Friday, January 28, 2022

Roof Crash Buries Knickerbocker Theater Audience -- January 28, 2022

Motion Picture News, 28-January-1917

On the evening of 28-January-1922, during a huge blizzard, snow that had accumulated on the roof of Crandall's Knickerbocker Theater caused the roof and the balcony to collapse. 98 people died and 133 were injured. 



Infantry Summoned from Fort Myer to
Help Maintain Order, as Fifth
Alarm Reinforces Firemen


Panic Follows Spread of News as Streets Are
Roped Off to Hold Back 10,000 Frantic
People -- Guards Ordered to Shoot

From 150 to 500 persons were entombed under tons of snow and wreckage when the roof of Crandall's Knickerbocker Theater, Eighteenth street and Columbia road, northwest, collapsed at 9:10 o'clock last night.

Shortly before midnight fourteen injured persons had been removed from the debris and estimates of the dead ranged from fifty to 100. Police stated shortly after 10 o'clock that at least 100 were dead, but it was impossible to corroborate this.

Police Reserves Called.

Five alarms for fire were turned in in rapid succession. and police reserves from all precincts were requisitioned to aid in the work of rescue.

A crowd, estimated at from 3,000 to 10,000, lined all streets adjacent to the theater and overwhelmed the first police arrivals. The Seventy-first Company, Sixth Regiment of Marines, was placed on guard duty at 11 o'clock with orders to shoot at the first sign of disorder or rioting. Soldiers from Walter Reed Hospital also were used to keep back the frantic crowds.

Within a few minutes after the weight of snow on the roof of the theater caused the collapse, nearby physicians opened their homes to accommodate the injured, many of whom were assisted out of the wreckage by volunteer workers. Householders threw open their home and provided blankets and wraps for the injured.

Shortly after the arrival of the police Columbia Road was roped off from Biltmore street to Eighteenth street in the belief that the north wall of the playhouse, which swayed perilously in the wind would crash in on the wreckage.

Police and firemen, disregarding the menace of the swaying wall worked in the piles of mortar, bricks and concrete to dig out the dead and injured.

One of the first of the injured taken out wag a small boy, hardly more than 12 years old. He was pinned from the waist down under twisted wreckage hut retained consciousness. He was unable to speak, however, and his name was not learned.

Ambulances from Emergency, Casualty, Sibley and George Washington hospitals were pressed into service and several ambulances from Walter Reed Hospital brought army surgeons and doctors to lend aid.

Despite the blizzard, some of the escaped audience estimated that at least 500 persons were in the theater. Others placed the audience as high as 1,500. Police were inclined to accept the 500 estimates as nearer the truth. None of the attaches of the theater could be located to give official estimates of the number of tickets sold.

Rescuers were hampered by the swirling snow. Hundreds of jacks were being used to lift the debris. Large portions of the fallen roof remained Intact, making it necessary to dig with picks and crowbars to get to those imprisoned underneath.

Two priests. the Rev. Thomas Walsh, of St. Thomas' Church and the Rev. William Carroll, of St. Paul's Church, administered the last rites of the Catholic church to the dying who could not be reached. Kneeling in the snow and wreckage the two priests alternately prayed and gave their strength in lifting beams from the injured.

Few Make Escape.

A small number managed to escape before the roof crashed. The biggest part of the audience were well down in. front, and few were able to take advantage of the momentary warning given by the roofs supports when they gave way.

The first body to be taken from the ruins was that of Mrs. B. A. Covell, 52. The next victim was a 10-year-old child. The child was crushed and believed fatally hurt.

The roof first began to give sway from the balcony. It swung down, almost touching the heads of the frightened patrons, seemed to hesitate a moment in its deadly drop, then buckled and fell on top of the orchestra seats.

Men and women screamed and tried to jump from their seats, but the falling roof caught most of them. Then, as the sound of crashing and wrenching timbers and girders died away, a stunned silence fell over the scene.

Several persons passing on the street came running toward the theater when they heard the noise of the crash. Soon the smothered moans and shrieks of the injured could be heard coming from under the wreckage.

Two children, Francis and Jack Duncan, 15 to 12 years old, respectively, who had gone to the movie theater without their parents, are believed under the wreckage.

The theater is of brick, has a capacity of 2,000, and was constructed in 1919. Fire apparatus was kept in preparation to act quickly at the first sign of fire, but the fireproof construction tended to minimize this danger.

Troops Rushed to Scene.

Company K of the sixty-fourth Infantry, Fort Myer, reached the theater at 10:45, having made the trip by motor. They used ambulances in rushing troops to the scene and these vehicles were pressed into service to carry the injured to the hospitals.

Officials of Walter Reed hospitals sent about twenty ambulances.

When news of the calamity spread over downtown Washington, there was a rush of anxious relatives to the District Building to inquire for more definite information. But they could not reach the District Building by telephone for twenty-five minutes after the roof crashed, owing to the number of messages from the vicinity of the theater for "help."

Immediately after the crash, police communicated with the other amusement places and warned the managements of danger and informed them of the Knickerbocker Theater accident, several playhouses shortened their shows.

Theater Without Pillars.

The Knickerbocker Theater was constructed on the plan of the "modern" theater style without pillars to block the view of the audience from any part of the house. Steel trestle supported the roof and walls of the building which was built of concrete under fireproof plans.

It is said that the seating capacity was in the neighborhood of 1,500. being the largest "residence" theater in the District. The playhouse had a balcony that seated about 500. When the roof crashed in the balcony fell under the extra weight, hurling the people to the first door.

A staff of about 30 employes operated the theater.

At 11:30 o'clock The Herald was appealed to for assistance in getting hack-saw blades and acetylene torches to clear away the steel girders. The railway companies and the War Department were appealed to. The first torch was rushed to the scene by Augustus Forsberg, of Eighth and Water streets southwest, upon being appealed to by The Herald.

Dr. J. L. Thompson. 1735 Twentieth street northwest, reported before midnight that scores are still pinned beneath the debris, many of whom are conscious and directing their own rescue. He was one of the first physicians to reach the theater.

One of the first problems faced by the rescuers was to get water to the injured. This was done about an hour and a half after the roof crushed in, carrying the balcony with it.

Washington Herald, 28-January-1922

The crowd was watching a comedy, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, based on a popular novel and play. Frank Borzage directed. 

Moving Picture World, 26-November-1921

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