Wild Weather Wednesday: The Knickerbocker Disaster

WildWeatherWednesdayThis storm, an East Coast blizzard (sometimes called a “Nor’easter”) which occurred in late January of 1922, was so-named because of the disaster it caused on the evening of the 28th.  Decades later this storm is still the one which all storms are measured against … it was one of Washington, D.C.’s worst disasters.

An arctic air mass had been sitting over the Washington, D.C. area for a few days.  A front from the southeast had passed over the Gulf of Mexico where it picked up moisture.  As the low front deepened off the coast of Georgia and the cold front reached the Gulf Stream on January 27, it began to snow heavily from the Carolinas northward to Pennsylvania.  The storm was slowed by a high pressure system from the north, but by noon on January 28 the snows had reached Washington, D.C., snowing heavily until the morning of the 29th.

As it turned out, it would be the heaviest snowfall recorded in D.C. since official weather record keeping began in 1885 – the official weather site received twenty-eight inches, although one area a bit farther north recorded thirty-three.  Snow drifts piled up as high as sixteen feet along the rail line between Philadelphia and D.C.

KnickerbockerStormThe Knickerbocker Theater was the newest and largest movie house in the city, built in 1917 with a flat roof and owned by Harry M. Crandall.  It would be five years before “talkies” became more commonplace.  On the night of the 28th, a comedy silent film entitled Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford was playing at the Knickerbocker, released on December 4, 1921 on seven reels.

Despite the massive snowstorm that had just blown through the area, the “show must go on” as perhaps about five hundred movie-goers braved the weather to take in the latest comedy film (the theater seated two thousand).  About 9:00 p.m. the orchestra was playing during intermission, the lights were dimmed and patrons began returning to their seats.  Suddenly, a loud hissing noise was heard when the roof began to cave in from the massive amount of snow accumulated on the building’s flat roof.

KnickerbockerBefore-AfterA few people noticed the problem and realized they needed to take cover or flee the building.  However, just seconds after the hissing noise the roof began to collapse and with it the theater’s cement balcony, which in turn brought down the theater’s brick walls.  Dozens of people were buried under concrete and bricks.  George Brodie had just entered the theater just moments before the collapse and gave this account:

I grabbed for my hat and coat, and the next minute found myself flat on my face with something weighty on top.  I lay still for about five minutes when I noticed at the side of me a girl with an arch or pillar resting upon her.  I tried to pull it off but couldn’t move it.  Then I started working my way slowly in some direction – I think the middle – and with four other fellows we saw a hole with a light shining through.  The next thing I know I was on the street, but I don’t know how I got there.  I stayed around for a while and helped several others, who were apparently uninjured, out of the place.  It was a frightful sight within, nothing but moans, cries and darkness.

As one might imagine, chaos and confusion ensued as people began to shout and search for friends and loved ones amidst the rubble.  One reporter would say that it reminded him of a scene from World War I.  Some reporters were practically speechless, unable to adequately describe what they were witnessing.  After police arrived, search and rescue efforts were organized and heavy equipment was brought in to begin digging through the carnage.

KnickerbockerDisasterAccording to the Washington Post, almost every residence in the vicinity of the theater became a first-aid station.  The nearby Christian Science Church basement was converted into a morgue.  By midnight at least two hundred police and firemen had arrived and by 2:30 a.m. there were over six hundred at the scene.  According to Weatherbook.com, a “small boy was even sent into the wreckage, squeezing through the holes between the fallen concrete slabs, to distribute pain pills to those who were trapped under the rubble.”

Not only did the rescuers need to cut through the ceiling plaster and the roof’s heavy wire screen, they had to chisel through the cement balcony which had fallen on patrons seated on the first floor.  By the afternoon of the 29th, rescue efforts were complete and the casualty tolls were recorded: ninety-eight dead and one hundred and thirteen injured.  There were many sad stories to be told.  John Daly of the Post wrote:

Perhaps the saddest chapter in the whole dire tragedy was recorded when a little lad, barely 9, went to Christian Science Church yesterday morning and in sorrow too deep for childhood to understand, identified the bodies of his father and mother and two sisters.

The Evening Star reported on January 31 that the pianist and wife of the conductor, Mrs. F. Genivieve Mirskey, was killed instantly.  Her body wasn’t located until around noon on the 29th and it appeared from injuries to her upper body that she had glanced upwards just before the crash.  Some were pulled from the wreckage only to die later.  One rescuer reported finding a mother and her child under a piano in the orchestra pit and the woman only slightly injured.  The first violinist, Joseph Wade Beal, married just five days prior, was seated in the orchestra pit and was crushed to death.

For seventy years following the disaster several lawsuits were filed, all dismissed because negligence could not be proven.  An investigation found that the design of the building utilizing an arch of girders rather than support pillars for the roof contributed to the collapse.  Architect Reginald Wyckliffe Geare was distraught over the disaster and in 1927 committed suicide.

Another theater, the Ambassador, was built in the shell of the Knickerbocker in 1923.  Knickerbocker owner Harry Crandall must have agonized for years over the disaster.  In 1937 he committed suicide by gas in his apartment.  He left a note addressed to the “newspaper boys”, saying, “Please don’t be too hard on me, boys, not for my sake but for those I am leaving behind me.  I’m despondent, and miss my theater so much.”  The building was later demolished in 1969 as part of a renewal project and is today the site of a bank.

Interestingly, a floor speech given by a House Representative from Michigan advocated D.C. self-rule: “The people of the District are entitled to a government of their own which they can hold responsible for failure to perform official duties.”  He boasted of his home city Detroit saying even with a population of one million, a mere nine men attended to all the city’s business.  He remarked that a storm like the one in D.C. would have been cleared in Detroit in twenty-four hours.  Detroit today has fallen far below those standards – oh, how times have changed!

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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