Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Survivor stories

Just Short of Eternity

Survivor Victor Heiser's Description of the Flood

....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.

Dr. Lee’s Negro hostler, all alone and stark naked, was shivering on the roof of his master’s house. In the penetrating ran his supplicating hands were raised toward the heavens. As I tore by I heard him shouting, “Lawd ha’ mercy on dis por cold nigger.”

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.

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

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