the answer came back, “A little girl we rescued.” Then she could hear people gathering around and saying, “Let’s have a look.” Off would come part of the blanket in front of her face and she would look out at big, close-up faces looking in. Heads would shake. “Don’t know her,” they would say, and again the blanket would come over her face and on they would climb.
Gertrude never found out who it was who carried her up the hill, but he eventually deposited her with a family named Metz, who lived in a frame tenement also occupied by five other families. The place looked like paradise to her, but she was still so terrified that she was unable to say a word as the Metz children, neighbors, and people in off the street jammed into the kitchen to look at her as she lay wrapped now in a pair of red-flannel underwear with Mason jars full of hot water packed all around her.
Later, she was put to bed upstairs, but exhausted as she was she was unable to sleep. In the room with her were three other refugees from the disaster, grown women by the name of Bowser, who kept getting up and going to the window, where she could hear them gasping and whispering among themselves. After a while Gertrude slipped quietly out of bed and across the dark room. Outside the window, down below where the city had been, she could now see only firelight reflecting on water. It looked, as she said later, for all the world like ships burning at sea.
The Reverend Dr. David Beale, pastor of the Presbyterian Church on Main Street, was one of the several hundred people crowded into the cavernous, pitch-dark rooms of the second, third, and fourth floors of Alma Hall. The building was on Main, five doors up from Dr. Beale’s church and directly across the street from the park. It was the tallest, largest structure in Johnstown.
Dr. Beale had been at home that afternoon, in the Lincoln Street parsonage, which stood directly behind his church, and like his good friend and neighbor the Reverend Chapman, he had been working on his sermon for Sunday. About four he had gone into the parlor to help take up the carpet. Then all at once the house was struck, and in the next few seconds he snatched up the family Bible, his wife turned off the gas, his daughter grabbed the canary cage, and they and several neighbors who had dropped by earlier all dashed up the front stairs. By the time they reached the second floor the water was up to their waists, and a hat rack was driven against Beale’s back with such force that it nearly knocked him under. As they reached the third floor a man washed in through the window.
“Who are you? Where are you from?” Beale shouted.
“Woodvale,” the man gasped. He had been carried on a roof a mile and a quarter.
Expecting at any moment “to be present with the Lord,” Beale led the group in a prayer and read aloud from the Bible, his voice straining against the noise of the flood:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
“Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea…”
Outside twisted wreckage, tank cars, freight cars, and what appeared to be every house in sight went tumbling past the window. The Reverend Beale saw J. Q. Benshoff, Johnstown’s leading bookseller go by, Mrs. John Fulton and her daughter, and two small children clinging to a roof, both of them nearly naked. For blocks around every building appeared to have been obliterated.
There were ten people in the Beale attic, counting the newcomer from Woodvale. Soon after, Beale helped save Captain A. N. Hart, his wife, sister, and two small sons by pulling them in through the window. But there was considerable doubt as to how long the frame parsonage could last, and especially when, after a shifting and quieting of the current, the wreckage which had been shoved against the west side of the house began slowly drifting off and the whole building started to jerk and tremble.
A decision was made to try, before nightfall, to walk across the flood—over the debris—to Alma Hall, which was the equivalent of about one block away. Captain Hart went out the window first on the end of a rope, tested a roof that was floating below, found it stable enough, and the other fourteen, plus the Beales’ dog, a terrier called “Guess,” followed after. The Reverend Beale was the last one out. Then they started off, picking their way over tree trunks, timbers, stepping from one moving house to another, climbing up the sides of roofs sometimes so steep that part of the group on one side would be out of sight from those on the other side, then jumping across sudden spaces of dark water or bridging them with stray planks. At one point one of the girls lost her balance and fell in, vanishing from sight except for her hair which floated on the surface. She was rescued by pulling her back on some long boards, and everyone continued on.
By now, very near dark, the city was one huge, vile-looking lake anywhere from ten to thirty feet deep, much of it crusted over with a grinding pack of wreckage, across which now other groups of tiny figures, barely visible in the fading light, could be seen groping their way toward the hills or the few buildings still left standing.
