“IT WAS A TERRIBLE THING TO SEE”
DOWNTOWN DAYTON – Part Two
JUDGE WALTER D. JONES
Judge Walter D. Jones, from Piqua, Ohio, was a flood-bound visitor in Dayton. The Beckel Hotel, located on the northwest corner of Third and Jefferson streets, was in the storm center so vividly described by Judge Jones for avid readers of the Bell Telephone News.
It nears eight o’clock in the morning on the busy streets of Dayton and the movement of the people is increasing. They are going their ways gayly or quietly; there is no more danger, all is serene and secure.
Ten minutes! A fragment of time. Ten minutes and the careless stream of people has changed to a white faced, frightened, bewildered throng frantically seeking refuge from an awful fate that has stolen on them unawares.
A rush of water came down the center of Jefferson Street. At the first sight it looked as though a fire hydrant might have been opened.
For the moment I was more curious than alarmed. I walked on to the Beckel Hotel. The water covered the street and began to lap over the curb on the sidewalk. I went in. The elevator was not running and I hurried up the stairs intending to leave my satchel and coat in my room and return to see the strange sight. I began to think there might be some serious inconvenience coming.
I entered the room, dropped my coat and bag, and looked out the window.
A seething, foaming torrent was rolling down Jefferson Street.
Before the mind could grasp what had happened, a horrible crash sounded, apparently beneath me. The floor vibrated under my feet, and plastering commenced to drop from the ceiling. Women’s screams sounded from the next room. I sprang to my door. It would not open. But I heard men’s voices outside and I shouted to them to throw their weight against the door and they did so promptly and by doing so saved me the horror of being entrapped on the fourth floor of a sinking building. The occupants of several adjoining rooms were released in the same manner. Walls were cracking and trembling and plastering was falling. Someone shouted; ‘Fire!’ but was sternly silenced.
We fled down the stairs, joined on every floor by ashen-faced men and women. It was the only time there was a semblance of a panic, and that was over in a moment. I think that all must have realized, as I did, that something awful but unexplained had happened, and our lives might depend on keeping cool and quiet.
When we reached the second floor the office I had just quitted was filling with a mass of muddy, black water that roared as it poured in, and rapidly mounted the stairs. It was evident that the only exit from the house was through the second story windows.
Something fearful had happened and something worse might follow it as suddenly. And ten minutes before we had all been so secure. We had never realized that “in the midst of life we are in death.”
Before noon Jefferson and Third Streets were raging, roaring
torrents of a depth of twelve to fourteen feet. It seems to me that the main current of the Miami river must have been diverted through the principal streets of Dayton. The storerooms opposite us filled to the ceilings. Down both streets poured a mass of drift, now a lot of chairs and tables from some home, now counters, shelving, barrels, boxes, crates of fruit from some grocery; several pianos, piles of lumber and worst of all, every few minutes some struggling, drowning horse. Some of the wreckage drifted clear, some struck poles or street lights and broke into fragments, some was hurled against and shattered the plate glass windows of stores. It was a sickening sight of ruin and destruction.
The rooms on the third floor directly under the one I had occupied had fallen clear through to the basement, leaving a horrible gap. My room had sunk, but not fallen. A jewelry salesman said his trunks with $30,000 worth of goods in them went down with the lower room. It is not certain yet whether this accident was due to the water undermining the walls or to the explosion of a small boiler in the basement.
All day long we sat on the second floor and watched the horrible muddy flood and dreadful drift. The first rush of the waters came half way up the storefronts before any one could realize it. Then came the slower but steadily mounting. There was a dreadful fascination in watching it creep upward inch by inch, in selecting some mark and watching until it submerged.
There was fortunately considerable food on the second floor but little drinking water. The managers of the Beckel thought there would be provisions enough, with economy, to carry us through, and humanely they shared this with all in the house, without distinction between guests and refugees.
We made and enforced a preemptory order that not a match should be struck in the house. From the very first the dread of fire was in the thought of everyone. One man tried to light a pipe, but was properly taken care of.
