From Comedy To Tragedy


June 23, 1991|By Carleton Jones

In the mid-20th century, they always pointed it out and told you about the horror of it, unless you were young. But kids would hear about it anyway, somehow, and sometimes they would cross the street to the other side, fearfully.

But the old Knickerbocker Theater, at 18th Street and Columbia Road in Washington, really wasn't a threatening place. With its fine, late-French classic facade, it was perhaps the handsomest of all the suburban movie houses in the Baltimore-Washington area -- and one of the largest, with 2,000 seats. Nearby in the classy neighborhood were huge, elegant churches and the city's finest catering cafe, Avignon Freres.

Back track to 1922, late January. All day out of the northwest roared a tremendous snowstorm that dropped 17 inches of snow on Maryland and the capital. Washington was cut off from Baltimore as roads and even train tracks became impassable.

Despite the weekend storm, on Saturday evening, Jan. 28, about 250 venturesome folks came into the theater for the evening show, a silent, feature-length comedy, complete with theater orchestra.

About 9 p.m., as the orchestra was pounding out a jazz number, Bill Morris, a 63-year-old retired miner watching the show from the eighth row, looked up and saw a cloud of fine plaster floating down like a halo above the orchestra conductor. Then came a sound the miner recognized all too well: "a soft, rippling sound like a slate roof giving way," he said, and also like shoring in a

mine "getting ready to go." Others compared the sound to ice in a pond cracking suddenly.

Morris raced from his seat into the theater aisle and on the run was literally blown through the lobby of the theater out onto the sidewalk by a blast of air as the theater's ceiling collapsed.

Most of the other patrons were not so lucky. Plaster and then concrete and huge iron beams came roaring down. Within about 20 seconds the theater's balcony gave way, too, and slid sideways into the orchestra seats, crushing everything beneath it.

The entire roof was opened up to the heavens. The theater's stage lights, oddly, remained on full blast over a scene of concrete, steel and snow where about 200 patrons lay dead, dying, injured or in shock.

Doctors, nurses, police and firemen rushed to the scene to carry out victims. Welders were summoned to cut through steel girders that trapped dozens of souls, including a calmly sleeping baby. Young men of the nearby fraternity house of Sigma Alpha Epsilon stretched out on cots to give blood for lifesaving transfusions.

The death toll would mount to 97, including an assistant postmaster general of the United States; two nationally known journalists, Lou Strayer, former president of the exclusive Gridiron Club, and Chauncery Brainerd of the Brooklyn Eagle; socialite Senora Virginia Ferrand of Guatemala, and two brothers-in-law of a U.S. senator.

A morgue was set up in the Sunday school of the nearby Christian Science church and the Red Cross opened an emergency kitchen to feed victims and rescuers. The last victim was not rescued until 11 hours after the disaster. One of the most poignant records of the tragedy was a report showing that "eleven times death struck down husband and wife, side by side."

Gen. John J. Pershing, the World War I hero, came to the scene to offer Army help, and President Warren Harding issued a condolence proclamation.

The initial investigation showed what engineers called "clear evidence of inferior work" and violation of theater building codes. But in early 1923 an appeals court quashed manslaughter charges against the theater owners and designers. Damage suits would continue for years. The only benefit was rapid revision and tightening of theater codes in major cities. The

Knickerbocker itself was rebuilt. *

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