My Grandfather and the Night the Knickerbocker Theater’s Roof Collapsed

I never knew my grandfather on my father’s side. He died in 1964, ten years before I was born. My father was not one to talk much about him so I know almost nothing about the man except for what was in his death notice and a few stories here and there.

My mom recently unearthed a letter that he had written to his sister in 1922 (He was born in 1899 and had my father in 1946) after being present at the Knickerbocker theater the night that the roof collapsed killing 98 people and injuring 133. Here’s wikipedia’s entry on the tragedy:

The Knickerbocker Theater was the largest and newest movie house in Washington, D.C., built in 1917 and owned by Harry Crandall.[6] The roof was flat, which allowed the snow which had recently fallen to remain on the roof. During the movie’s (Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford) intermission, the weight of the heavy, wet snow was too much for the roof to bear. The roof split down the middle, bringing down the balcony seating as well as a portion of the brick wall. Dozens were buried. The media reported it as similar to a scene from World War I. People with lanterns frantically attempted to rescue victims of the disaster. By midnight, 200 rescue workers had organized the scene. The numbers of those involved in the rescue increased to over 600 by 2:30 a.m. Nearby residents helped feed the rescuers, also supplying them with hot drinks. This disaster ranks as one of the worst in Washington. D.C. history.[1] Congressman Andrew Jackson Barchfeld was among those killed in the theater.


(photo from weatherbook.com)

And here is my grandfather’s letter about what it was like from the inside:

Feb. 11, 1922

Dear Ethel:

For your information I will tell you all I can about what happened. This is the last time I am ever going to tell anyone.

I was sitting in the front of the balcony all alone about four rows back. Just before the roof fell I was about to leave. There was a rumble and a loud cry and on looking up I saw the ceiling waver and then fall in a solid mass. That is, it all came down at once. Before I could grasp what was happening the balcony dropped. I had just time to drop to the floor and lie flat. The seats in front of me kept me from being pitched forward as the others in the front of the balcony were. After I fell quite a way the floor of the balcony seemed to open from under me and then I dropped through with nothing under me. The idea is that as long as I had something under me during the larger part of the drop, the force of the fall on landing wouldn’t be so great. When I fell through the floor of the balcony I probably didn’t drop much further, but that little bit hurt me more than anything else. I then went to sleep for a while, but the screams around me woke me up. Fortunately nothing heavy fell on me, although I was practically buried under plaster and pieces of the chairs. Everything was pitch dark and as soon as I could I squirmed around and crawled out into a place that reminded me of a cave. It was almost big enough to stand in.

When the firemen arrived with flashlights they stuck them through a little opening and I could see where I was. I saw a man still conscious who asked me to get him up. He was buried as I had been, although his arm was broken. I managed to pull him out and the firemen made an opening above and hauled him through. I then saw a woman under him who also was still conscious. She begged me to stay until they could get her out. There was a big concrete block on her foot. It was too heavy for me to move and so I had to wait for a fireman to cut through and with him we managed to get her out.

I felt pretty weak myself when they lifted me through an opening in the top. They had lights all around then and I could see well. There was not a sign of a person nor of a chair, the roof covering the entire theater. I walked across the roof to the door and was taken into a house across the street where I was looked over by a doctor and had my arm bandaged. He said I needed a couple of stitches taken, but as there were more important things for the doctors to do then, he told me to have it done the first thing in the morning. After a while, I felt O.K. and borrowed an overcoat and went home. I live about a half mile up the road from the theater. The next morning I had my arm attended to and took that Monday off and went down town and bought a new overcoat.

I felt O.K. and worked up until a couple of days ago when the doctor picked the scab off my wrist and saw a little infection, so he ordered me to stay home and keep it soaked in an antiseptic. It is all right now and I expect to go back to work Monday.

My clothes were covered in blood, as I had a slight cut on my lip which bled quite a lot.

While those in the balcony had a better chance than those underneath, not a person in the first two rows of the balcony were known to have been saved. They were pitched forward and were probably killed by the fall.

I never saw the people who were sitting side of me again and believe that they too were pitched forward over the front of the balcony.

In all I don’t think that I had been under there more than twenty minutes before I got out. I was one of the first ones to get out.

To illustrate how much plaster was over me, I will say that every pocket of my clothes had some in it. Even the inside pocket of my coat and my small vest pockets.

