Courage and Sacrifice in Paradise

Today in History, July 31, 1976:

The Big Thompson Canyon Flood.

While Colorado was celebrating its Centennial, a highly unusual thunderstorm broke out high in the mountains, near the source of the Big

Thompson Canyon in northern Colorado.

The storm deluged the canyon with the equivalent of 3/4’s of the area’s annual rainfall in a matter of hours. It sent a wall of water 20 feet high racing down the canyon; residents and tourists miles away from the storm near the mouth of the canyon had no idea there was a storm higher up, much less a torrent of flood water headed their way.

144 died.

Colorado State Trooper Sgt. W. Hugh Purdy and Estes Park Officer Michel O. Conley were advised of the approaching flood. Remember that this was before cell phones and other mass media, most of which would not have worked in the canyon anyway.

These men drove their patrol cars up the canyon, telling people to flee using their public address systems, with full knowledge of what they were doing….until they met the water and were killed.

I saw this memorial while visiting relatives in Greeley, CO as a teen. These men are part of the reason I’m a cop. God bless them and their families.

General Slocum

Today in History, June 15, 1904:

The General Slocum Disaster. The St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church charters the River Boat General Slocum to transport their teachers and children across the East River to Brooklyn to hold their annual picnic.

Keep in mind this was 1904, and Brooklyn was not part of a metropolis. One of the 1,360 passengers, a child, went to the boat’s captain to report that he had seen fire in a room below decks. The Captain responded basically with “go away kid”. By the time the crew found the fire, it was too late.

The Captain, Captain Van Schaik, decided to beach to boat on an island rather than at a dock where fire crews could have assisted with the fire. The boat’s rescue boats were tied down tight, so they couldn’t be used. The life preservers were not buoyant, so the children that donned them sank to the bottom of the river.

Over 1,000 of the passengers were either burned to death or drowned in the conflagration. The “Knickerbocker Company” was charged, but only the Captain actually served any time for the disaster. President Theodore Roosevelt fired the inspector responsible for the safety of the General Slocum.

The Johnstown Flood

Today in History, May 31, 1889:

The Johnstown Flood. The area east of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania had received record rainfall; it was already a miserable day. But it would get increasing worse.

14 miles above Johnstown was an earthen dam which had come into disrepair. The dam was owned and maintained by a hunting and fishing club made up of wealthy investors, including Andrew Carnegie.

With the heavy rainfall, the South Fork Dam collapsed and 3.8 BILLION gallons of water rushed down the valley. Amongst all of the debris gathered by the torrent were 33 train engines. The 30,000 people of Johnstown had no warning when the water and debris reached them. Over 2200 men, women and children perished as the town was virtually washed away.

The combination of trains, trees, houses and steel from a factory slammed into a bridge and a temporary dam was created….which caught fire. Many who had survived the raging waters burned to death before the bridge finally broke.

There are so many more fascinating, heart-wrenching details in this story. If you would like to learn more, I suggest one of the first books by one of my favorite Historians…David McCullough.

Exxon Valdez…Disaster in Paradise

Today in History, March 24, 1989:

The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker which had just filled up and was headed through Prince William Sound, Alaska, runs aground on Bligh Reef.

The rupture in the tanker’s hull allowed nearly 11 million gallons of oil to spill into the waters of the Sound and The Gulf of Alaska.

Over the next several days the crude eventually spread over approximately 1300 miles if pristine Coastline in what is arguably the last wild frontier.

Hundreds of thousands of fish, birds and other animals that make Alaska and its waters home were defenseless against the sudden onslaught. Many were rescued by volunteers equipped with dish soap, while many more died.

Exxon, the government and others tried several methods in attempts to clean up the mess, but what I’ve read indicated the results were meager, and nature is doing a better job of healing the Unfathomable damage itself. Still, almost 30 years later, the effects of the crew and company’s irresponsibility remain.

Exxon estimates it spent approximately 2.1 billion dollars on cleanup.

In the end a price or cost from the disaster can’t be quantified.

Listen to the Professionals

Today in History, December 12: 1917 –

Rail disaster in the Alps. Between 1,000 and 1,200 French soldiers had Christmas leave from the Italian front, and boarded an overloaded train bound for France over the Alps.

