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