My trusty Ingersoll valued at $2.00 came through all right and is reliable as ever.

I don’t know what I’ll do for amusement Saturday nights as I had always attended the picture show in that particular theater, although it was not customary for me to sit in the balcony. It seems queer to me that I was in the balcony, as that was contrary to my habit.

This is about as much as I can say about it as it is a pretty hard matter to describe.

Au revoir.
George

24 Comments

  1. I love how matter-of-fact he is in the letter. He really doesn’t seem like someone who pities himself a great deal and is stalwart in even the worst situations.
    Perhaps it just didn’t seem so bad compared to the Great War (whether or not he fought in it), but either way you have some great genetics going for you!

  2. Pretty cool! My maternal grandparents are both still living and I always tell myself that I want to hear their stories. Unfortunately for me, it just seems that when we’re all together, they aren’t reminiscing…I think my children, their great-grandchildren, distract a bit. I keep saying “someday”, but realistically I might not have them much longer. /sniff I’d better go visit them tomorrow.

  3. Well done, Sir.

    Exceptional bit of writing by you, and also your grandfather. Quiet and spare, and terrifically modern. Good call.

    BTW…that lameass costume you wore (as depicted by that old anonymous foto)sucked major ass! Cheese and crackers!…Mom always sewed and constructed ours…we never got any of those Collegeville Costume jokes! Egads!

    Cheers!
    —frigg

  4. @Lumpi,

    I think LL is right…. I don’t think my grandfather carried any pieces of the corpse of Robert Ingersoll around on him…

    LOL I knew someone was going to bring that up though 😉

  5. Fascinating! While you never knew him, you certainly can take an enormous amount of pride in his character. His helping the wounded man and trapped woman speaks volumes!

  6. Thanks for sharing. That letter and period films are the next best thing to time travel.

    This is about as much as I can say about it as it is a pretty hard matter to describe.
    Near death experiences shake people up. Musician Travis Barker refuses to fly now that he has survived the plane crash.

    I then went to sleep for a while, but the screams around me woke me up. The fall knocked him out! This part reminds me of how fragile we all are.

    It seems queer to me that I was in the balcony, as that was contrary to my habit.
    How many times do we wonder why things happen the way they do? Great letter, and I couldn’t agree more with Richard.

  7. @Abbi

    I then went to sleep for a while, but the screams around me woke me up. The fall knocked him out! This part reminds me of how fragile we all are.

    Not fragile, my family is just really lazy and we nap every chance we get. “I just fell down a hole? Siesta time!”

  8. My father recalled this disaster to me many years ago. He was 5 and quite enjoyed playing in the nearly 30 inches of snow (by far the deepest he had ever seen); he said that it was so deep he couldn’t walk in it — he “swam” in it. My dad woke the next morning to the news of the disaster, and remembers looking outside and wondering how something so beautiful could be dangerous …

  9. My aunt, Nancy Swaim Lambert was killed in this crash. It devastated my family and although I was not alive at that time, I remember that my family never got over the tragedy.

  10. One of my great relatives was killed in this disaster and I wasn’t even aware of it until today. Great history……though my/our last name is often misspelled, it was interesting to learn more about my family’s history.

    1. Google Howard Kneessi and you’ll find lots of data on him. I’ve put a lot out there. I’ve been in touch with his great granddaughter for a lot it it…

  11. The Military Surgeon’s Journal for 1922 has a short article on this disaster from their perspective – try Google Books and search publications before 1925.

  12. During the George Washington Birthday storm of 1979, my grandmother told me about the night her father would not let her go out with her friend’s to The Knickerbocker Theather on the night that the roof fell in. She stated that at the time she was very upset that she had to call her friends in Chevy Chase where she lived, that she would not be able to go because her father said the storm was very bad. She told me that she called her friend’s from her home when her phone number was M17. Can you imagine having a phone number like that! She did go on to say that 2 of her friend.s did indeed go to the theather that night, and they where killed. I guess the best advice I would give today is watch a movie at home tonight.

  13. My great grandfather, Wilhem Hugo Geigenberger, was there in the Knickerbocker Theater the night the roof collapsed. He played in the orchestra during the intermission of the movie. He was a cellist. He said just as the music started, the roof fell. He was able to get out without injury, and walked home in the snow.

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