Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Survivor stories

Just Short of Eternity

Flood Survivor Victor Heiser's Story (age 16)

All during the latter part of May, 1889, a chill rain had been descending in torrents upon the Conemaugh Valley. The small city of Johnstown, walled in by precipitous Pennsylvania hills, was invaded by high water which stood knee deep in front of my father’s house on Washington Street.

Nobody seemed particularly concerned at the time over the dam which rich Pittsburghers had maintained high up on the South Fork to provide water for their fishing streams. When the earthen dam had first been constructed, there had been some apprehension. There was a ninety foot head of water behind the embankment, and only a small spillway had been provided. But the dam had never burst and, with the passage of time, the townspeople, like those who live in the shadow of [the volcano] Vesuvius, grew calloused to the possibility of danger. “Some time,” they thought, “That dam will give way, but it won’t ever happen to us.”

During the afternoon of the thirty-first the overflow from the river crept steadily higher, inch by inch, through the streets of the town. Although it had not yet reached the stable, which stood on higher ground than the house, my father became concerned over the safety of his fine pair of horses which were tied in their stalls, and suggested that I make a dash for the stable and unfasten them. The rain was falling so hard that I was almost drenched as I plowed my laborious way through the two feet of water.

I had loosed the horses and was about to leave the shelter of the doorway when my ears were stunned by the most terrifying noise I had ever heard in my sixteen years of life.  The dreadful roar was punctuated with a succession of tremendous crashes. I stood for a moment, bewildered and hesitant. I could see my mother and my father standing at an upper window in the house. My father, frantic with anxiety over my safety, was motioning me urgently toward the top of the building. Fortunately, I had made a passageway only a few days before to the red tin roof, so that some necessary repairs could be made. Thus it was only a matter of seconds before I was up on the ridge.

From my perch I could see a huge wall advancing with incredible rapidity down the diagonal street. It was not recognizable as water, it was a dark mass in which seethed houses, freight cars, trees, and animals. As this wall struck Washington Street broadside, my boyhood home was crushed like an eggshell before my eyes, and I saw it disappear.

I wanted to know how long it would take me to get to the other world, and in the split second before the stable was hit, I looked at my watch. It was exactly four-twenty.

But, instead of being shattered, the big barn was ripped from its foundations and began to roll, like a barrel, over and over. Stumbling, crawling, and racing, I somehow managed to keep on top.

In the path of the revolving stable loomed suddenly the house of our neighbor, Mrs. Fenn. To avoid being hurled off by the inevitable collision, I leaped into the air at the precise moment of impact. But just as I miraculously landed on the roof of her house, its wall began to cave in. I plunged downward with the roof, but saved myself by clambering monkey-like up the slope, and before the house gave way completely, another boiled up beside me. I caught hold of the eaves and swung dangling there, while the weight of my body drained the strength from my hands.

For years thereafter I was visited by recurring dreams in which I lived over and over again that fearful experience of hanging with my fingernails dug deep into the water softened shingles, knowing that in the end I must let go.

When my grip finally relaxed, I dropped sickeningly into space. But once again I was saved. With a great thud I hit a piece of the old familiar barn roof, and I clutched with all my remaining power at the half inch tin ridges. Lying on my belly, I bumped along on the surface of the flood, which was crushing, crumbling, and splintering everything before it. The screams of the injured were hardly to be distinguished above the awful clamor; people were being killed all about me.

In that moment of terrible danger I saw the Italian fruit dealer Mussante, with his wife and two children racing along on what seemed to be their old barn floor. A Saratoga trunk was open beside them, and the whole family was frantically packing a pile of possessions into it. Suddenly the whole mass of wreckage heaved up and crushed them out of existence.

I was borne headlong toward a jam where the wreckage was already piling up between a stone church and a three story brick building. Into this hurly burly I was catapulted. The pressure was terrific. A tree would shoot out of the water; a huge girder would come thundering down. As these trees and girders drove booming into the jam, I jumped them desperately, one after another. Then suddenly a freight car reared up over my head; I could not leap that. But just as it plunged toward me, the brick building gave way, and my raft shot out from beneath the freight car like a bullet from a gun.