About the time the Reverend Beale and his party had climbed out of the parsonage, a break had occurred in the railroad embankment to the right of the stone bridge, between the bridge and the depot, and the water began raging through just as though it were a spillway. House after house had plunged through the break like boats running the rapids, many of them loaded with people, dozens to be dashed to pieces when they hit Cambria City below.
But there were some people who, one way or another, survived the trip to be fished out by rescue teams farther along the river. One of them was Maxwell McAchren, who, after throwing little Gertrude to safety, sailed on toward the bridge in time to be sucked through the break. He wound up riding the mattress straight through Cambria City at the time when a good part of it was being destroyed, past the Cambria works as they were being pounded by the water, and on down the Conemaugh four miles before he was finally pulled to shore by a crowd of men with ropes.
With the break in the embankment the level of the water over the city began to go down, but only slowly, since the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek were still pouring in immense quantities of water, mud, and debris. So as night began, those buildings which had somehow held up against everything so far were still withstanding as much as twenty feet of water, and very often they had had several hundred tons of wreckage dumped against them. For those who would manage to get inside them, the long night ahead would be by far the most agonizing part of the whole ordeal.
When the Reverend Beale’s group finally reached Alma Hall, there were already close to 200 people inside. At the Dean Canan house there were 60 people in the attic. At least 51 people were in the attic of Dr. Walters’ house on Vine Street. The Fred Krebs house had 125 people inside before the night ended. Nearly 200 people were in the upper floors of the Union Street School, more than 100 on top of the Wolfe Building, and at the Morrell house (by then it had been converted into the Morrell Institute, a vocational training school for the Iron Company) there were 175 people. And over at Dr. Swan’s tall brick house at the corner of Vine and Stony Creek streets there were close to 90 people, including Horace Rose, who lay stretched out on the floor with a dislocated shoulder, a broken collarbone, several crushed ribs, and half of his face ripped open.
There had been a few minutes after the flood had fallen on his part of Main Street during which Rose had been at his window, almost hypnotized by the scene outside. He had seen John Dibert’s house squashed like a paper bag. Another brick house fell with a crash. A large frame building directly across the street had lifted up and charged right for him. Then there had been a horrible noise, he had felt himself falling, and all was dark.
“A moment later I felt the press of a heavy shock, a sense of excruciating pain came upon me that I was being crushed to death…”
His whole right side had been caved in by falling timbers, and he was powerless to free himself. He had heard his youngest son calling for help but had been unable to do anything for him. He had seen his daughter, June, rise up out of the water, then, almost immediately, sink back out of sight. From out of nowhere a small boy had appeared among the chaos and told him his wife had drowned. Then another stranger, this one a young man, seemed, Rose said later, to shoot out of the debris. Rose told him to go help his wife and daughter. The man, Rose learned afterward, was a Pittsburgh dentist named Phillips, and in a few frantic minutes he managed to free Mrs. Rose from the timbers that had fallen on her. Then the majority of the Rose household—Rose, his wife and daughter (she too had been rescued somehow), two of his sons, one maid, “the strange boy,” as Rose called him, and an elderly lady who had been pulled off a floating shutter by one of his sons—were all together on a single stout roof which chanced by at the very moment when the last of their house was disappearing in the tide. The roof had been heading toward the stone bridge. But, Rose wrote later, “Scarcely was the complement of passengers complete, when the current turned, and our ship was driven with terrific velocity directly up the channel of the Stony Creek…”
Then for several more hours they had floated about, sometimes wallowing in dead water, other times rushing rapidly back over a course they had just completed. And through it all Rose lay helpless, in terrible pain, and shaking with severe chills as the cold rain beat down.
They had seen the spire of St. John’s Catholic Church catch fire, which according to most accounts had happened about eight o’clock, and had watched the flames leap clear to the cross on top before the whole thing toppled and fell into the water. At another point they had been becalmed within perhaps a hundred feet of where Rose’s office had been on Franklin Street, and listened to the ringing of the ponderous bell in the town clock. The clock was in the steeple of the Lutheran Church, and somehow or other its mechanism was still functioning the same as ever. Through the rest of the night, despite everything, every hour on the hour, it bonged away. The sound had a powerful effect on everyone who heard it.
