Chapter 20

     The experience of the newspaper correspondents in the Conemaugh valley was the experience of a lifetime. Few war correspondents, even, have been witnesses of such appalling scenes of horror and desolation. Day after day they were busy recording the annals of death and despair, conscious, meanwhile, that no expressions of accumulated pathos at their command could do justice to the theme. They had only to stand in the street wherever a knot of men had gathered, to hear countless stories of thrilling escapes. Hundreds of people had such narrow escapes that they hardly dared to believe that they were saved for hours after they reached solid ground. William Wise, a young man who lived at Woodvale, was walking along the road when the rush of water came down the valley. He started to rush up the side of the hills, but stopped to help a young woman, Ida Zidstein, to escape; lost too much time, and was forced to drag the young woman upon a high pile of metal near the road. They had clung there several hours, and thought that they could both escape, as the metal pile was not exposed to the full force of the torrent. A telegraph pole came dashing down the flood, its top standing above the water, from which dangled some wires. The pole was caught in an eddy opposite the pile. It shot in toward the two who were clinging there. As the pole swung around, the wires came through the air like a whip-lash, and catching in the hair of the young woman, dragged her down to instant death. The young man remained on the heap of metal for hours before the water subsided so as to allow him to escape.
     One man named Homer, with his child, age six, was on one of the houses which were first carried away. He climbed to the roof and held fast there for four hours, floating all the way to Bolivar, fifteen miles below.
     A young hero sat upon the roof of his father's house, holding his mother and little sister. Once the house swung in toward a brick structure which still rested on its foundation. As one house struck the other, the boy sprang into one of the windows. As he turned to rescue his mother and sister, the house swung out again, and the boy, seeing that there was no possibility of getting them off, leaped back to their side. A second time the house was stopped-this time by a tree. The boy helped his mother and sister to a place of safety in the tree, but before he could leave the roof, the house was swept on and he was drowned.
     One man took his whole family to the roof of his floating house. He and one child escaped to another building, but his wife and five children were whirled around for hours, and finally carried down to the bridge where so many people perished in the flames. They were all rescued.
     District Attorney Rose, his wife, two brothers and two sisters were swept across the lower portion of the town. They had been thrown into the water, and were swimming, the men assisting the women. Finally, they got into a back current, and were cast ashore at the foot of the hills back of Knoxville.
     One merchant of Johnstown, after floating about upon a piece of wreckage for hours, was carried down to the stone bridge. After a miraculous escape from being burned to death, he was rescued and carried ashore. He was so dazed and terrified by his experience, however, that he walked off the bridge and broke his neck.
     One man who was powerless to save his wife, after he had leaped from a burning building to a house floating by, was driven insane by her shrieks for help.
     An old gentleman of Verona rescued a modern Moses from the bulrushes. Verona is on the east bank of the Allegheny River, twelve miles above Pittsburg. Mr. McCutcheon, while standing on the river bank watching the drift floating by, was compelled by instinct to take a skiff and row out to one dense mass of timber. As he reached it, he was startled to find in the centre, out of the reach of the water, a cradle covered with the clothing. As he lifted the coverings aside a pretty five-months-old boy baby smiled on him. The little innocent, unconscious of the scenes it had passed through, crowed with delight as the old man lifted it tenderly, cradle and all, into his skiff and brought it ashore.
     Among the miraculous escapes is that of George J. Lea and family. When the rush of water came there were eight people on the roof of Lea's house. The house swung around and floated for nearly half an hour before it struck the wreck above the stone bridge. A three-year-old girl, with sunny, golden hair and dimpled cheeks, prayed all the while that God would save them, and it seemed that God really answered the prayer and directed the house against the drift, enabling every one of the eight to get off.
