The first train that passed New Florence, bound east,
was crowded with people from Pittsburgh and places along the line, who
were going to the scene of the disaster with but little hope of finding
their loved ones alive. It was a heart-rending sight. Not a dry eye was
in the train. Mothers moaned for their children. Husbands paced the aisles
and wrung their hands in mute agony. Fathers pressed their faces against
the windows and endeavored to see something, they knew not what, that would
tell them in a measure of the dreadful fate that their loved ones had met
with. All along the raging Conemaugh the train stopped, and bodies were
taken on the express car, being carried by the villagers who were out along
the banks. Oh, the horror and infinite pity of it all! What a journey has
been that of the last half hour! Swollen corpses lay here and there in
piles of cross-ties, or on the river banks along the tangled greenery.
It was about nine o'clock when the first passenger train since Friday came to the New Florence depot with its load of eager passengers. They were no idle travelers, but each had a mission. Here and there men were staring out the windows with red eyes. Among them were tough-looking Hungarians and Italians who had lost friends near Nineveh, while many were weeping, on all sides. Two of the passengers on the train were man and wife from Johnstown. He was dignified and more of less self-possessed. She was anxious, and tried hard to control her feelings. From every newcomer and possible source of information she sought news.
"Ours is a big, new brick house," said she with a brave effort, but with her brown eyes moist and red lips trembling. "It is a three-story house, and I don't think there is any trouble, do you?" said she to me, and without waiting for my answer, she continued with a sob, "There are my four children in the house and their nurse, and I guess father and mother will go over to the house, don't you?"
In a few moments all those in the car knew the story of the pair, and many a pitying glance was cast at them. Their house was one of the first to go.
The huge wave struck Bolivar just after dark, and in five minutes the Conemaugh rose from six to forty feet, and the waters spread out over the whole country. Soon houses began floating down, and clinging to the debris were men, women, and children shrieking for aid. A large number of citizens gathered at the country bridge, and they were reinforced by a number from Garfield, a town on the opposite side of the river. They brought ropes, and these were thrown over into the boiling waters as persons drifted by, in efforts to save them. For half an hour all efforts were fruitless, until at last, when the rescuers were about giving up all hope, a little buy astride a shingle roof managed to catch hold of one of the ropes. He caught it under his left arm and was thrown violently against an abutment, but managed to keep hold and was pulled onto the bridge amid the cheers of the onlookers. The lad was at once taken to Garfield and cared for. The boy is about sixteen years old and his name is Hessler. His story of the calamity is as follows:
"With my father I was spending the day at my grandfather's house in Cambria City. In the house at the time were Theodore, Edward, and John Kintz, John Kintz, Jr., Miss Mary Kintz, Mrs. Mary Kintz, wife of John Kintz, Jr.; Miss Treacy Kintz, Mrs. Rica Smith, John Hirsch and four children, my father, and myself. Shortly after five o'clock there was a noise of roaring waters and screams of people. We looked out the door and saw persons running. My father told us to never mind, as the waters would not rise further. But soon we saw houses swept by and then we ran up to the floor above. The house was three stories, and we were at last forced to the top one. In my fright I jumped on the bed. It was an old-fashioned one, with heavy posts. The water kept rising, and my bed was soon afloat. Gradually it was lifted up The air in the room grew close, and the house was moving. Still the bed kept rising and pressed the ceiling. At last the posts pushed the plaster. It yielded, and a section of the roof gave way. Then I suddenly found myself on the roof and was being carried down stream. After a little this roof commenced to part, and I was afraid I was going to be drowned, but just then another house with a shingle roof floated by, and I managed to crawl on it and floated down until nearly dead with cold when I was saved. After I was freed from the house I did not see my father. My grandfather was on a tree, but he must have been drowned, as the waters were rising fast. John Kintz, Jr., was also on a tree. Miss Mary Kintz and Mrs. Mary Kintz I saw drown. Miss Smith as also drowned. John Hirsch was in a tree, but the four children were drowned. The scenes were terrible. Live bodies and corpses were floating down with me and away from me. I would see a person shriek and then disappear. All along the line were people who were trying to save us, but they could do nothing, and only a few were caught.