Then by another sudden change in the surface currents, the roof had been driven off over the main channel of the Stony Creek, where by now the current was again heading downstream. They were carried a hundred yards or more before the roof lodged against the side of the Swan house.
Rose was lifted from the roof and through a window. From then until morning he lay listening to buildings breaking up somewhere out in the night and watching the light from the fire at the bridge play across the walls and ceiling.
For the Reverend Beale and the others inside Alma Hall there had been an immediate fear of fire and what might happen if panic should break out among so many people waiting in the dark. An Alma Hall government had been set up, with Beale and Captain Hart each put in charge of one of the floors. Some whiskey was confiscated, and the use of matches was strictly forbidden because of the likelihood of a natural-gas leak in the basement. A count was made to see how many there were (it came to 264), and the Reverend once again led a prayer.
James Walters, a lawyer, was named director of the building. Walters had made one of the day’s most extraordinary voyages, having been swept from his home on Walnut Street on top of a roof which took him spinning across town until he smashed into the side of Alma Hall, flew headlong through a window, and landed square in the middle of his own office.
The fourth member of the governing body was the only physician in the building, Dr. William Matthews, who spent the entire night tending to the wounded, without sleep or rest, despite the fact that he had two broken ribs.
In the Reverend Beale’s words, it was a “night of indescribable horrors.” The only light was the faint, eerie glow from the fires outside. Up near the long front windows that earlier in the day had looked down into the green treetops of the park, the light was bright enough to recognize a nearby face; but farther back in the deep, high-ceilinged rooms it was nearly pitch-black, and on the stairways between floors there was no light at all.
Nearly everyone was wringing wet, filthy, and suffering from the cold. A number of people had most of their clothes torn off. There was no food and no water. There were no blankets, no dry clothes, and no medical supplies. The injured lay shivering in the dark. The rooms were filled with their moaning, with the crying of scared, hungry children, and with a lot of fervent praying.
Outside they could hear the rush of the rain and faint calls for help, a sudden scream, and every now and then the unearthly howling of dogs and other animals, which to many people was the most frightful sound of all.
Nor was there any assurance whatsoever that the whole enormous building would not go the way of so many others and crack apart and bury them all under tons of brick and plaster and falling timbers. Everyone was asked to move about as little as possible. According to Beale, “the expressed opinion of the contractors present” was that the building would not last the night.
People began thinking about whether their own corpses would be recognizable or where they might be buried, if ever their bodies were found. The suspense was unbearable, and it kept on, hour after hour. It seemed morning would never come.
But Alma Hall stood through the night, as did the Presbyterian Church and its parsonage, Dr. Lowman’s house, where a small crowd had gathered in the top floor, and the Methodist parsonage, where the Chapmans and their assorted guests huddled together in the numbing cold praying for morning. The buildings survived because they were on the lee side of the big, stone Methodist Church. Standing as it did, at the corner of Franklin and Locust, on the northeastern corner of the park, the church was one of the first sizable buildings in town to be struck by the wave. Not only had it held, but it had split the wave and so served as a shield for buildings directly in line behind it. (One tale to come out of Alma Hall later on told of a voice in the dark saying, “We’ve been saved by the Methodist Church,” whereupon another voice answered back, “Only the Catholic Church can save!”)
Elsewhere in the night the story was quite different. Buildings caved in or caught fire and burned to the water line. The St. John’s fire was the biggest and most spectacular, but there were fires among several houses close by; the Keystone Hotel caught fire and there were one or two small fires over in Kernville.
And aside from the many large groups of people gathered inside Alma Hall, Dr. Swan’s house, or the other buildings that were still standing, there were any number of smaller groups of four to six, or even one to two, people who spent the night inside their own tiny attics or atop the roofs of little houses that bobbed about with the current. Some were closed in under roof beams, with no windows to look out or escape through; they were still alive, but trapped, and with no way of knowing what might happen next.
At least one family had jumped into a large bed when the water rushed up their stairs. The bed was borne clear to the ceiling by the water, and the family stayed there, floating inside their own house through the remainder of the night.
