The first survivors of the Johnstown wreck who arrived at Pittsburg were Joseph and Henry Lauffer and Lew Dalmeyer. They endured considerable hardship and had several narrow escapes with their lives. Their story of the disaster can best be told in their own language. Joe, the youngest of the Lauffer brothers, said:
"My brother and I left on Thursday for Johnstown. The night we arrived there it rained continually, and on Friday morning it began to flood. I started for the Cambria store at a quarter-past eight on Friday, and in fifteen minutes afterward I had to get out of the store in a wagon, the water was running so rapidly. We then arrived at the station and took the day express and went as far as Conemaugh, where we had to stop. The limited, however, got through, and just as we were about to start the bridge at South Fork gave way with a terrific crash, and we had to stay there. We then went to Johnstown. This was at a quarter to ten in the morning, when the flood was just beginning. The whole city of Johnstown was inundated and the people all moved up to the second floor.
"Now this is where the trouble occurred. These poor unfortunates did not know the reservoir would burst, and there are no skiffs in Johnstown to escape in. When the South Fork basin gave way mountains of water twenty feet high came rushing down the Conemaugh River, carrying before them death and destruction. I shall never forget the harrowing scene. Just think of it! Thousands of people, men, and women, and children, struggling and weeping and wailing as they were being carried suddenly away in the raging current. Houses were picked up as if they were but a feather, and their inmates were all carried away with them, while cries of ‘God Help me!’ ‘Save me!’ ‘I am drowning!’ ‘My child!’ and the like were heard on all sides. Those who were lucky enough to escape went to the mountains, and there they beheld the poor unfortunates being crushed to death among the debris without any chance of being rescued. Here and there a body was seen to make a wild leap into the air and then sink to the bottom.
"At the stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad people were dashed to death against the piers. When the fire stated there hundreds of bodies were burned. Many lookers-on up on the mountains, especially the women, fainted."
Mrs. Lauffer’s brother, Harry, then told his part of the talk, which was not less interesting. He said: "We had a series of narrow escapes, and I tell you we don’t want to be around when anything of that kind occurs again.
"The scenes at Johnstown have not in the least been exaggerated, and, indeed, the worst is to be heard. When we got to Conemaugh and just as we were about to start the bridge gave way. This left the day express, the accommodation, a special train, and a freight train at the station. Above was the South Fork water basin, and all of the trains were well filled. We were discussing the situation when suddenly, without any warning, the whistles of every engine began to shriek, and in the noise could be heard the warning of the first engineer, ‘Fly for your lives! Rush to the mountains, the reservoir has burst.’ Then with a thundering peal came the mad rush of waters. No sooner had the cry been heard than those who could rushed from the train with a wild leap and up the mountains. To tell this story takes some time, but the moments in which the horrible scene was enacted were few. Then came the avalanche of water, leaping and rushing with tremendous force. The waves had angry crests of white, and their roar was something deafening. In one terrible swath they caught the four trains and lifted three of them right off the track, as if they were only a cork. There they floated in the river. Think of it, three large locomotives and finely finished Pullmans floating around, and above all the hundreds of poor unfortunates who were unable to escape from the car swiftly drifting toward death. Just as were about to leap from the car I saw another, with a smiling, blue-eyed baby in her arms. I snatched it from her and leaped from the train just as it was lifted off the track. The mother and child were saved, but if one more minute had elapsed we all would have perished.
"During all of this time the waters kept rushing down the Conemaugh and through the beautiful town of Johnstown, picking up everything and sparing nothing.
"The mountains by this time were black with people, and the moans and sighs from those below brought tears to the eyes of the most stony-hearted. There in that terrible rampage were brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, and from the mountain could be seen the panic-stricken marks in the faces of those who were struggling between life and death. I really am unable to do justice to the scene, and its details are almost beyond my power to relate. Then came the burning of the debris near the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge. The scene was too sickening to endure. We left the spot and journeyed across country and delivered many notes, letters, etc., that were intrusted to us.
The gallant young engineer, John G. Parke, whose ride of warning has already been described, relates the following:
"On Thursday night I noticed that the dam was in good order and the water was nearly seven feet from the top. When the water is at this height the lake is then nearly three miles in length. It rained hard on Thursday night and I rode up to the end of the lake on the eventful day and saw that the woods around there was teeming with a seething cauldron of water. Colonel Unger, the president of the fishing club that owns the property, put twenty-five Italians to work to fix the dam. A farmer in the vicinity also lent a willing hand. To strengthen the dam a plow was run along the top of it, and earth was then thrown into the furrows. On the west side a channel was dug and a sluice was constructed. We cut through a few feet of shale rock, when we cam to solid rock which was impossible to cut without blasting. Once we got the channel open the water leaped down to the bed-rock, and a steam fully twenty feet wide and three feet deep rushed out on that end of the dam, while great quantities of water were coming in by the pier at the other end. And then in the face of this great escape of water from the dam, It kept rising at the rat of ten inches an hour.
"At noon I fully believed that it was practically impossible to save the dam, and I got on a horse and galloped down to South Fork, and gave the alarm, telling the people at the same time of their danger, and advising them to get to a place of safety. I also sent a couple of men to the telegraph tower, two miles away, to send messages to Johnstown and Cambria and to the other points on the way. The young girl at the instrument fainted when the news reached her, and was carried away. Then, by the timely warning given, the people at South Fork had an opportunity to move their household goods and betake themselves to a place of safety. Only one person was drowned in that place, and he was trying to save an old washtub that was floating down stream.
"It was noon when the messages were sent out, so that the people of Johnstown had just three hours to fly to a place of safety. Why they did not heed the warning will never be told. I then remounted my horse and rode to the dam, expecting at every moment to meet the lake rushing down the mountain-side, but when I reached there I found the dam still intact, although that water had then reached the top of it. At one P.M. I walked over the dam, and then the water was about three inches on it, and was gradually gnawing away its face. As the stream leaped down the outer face, the water was rapidly wearing down the edge of the embankment, and I know that it was a question of but a few hours. From my knowledge I should say there was fully ten million tons of water in the lake at one o’clock, while the pressure was largely increased by the swollen streams that flowed into it, but even then the dam could have stood it if the level of the water had been kept below the top. But, coupled with this, there was the constantly trickling of the water over the sides, which was slowly but surely wearing the banks away.
"The big break took place at just three o’clock, and it was about ten feet wide at first and shallow; but when the opening was made the fearful rushing waters opened the gap with such increasing rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out and started on its fearful march of death down the Valley of the Conemaugh. It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water, and the downpour of millions of tons of water was irresistible. The big boulders and great rafters and logs that were in the bed of the river were picked up, like so much chaff, and carried down the torrent for miles. Trees that stood fully seventy-five feet in height and four feet through were snapped off like pipe-stems."