As night drew on, and the water still slowly rose, the horror of darkness was upon us – ominous cracking sounded from the broken east wall and many clambered while there was still light, to the buildings on the west for greater security. I secured a chair in an insurance office. There were five people there who had been caught while at work. They were very kind to me, and I shall never forget.
The night was an absolutely sleepless one, and in one or two directions fires could be seen, but at a distance.
We had hoped that by Wednesday the flood would be subsiding as rapidly as it came, but when the seemingly interminable night was ended, we were disappointed to find that, though there was a fall, it was but small. Indeed it is said that the waters rose till 3 a.m.
We all filed into the dining room in the morning and thankfully received a portion of cold meat and fried potatoes, and what was most grateful, a glass of water and a cup of coffee – more than thousands of others had during the whole time of the flood.
Along the street at almost every window we could see anxious, drawn faces of people marooned like ourselves. There were no shouts or calls for help for every one knew that no help could come. In the Beckel people talked but little, and in low voices. Someone went around and secured a list of all our names. There were about 100 guests. “May be useful when it comes to identifying remains,” said one man grimly, and actually there was a general hoarse laugh, though no one took it as a joke. Then all was silent but the awful roar of the water.
“Will try to give a lunch at four o’clock,” was the hotel announcement, “and that will be all we can give today.” It was never given.
A loud crash brought everyone to his feet. A drug store half a square away had collapsed. We saw some of it float away, but did not dream then what that accident meant to us.
Still another crash. A man on the opposite roof called over that three buildings on Main Street, just south of the Phillips Hotel, had gone down.
We had almost ceased to note time but I think it was 1:30 Wednesday afternoon, a man near me said in a low voice, “What if a fire breaks out?”
“Merciful God, there it is!” was the response.
A column of flame shot into the air like a towering beacon of death not over 300 feet from us. A blaze from the ruins of the drug store had entered the next building.
In this block immediately east of us were many inflammable stocks of goods, including three wholesale liquor stores, whose contents, when ignited, would be liquid fire. Not a hand could be lifted to fight the flames, which must spread, unchecked by human means. This meant the destruction of the Beckel house, followed by the whole block.
There was a hurried, whispered consultation, but only for a moment. We must get as far away as possible from the fire, if only to prolong life.
Then began a remarkable march of retreat. Some two or possibly three hundred persons clambered and crawled from one end of the square on Third Street from Jefferson to Main. Just how it was done, in every particular, probably no one can ever tell. We got out on the roof of the Beckel Annex. We went up and down fire escapes. We cautiously crossed frail looking skylights. We scaled firewalls. We took ladders along and from slippery roofs got to open windows, passed through the buildings, and from windows to roofs again. We reached a ten-foot alley. A ladder was pushed across it to the next building and we crawled over it, one at a time. This was done by men and women, and by one or two children. It was a journey for life, but it was not a mad flight. It was done quickly but quietly and each helped the other. Among those taken out safely was a woman with a broken arm, and Mr. Bennett, one of the proprietors of the hotel, was carried from his dying bed. He died a few days later.
All made the perilous journey safely. That most of us could even attempt it is simply because it was a dash for life.
At the Main Street end of the square we could go no farther and we dispersed into different parts of the Callahan building and the one adjoining.
Our situation was this: There was the possibility at any moment that the building, as we had seen others do so, would collapse and entomb us. A few hundred feet behind us, and moving steadily in our direction, were the roaring, leaping flames, devouring everything before them. In front of us was the black, hideous, drift filled current, in which it seemed hopeless for a stout swimmer to venture. But if one could pass through the icy water and escape with life for the moment, there would be no heat, no dry clothes, no succor, and it would seem that exposure would be hardly less swiftly fatal than death by fire or drowning.
Death threatened in every one of four forms, and no one failed to realize it!