The train’s engineer refused to begin the trip…the passenger cars did not have enough brakes to make the trip safely. He changed his mind when when a well-meaning French officer pointed a pistol to his head…intent on his troops seeing their families for Christmas.

As the train reached the bottom of a long grade near Modane, France, the engineer’s fears were realized…the brakes would not slow the train and when the train reached a wooden bridge it derailed, most of the passenger cars bursting into flames. At least half of the soldiers were killed in the horrific crash…over 500. Listen to the professionals.

Connections Bring History Home

 

Today in History, July 17: 1763 – John Jacob Astor is born in Germany in modest circumstances.  He would immigrate to America…selling flutes.  Convinced to sell the musical instruments in New York and invest in the fur trade, he became America’s first Millionaire with his American Fur Company.  On April 12, 1912 his grandson and namesake, the world’s richest man, John Jacob Astor IV would die in the Titanic Disaster.

July 17: 1918 – Crossing paths in history.  The RMS Carpathia is sunk by U-Boat U-55 during WWI.  All but 5 of her crew managed to escape to lifeboats. They were in turn saved by the Sloop HMS Snowdrop, which arrived and drove off the German sub before it could machine gun the crew in their boats.

As previously stated, on April 12, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank within 4 hours. The nearest ship to receive her distress signal was the RMS Carpathia, which sped at full speed for two hours to the disaster scene. Upon her arrival, she rescued 705 survivors from the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. The Carpathia’s crew became heroes, being awarded medals. Her Captain, Arthur Henry Rostron, was knighted and was a guest of President William Taft in the White House. During WWI the Carpathia served as a troop ship, transporting thousands of American soldiers across the Atlantic to the war in Europe.

Among them was Frank Buckles, who would become the last surviving American Soldier from WWI before his death in 2011. He was a prisoner of war in the Philippines during WWII (as a civilian) and a strong advocate for a WWI Memorial, which…led him to be a guest of President George W. Bush in the White House. 

Everything is connected in history…you just have to find it.

Disaster in New Orleans…No, Not That One…

Today in History, March 21: 1788 – Have you ever visited the French Quarter in New Orleans? Did you know that the vast majority of those buildings in the “French” Quarter are actually…Spanish? On this date in 1788 the Army Treasurer in New Orleans, Don Vincente Jose Nunez, and his family were celebrating Good Friday in their home less than a block from the Plaza de Armas (later Jackson Square). They apparently lit a few too many candles while immersed in prayer and caught their home on fire. Before the day was over, 856 of the 1,100 buildings in the city were destroyed, most of the city. Spain had control of Louisiana at that time, and during a subsequent fire in 1794 that took 212 buildings. So the structures that replaced those of wood that were lost were made of stucco or brick, and of Spanish architecture.

Louisiana Governor Miro’s report: If the imagination could describe what our senses enable us to feel from sight and touch, reason itself would recoil in horror, and it is no easy matter to say whether the sight of an entire city in flames was more horrible to behold than the suffering and pitiable condition in which everyone was involved. Mothers, in search of a sanctuary or refuge for their little ones, and abandoning – their earthly goods to the greed of the relentless enemy, would retire to out-of-the-way places rather than be witnesses of their utter ruin. Fathers and husbands were busy in saving whatever objects the rapidly spreading flames would permit them to bear off, while the general bewilderment was such as to prevent them from finding even for these a place of security. The obscurity of the night coming on threw its mantle for a while over the saddening spectacle; but more horrible still was the sight, when day began to dawn, of entire families pouring forth into the public highways, yielding to their lamentations and despair, who, but a few hours before, had been basking in the enjoyment of more than the ordinary comforts of life. The tears, the heartbreaking sobs and the pallid faces of the wretched people mirrored the dire fatality that had overcome a city, now in ruins, transformed within the space of five hours into an arid and fearful, desert. Such was the sad ending of a work of death, the result of seventy years of industry.

For some chronological relation, further east on our continent the nascent 13 nascent states spent the years of 1788 approving the US Constitution; two weeks after the disastrous fire, pioneering Americans established Marietta (later Ohio) as the first American settlement beyond the borders of “America.”