     H. M. Bennett and S. W. Keltz, engineer and conductor of engine No. 1165 and the extra freight, which happened to be lying at South Fork when the dam broke, tell a graphic story of their wonderful flight and escape on the locomotive before the advancing flood. Bennett and Keltz were in the signal tower awaiting orders. The fireman and flagman were on the engine, and two brakemen were asleep in the caboose. Suddenly the men in the tower heard a roaring sound in the valley above them. They looked in that direction and were almost transfixed with horror to see, two miles above them, a huge black wall of water, at least 150 feet in height, rushing down the valley. The fear-stricken men made a rush for the locomotive, at the same time giving the alarm to the sleeping brakemen in the caboose, but with no avail. It was impossible to aid them further, however, so Bennett and Keltz cut the engine loose from the train, and the engineer, with one wild wrench, threw the lever wide open, and they were away on a mad race for life. It seemed that they would not receive momentum enough to keep ahead of the flood, and they cast one despairing glance back. Then they could see the awful deluge approaching in its might. On it came, rolling and roaring, tossing and tearing houses, sheds and trees in its awful speed as if they were toys. As they looked, they saw the two brakemen rush out of the caboose, but they had not time to gather the slightest idea of the cause of their doom before they, the car and signal tower were tossed high in the air, to disappear forever. Then the engine leaped forward like a thing of life, and speeded down the valley. But fact as it went, the flood gained upon it. In a few moments the shrieking locomotive whizzed round a curve, and they were in sight of a bridge. Horror upon horrors! ahead of them was a freight train, with the rear end almost on the bridge, and to get across was simply impossible. Engineer Bennett then reversed the lever, and succeeded in checking the engine as they glided across the bridge. Then the men jumped and ran for their lives up the hillside. The bridge and the tender of the engine they had been on were swept away like a bundle of matches.
     A young man who was a passenger on the Derry express furnishes an interesting account of his experiences. "When we reached Derry," he said, "our train was boarded by a relief committee, and no sooner was it ascertained that we were going on to Sang Hollow than the contributions of provisions and supplies of every kind were piled on board, filling an entire car. On reaching Sang Hollow the scene that presented itself to us was heart-rending. The road was lined with homeless people, some with a trunk or solitary chair, the only thing saved from their household goods, and all wearing an aspect of the most hopeless misery. Men were at work transferring from a freight car a pile of corpses at least sixty in number, and here and there a ghastly something under a covering showed where the body of some victim of the flood lay awaiting identification or burial in a nameless grave. Busy workers were engaged in clearing away the piles of driftwood and scattered articles of household use which cumbered the tracks and the roads. These piles told their own mournful story. There were beds, bureaus, mattresses, chairs, tables, pictures, dead horses and mules, overcoats, remnants of dresses sticking on the branches of trees, and a thousand other odd pieces of flotsam and jetsam from ruined homes. I saw a man get off the train and pick up an insurance policy for $30,000. Another took away as relics a baby's chair and a confirmation card in a battered frame. On the banks of the Little Conemaugh creek people were delving in the driftwood which was piled to a depth of six or seven feet, unearthing and carting away whatever could be turned to account. Under those piles, it is thought, numbers of bodies are buried, not to be recovered except by the labor of many days. A woman and a little girl were brought from Johnstown by some means which I could not ascertain. The woman was in confinement, and was carried on a lounge, her sole remaining piece of property. She was taken to Latrobe for hospital treatment. I cannot understand how it is that people are unable to make their way from Sang Hollow to Johnstown. The distance is short, and it should certainly be a comparatively easy task to get over it on foot or horseback. However, there seems to be some insuperable obstacle. All those who made the trip on the train with me in order to obtain tidings of their friends in Johnstown, were forced to return as I did.



     "The railroad is in a terrible condition. The day express and the limited, which left Pittsburg on Friday morning, are lying between Johnstown and Conemaugh on the east, having been cut off by the flood. Linemen were sent down from our train at every station to repair the telegraph wires which are damaged. Tremendous efforts are being exerted to repair the injury sustained by the railroad, and it is only a question of a couple of days until through communication is reestablished. Our homeward trip was marked by a succession of sad spectacles. At Blairsville intersection two little girls lay dead, and in a house taken from the river was the body of a woman. Some idea of the force of the flood may be had from the statement that freight cars, both loaded and empty, had been lifted bodily from the track, and carried a distance of several blocks, and deposited in a graveyard in the outskirts of the town, where they were lying in a mass mixed up with tombstones and monuments."

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