'35 hurricane knocked rescue train off its tracks


September 04, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which made landfall in Texas on Sept. 8, 1900, killed some 8,000 people and caused $30 million in damage.

Even though the mega-storm remains the deadliest weather disaster in U.S. history, it was, incredibly, only a Category 4 hurricane.

As Hurricane Frances threatens Florida, its power and force recall another Labor Day storm that slammed into the Florida Keys in 1935.

The American Red Cross estimated that 409 were killed: 244 known deaths and 165 missing.

The hurricane - storms were unnamed then - was the first of three Category 5 storms to hit the U.S. mainland in the 20th century.

It was spawned east of the Bahamas at the end of August and within 48 hours grew from a 74-mph hurricane to a deadly storm of staggering proportions.

After rolling over Andros Island, the hurricane made a slight turn to the northwest and barreled straight for the upper Keys, where it made landfall on Sept. 2. It continued to pound the islands well into the night.

Winds were later estimated by weather officials to have ranged between 150 mph to 200 mph, with record-breaking barometric readings as the mercury sank to 26.35 inches. This was lower than readings produced by hurricanes Camille and Andrew, the other two Category 5 hurricanes of the last century.

"Attendant winds on September 2 were of phenomenal violence as is shown by physical effects almost equivalent to those experienced in tornadoes," wrote W.F. McDonald in 1935 for Monthly Weather Review, the journal of the American Meteorological Society.

"One observer reported his house partially demolished by a wind-driven beam, 6 by 8 inches in section and 18 feet long, which was blown 300 yards from another building; this occurred at a time nearly 3 hours in advance of arrival of the calm center," McDonald reported.

Another casualty of the ferocious storm was the Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension, the brainchild of railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler, which connected mainland Florida with the Florida Keys and opened for service in 1912.

J.J. Haycraft, engineer of an 11-car rescue train that had been dispatched from North Miami earlier in the day to pick up workers, mainly World War I veterans building the Overseas Highway, and inhabitants who were in harm's way, was greeted by a terrifying sight.

As Haycraft peered from the engine's cab into the howling storm, he saw a wave 20 feet high illuminated by the locomotive's headlight rapidly tumbling toward his train.

As he pulled back on engine No. 447's throttle, he could only utter: "Lord have mercy."

The swiftly moving waters plowed into the train, leaving coaches and boxcars on their side. Only the heavy locomotive defied the hell-bent water and stayed on the tracks.

"But for 40 miles flanking that single, sixty-foot stretch of track upon which 447 still sat, the roadbed of the Key West Extension had been obliterated, as had everything else in the path of the storm ... even the trees that some had lashed themselves to in desperation," wrote Les Standiford in his book, Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean.

Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West, was among the first rescuers who reached the Middle Keys after the storm had passed and was overwhelmed by the spectacle of two dead naked women resting in a tree and workers floating face up in mangrove swamps.

"When we reached Metecumbe, there were bodies floating in the ferry slip. The brush was all brown as though autumn had come ... but that was because the leaves had all been blown away," Hemingway wrote in an article for New Masses.

The damage to the Key West Extension was so great that the bankrupt Florida East Coast Railway was in no position financially to repair the massive destruction. The state of Florida purchased the bridges and right-of-way and completed the Overseas Highway, which opened to motorists in 1938.

Standiford says in his book that people exploring the Keys still find remains from the 1935 storm: "Some 20 years later, an Islamorada developer digging fill out of a rock pit unearthed three automobiles bearing out-of-state license plates dated to 1935, the skeletons of the occupants still resting inside."

"You don't want to be here when a big hurricane hits. You want to listen to the experts who tell you to get out a long time before the storm gets here," survivor Bernard Russell told the St. Petersburg Times in a 1991 article. Russell, who lost 50 relatives to the storm, saw his mother and sister carried to their deaths by the relentless winds. "The wind howls and carries on and there's nothing you can do. Nothing ... "

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