Another family named Williams had their house split in half at the bridge, then went floating up the Stony Creek in what was left of the attic. In the darkness that night Mrs. Williams gave birth to a baby boy; and the family stayed there until morning, soaked, freezing cold, the baby wrapped in a shawl.
Scores of others floated on rooftops or freight cars or half-submerged debris, without any protection from the pouring rain. A Mrs. Jacob Malzi hung on to the eaves of a house all night, up to her waist in water. A Miss Minnie Chambers had climbed inside a freight car which had been carried through the cut near the bridge and smashed to pieces against the roof of the Cambria works, where she, miraculously still alive, spent the night holding on to a small pipe that stuck up through the roof. James Shumaker lay half-unconscious across a heap of drifting wreckage all night, his face and arms badly torn and nearly blinded in both eyes by sand and lime.
Several people spent the night in trees, hanging on with the water lapping about below, never daring to close their eyes, even for a few moments, for fear they might fall asleep, lose their grip, and drop into the black current. Jacob Horner and his family of eight spent all night in a tree; so did Reuben Bensen and Mrs. Ann Buck, who was eighty years old, and Mrs. John Burket, who had had every bit of her clothing ripped from her back by the flood.
Of the great many people who were lucky enough to get to dry land, there were a number who were in such a state of shock and fear that they just started walking, stopping for nothing, stumbling on blindly through the dripping woods until the first light of morning.
But by far the worst of the night’s horrors was the fire at the bridge. Minnie Chambers, the girl who clung to the roof of the Cambria works, said later that she could hear screaming from the bridge all through the night. William Tice, who owned a drugstore on Portage Street, described what he saw soon after he had been fished out of the water near the bridge.
“I went up on the embankment and looked across the bridge, which was filled full of debris, and on it were thousands of men, women, and children, who were screaming and yelling for help, as at this time the debris was on fire, and after each crash there was a moment of solemn silence, and those voices would again be heard crying in vain for the help that came not. At each crash hundreds were forced under and slain.
“I saw hundreds of them as the flames approached throw up their hands and fall backward into the fire, and those who had escaped drowning were reserved for the more horrible fate of being burned to death. At last I could endure it no longer, and had to leave, as I could see no more.”
Frank McDonald, a railroad conductor who apparently kept on watching, said, “They reminded me of a lot of flies on flypaper, struggling to get away with no hope and no chance to save them.”
Actually, for anyone to see much of what was going on was extremely difficult, with the rain pouring down, the dark, the smoke, and the wild flames. One after another, houses had been swept against the pileup and quickly took fire. Out of them, crawling on hands and knees, climbing, jumping from place to place, helping one another, small, dark figures had appeared, now silhouetted sharply against the high, wind-whipped flames, now invisible against the black shadow of mangled debris, now emerging again from the smoke and groping their way toward the ends of the bridge. That there looked to be thousands of them and that they seemed insectlike is understandable enough; but evidence is that, at most, perhaps 500 to 600 people were driven into the burning heap, and though exact figures were never settled on, it is likely that all but about 80 of them managed to escape.
A good many escapes were made thanks to the courage of bystanders who rushed in to help. They lifted old people and children from the windows of half-shattered houses. They helped carry the badly injured across the wreckage to the hillsides.
A girl named Rose Clark was trapped near one end of the bridge, half submerged under water, with a broken arm and a broken leg which was pinned down by timbers. A group of men had worked for several hours to free her leg but without success and the fire kept spreading closer. For a short while there was talk among them of cutting her leg off, rather than letting her burn to death, and for a few tense minutes, when the flame was almost on top of them, it looked as though they would have to. But the leg came free at last, and they carried her to safety.
The fire burned on through the night, and would be still blazing when morning came. In little towns miles away downriver and on the other side of the mountains, people could see a strange, shimmering, blood-red glow in the sky.
But even for those who had somehow succeeded in getting to the high ground in time, even for those who were uninjured or were lucky enough to have a roof to sleep under, there was the indescribable agony of remembering what they had seen, and not knowing what had become of others. No one really knew for sure the extent of what had happened, but they knew it had been terrible beyond belief, and if the whereabouts of someone was not known, then only the worst could be imagined. All that could be done now was to wait for morning, and hope.