ON Thursday evening, March 6, 1952, more than 7,000 people were crowded into the Fifth Regiment Armory, at Preston and Howard streets. By 8:15, the house was full of people waiting to see the world's greatest ice skater (and, it was thought by many, the world's richest athlete), Sonja Henie.
Henie was in Baltimore with her company of ice skaters -- 125 performers presenting the best ice-skating wizardry of that era in 14 acts -- the equivalent of today's traveling ice spectaculars. Henie herself was scheduled to appear in half of the show's acts.
The evening promised to be unforgettable, which it turned out to be. Indeed, as time has gone by, the number of people who claim to have been in the armory that night may have swelled to 70,000.
The show was about to begin -- there may have been two or three minutes to go -- when suddenly, according to one who was there, "There was a crack, then a roar like an approaching freight train. The sound built up in volume, and then it became punctuated with gasps, screams and the screech of splitting wood."
What happened was that nine rows of stands, from sections K through P, collapsed, sending hundreds of spectators crashing downward, into and on top of one another, creating a scene of churning bodies and cracking wood. Within seconds there was pandemonium. Police and National Guardsmen eventually helped free those who were trapped. Dozens of the injured were carried away on stretchers.
Henie said afterward she thought the commotion was a train passing under the building. (The Mt. Royal Station was not far away.) She peeked from behind a curtain and cried to her manager, Kenneth Stevens, "What ought I do? What ought I do?"
Stevens said the show could not go on. "Everybody out there is nervous," he told the star. She agreed to allow Stevens to make an announcement over the loudspeaker:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am speaking on behalf of Miss Henie. She feels terrible about this. Due to conditions, we will not give a performance tonight."
The evening's injury tally was 250. But, mercifully, no one was seriously injured and no one was killed.
But before the year was over, there would be more than 400 suits filed, and total damages would surpass $5 million.
The show opened two nights later -- with the collapsed stands missing.