An eye-witness at Bolivar Block station tells a story of heroism which occurred at the lower bridge which crosses the Conemaugh at that point. A young man, with two women, were seen coming down the river on part of a floor. At the upper bridge a rope was thrown down to them. This they all failed to catch. Between the two bridges he was noticed to point toward the elder woman who, it is supposed, was his mother. He was then seen to instruct the women how to catch the rope which was being lowered from the other bridge. Down came the raft with a rush. The brave man stood with his arms around the two women. As they swept under the bridge he reached up and seized the rope. He was jerked violently away from the two women, who failed to get a hold on the rope. Seeing that they would no be rescued, he dropped the rope and fell back on the raft, which floated on down the river. The current washed their frail craft in toward the bank. The young man was enabled to seize hold of a branch of a tree. He aided the two women to get up into the tree. He held on with his hands and rested his feet on a pile of driftwood. A piece of floating debris struck the raft, sweeping it away. The man hung with his body immersed in the water. A pile of drift soon collected, and he was enabled to get another insecure footing. Up the river there was a sudden crash, and a section of the bridge was swept away and floated down the stream, striking the tree and washing it away. All three were thrown into the water and were drowned before the eyes of the horrified spectators, just opposite the town of Bolivar.
At Bolivar a man, woman, and child were seen floating down in a lot of drift. The mass soon began to part, and, by desperate efforts, the husband and father succeeded in getting his wife and little one on a floating tree. Just then the tree was washed under the bridge, and a rope was thrown out. It fell upon the man's shoulders. He saw at a glance that he could not save his dear ones, so he threw the means of safety on one side and clasped in his arms those who were with him. A moment later and the tree struck a floating house. It turned over, and in an instant the three persons were in the seething waters, being carried to their deaths.
An instance of a mother's love at Bolivar is told. A woman and two children were floating down the torrent. The mother caught a rope, and tried to hold it to her and her babe. It was impossible, and with a look of anguish she relinquished the rope and sank with her little ones.
A family, consisting of father and mother and nine children, were washed away in a creek at Lockport. The mother managed to reach the shore, but the husband and children were carried out into the Conemaugh to drown. The woman was crazed over the terrible event.
A little girl passed under the Bolivar bridge just before dark. She was kneeling on part of a floor, and had her hands clasped as if in prayer. Every effort was made to save her, but they all proved futile. A railroader who was standing remarked that the piteous appearance of the little waif brought tears to his eyes. All night long the crowd stood about the ruins of the bridge which had been swept away at Bolivar. The water rushed past with a roar, carrying with it parts of houses, furniture, and trees. No more living persons are being carried past. Watchers, with lanterns, remained along the banks until daybreak, when the first view of the awful devastation of the flood was witnessed. Along the bank lay the remnants of what had once been dwelling-houses and stores; here and there was an uprooted tree. Piles of drift lay about, in some of which bodies of the victims of the flood will be found.
Harry Fisher, a young telegraph operator, who was at Bolivar when the first rush of waters began, says: "We knew nothing of the disaster until we noticed the river slowly rising, and then more rapidly. News reached us from Johnstown that the dam at South Fork had burst. Within three hours the water in the river rose at least twenty feet. Shortly before six o'clock ruins of houses, beds, household utensils, barrels, and kegs came floating past the bridges. At eight o'clock the water was within six feet of the roadbed of the bridge. The wreckage floated past, without stopping, or at least two hours. Then it began to lessen, and night coming suddenly upon us, we could see no more. The wreckage was floating by for a long time before the first living persons passed. Fifteen people that I saw were carried down by the river. One of these, a boy, was saved, and three of them were drowned just directly below the town. Hundreds of animals lost their lives. The bodies of horses, dogs, and chickens floated past in numbers that could not be counted.
Just before reaching Sang Hollow, the end of the mail line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, is "S.O." signal tower, and the men in it told piteous stories of what they saw.
A beautiful girl came down on a roof of a building, which was swung in near the tower. She screamed to the operators to save her, and one big, brawny, brave fellow walked as far into the river as he could, and shouted to her to guide herself into shore with a bit of plank. She was a plucky girl, full of nerve and energy, and stood upon her frail support in evident obedience to the command of the operator. She made two or three bold strokes, and actually stopped the course of the raft for an instant. Then it swerved, and went out from under her. She tried to swim ashore, but in a few seconds, she was lost in the swirling water. Something hit her, for she lay on her back, with face pallid and expressionless.
Men and women, in dozens, in pairs, and singly; children, boys, big and little, and wee babies, were there among the awful confusion of water, drowning, gasping, struggling, and fighting desperately for life. Two men, on a tiny raft, shot into the swiftest part of the current. They crouched stolidly, looking at the shores, while between them, dressed in white, and kneeling with her face turned heavenward, was a girl six or seven years old. She seemed stricken with paralysis until she came opposite the tower, and then she turned her face to the operator. She was so close they could see big tears on her cheeks, and her pallor was as death. The helpless men on shore shouted to her to keep up her courage, and she resumed her devout attitude, and disappeared under the trees of projecting point a short distance below. "We couldn't see her come out again," said the operator, "and that was all of it."