What little might be done was done. Two men managed to cut a cable in the elevator shaft. We were in the second story of the Callahan Building, opposite the old courthouse. There was some open ground where one might be comparatively safe. One end of the wire rope was made fast to our building and on a rude kind of scow it was managed to float the other end across the street, where it was caught and secured. The scow upset and that was the last I saw of it. One man came up in a boat and helped with the rope, but could not, or would not, stay, and his craft whirled away on the current; that was the only boat we saw during the flood.
The life line was stretched and three or four of the strongest managed to work their way hand over hand on it to the court house. They were almost torn from it, and in each instance were up to their necks in water, drenched and icy cold and dropping with exhaustion when they had crossed. It was evident that this way of escape would be available for but very few while the high water and mill race current continued.
There were twenty-five or thirty people in the two rooms we occupied, and also one horse that in some way had gotten in. Of our party about ten were women. One mother sat quietly with fixed, drawn face, and clasped firmly in her arms a little boy of seven or eight years. The child clung to his mother and tried to be and was brave. Once in a while a tear trickled down his face, but the mother never wept.
We were in the cruel position that while we could see the reflection of the fire, and watch the horrible driving smoke and sparks, it was behind us, and we could not see just what it was doing, but had to depend on what was shouted to us by those in other buildings.
As night approached, most of the men drew together and a whispered conference was had. Every one believed that the fire would sooner or later reach the Beckel, and when that time came it was only a question of a few hours or even less when it would be upon us. Nearly everyone who expressed himself thought it was almost certain that we had but a few hours to live, unless some miracle delivered us.
It was decided that when the fire reached the building next to us we should divide into parties of three, two men to each woman; try to hold to our frail line and commit our bodies to the rushing water and our souls to God.
There was no question but that the women and the children must have the first chance, but the trouble was to see any chance for any one.
Darkness came again, that is, darkness within, but without lurid, flaring awful light. We could not see each other’s faces. It was very cold. Outside snow and rain were falling, but little was thought of cold, hunger or thirst. We were waiting, waiting to know whether it was to be life or death.
I thought of what might be going on at home – of what the destruction must be there; of my loved ones and where they were, and I wondered whether, if I was rescued, there would be anything left to live for.
On the roof of the Phillips Hotel were men with megaphones. They could see the fire, and they shouted news of its progress. We had no megaphone and it was difficult to call to them. It was found that my voice and that of another seemed to ‘carry’ the best, and I spent most of Wednesday night standing in a window sill, receiving and repeating the bulletins.
They came like this, hoarsely through the air:
“Oh, Callahan people, the fire had worked one door nearer. What do you say? No, the bank is not burning yet. The Beckel does not seem to have caught yet.”
“Oh, Callahan, another store had caught but the bank is safe yet. The wind seems to be rising and blowing it this way.’
The bank was the Fourth National, corner of Jefferson and Third Streets. It was said to be fireproof. Our lives depended on whether its east wall could resist the fire.
At one o’clock: “Oh, Callahan, fire seems to be going down. Think the bank will stand. We believe your danger is almost over.”
There were long breaths and murmurs of “Thank God”. We had suffered for nearly twelve hours. Was it possible that the worst was over!
A dreadful explosion seemed to rend earth and sky. Sheets of blood red and ghastly green fire illuminated everything, showers of burning embers and sparks rained down, and hot smoke drifted past. I could only think of the Day of the Last Judgment.
The fire had leaped across Third Street and entered Lowe Bros. Paint works, and apparently the whole contents had exploded at once.
It seemed that absolutely all hope was gone. Great masses of burning wreckage drifted down the current, threatening to fire buildings in every direction. Some of our people lost, not their courage, but their judgment and wanted to start for the water. I believe I may have been indirectly the means of saving a number of lives, by earnestly insisting that we should stay till the last moment before jumping into the water. By professing much more hope and confidence than I really felt and aided by some others, we kept a number of people from abandoning a faint hope to go to certain death. And still the fire wall held! The wind shifted and as day broke Thursday morning the fire was going away from us and we were practically saved, after being for at least eighteen hours in the immediate shadow of death.
By four o’clock on Thursday afternoon we were able to leave the building where we had been imprisoned for fifty-six hours.
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