In a moment more I was in comparatively open water. Although no landmark was visible, I could identify the space as the park which had been there only a short while before. I was still being swept along, but the danger had lessened. I had opportunity to observe other human beings in equally perilous situations. I saw the stoutish Mrs. Fenn astride an unstable tar barrel which had covered her with its contents. Rolling far over to one side, then swaying back to the other, she was making a desperate but grotesque struggle to keep her head above the water.

There was nothing I could do for anybody....

I was carried on toward the narrows below the city where the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed both valley and river on a high embankment and bridge. When the twisted, interlaced timbers ahead of me struck the stone arches, they plugged them tight, and in the powerful recoil my raft was swept back behind the hill which had saved the lower part of the town from complete destruction and left many buildings standing.

I passed close by a two and a half story brick dwelling which was still remaining on its foundations. Since my speed as I went up this second valley was about that of a subway train slowing for a stop, I was able to hop to the roof and join the small group of people already stranded there. Realizing then that I was, perhaps, not immediately destined for the other world, I pulled out my watch. It was not yet four-thirty; three thousand human beings had been wiped out in less than ten minutes.

For the remaining hours of daylight we derelicts huddled disconsolately on the roof. Now and then were able to reach out a hand or a pole and haul in somebody drifting by, until finally we numbered nineteen. Though we were in a backwash, many of the houses been seriously damaged below the water line. Occasionally one would melt like a lump of sugar and vanish. We did not know whether our refuge had been undermined, but there was no way for us to escape to the surrounding hills which rose invitingly above the flood, so near and so impossible to reach. The cold rain was still driving down, and it was growing dark. We were so miserable that we decided to open the skylight and climb under cover.

There in the attic we spent the night, starting whenever we heard the whoo-oo-sh which meant that another building had sunk. Ours was straining and groaning. From moment to moment we could not tell whether it were to suffer the same fate as its neighbors. Although exhausted we could not sleep. The waiting, in its way, was almost worse than the previous turmoil, because if our shelter collapsed it would become a trap in which we would drown miserably.

Dawn brought a transcendent sense of relief. The rain had ceased at last, and the water had receded until it reached only part way up the first story. Between us and the safe hills a half mile away was a mat of debris, broken here and there by patches of dirty water. Scrambling over the wreckage, wading through shallows, and rafting the deeper spaces, with an inexpressible feeling of relief I finally set my feet on solid ground again.

I started downstream at once, trying to find my father and mother. Everyone I met was on the same sad errand—looking for parents, children, relatives, or friends. Bodies were already being taken out of the ruins.

As I approached the railway embankment, I saw that it had given way in the night and allowed the water to rush unimpeded toward Pittsburgh and the Mississippi. The consequent subsidence of the flood had left in front of the stone bridge several acres of wreckage in which many people were still imprisoned. This inflammable material had caught fire. I can still hear the maddened shrieks of the men, women and children, as the flames approached. I joined the rescue squads and we struggled for hours trying to release them from this funeral pyre, but our efforts were tragically hampered by the lack of axes and other tools. We could not save them all. It was horrible to watch helplessly while people, many of whom I actually knew, were being devoured in the holocaust.

At last I met one of my friends who lived outside the city and whose house had not been harmed. His family took me in, and gave me food and shelter. The people of the United States were unbelievably generous to the stricken community. The relief trains which soon were pouring in brought me clothes and money.

Day after day I searched among the ruins and viewed with a tense anxiety the hundreds of corpses constantly being carried to the morgues. Two weeks were devoted to this gruesome task, a most agonizing experience for a boy. Eventually the body of my mother was found; my father never was identified with certainty. Most of the victims were buried in the “plot of the unknown dead,” but I laid my mother in our own cemetery lot.

I was alone in the world.

Chapter One from An American Doctor's Odyssey, Victor Heiser, MD.

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