The Knickerbocker Snowstorm of

January 27-28, 1922

 

Washington’s largest snowstorm on record began during the evening of January 27, 1922. By the morning of January 28, the snow total had reached 18 inches. By mid-afternoon, the accumulation reached a depth of 25 inches. The snow did not stop until the morning of January 29, with an official snow depth of 28 inches, a single storm snowfall record for Washington, D.C. that still stands today. A snow depth of 33 inches was measured in Rock Creek Park, three miles to the north of Washington’s official weather station. Temperatures were in the low-to-mid-20’s during most of the storm. The liquid total of the snowfall was 3.02 inches.

The weight of the record-breaking snow collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre. The roof of the theater fell on scores of moviegoers, killing 98 and injuring 133. The disaster ranks as one of the worst in Washington’s history.

The storm responsible for the record snowfall formed east of South Carolina on the morning of January 27 and moved slowly north to a position well east of Cape Hatteras on the morning of January 28. It then drifted slowly east-northeast out to sea. A stationary high-pressure system north of New York State ensured that temperatures remained cold throughout the event.

 

An account of the collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre is as follows:

 

On the evening of January 28, 1922 several hundred people fought their way through a massive snowstorm to see the show at the Knickerbocker Theatre, Washington’s largest and most modern moving picture the­ater of the time. When the show began that evening, the greatest snowstorm in Washington’s history was winding down. It had already dumped over two feet of heavy, wet snow on the city and many flat-roofed buildings, like that of the Knickerbocker Theatre, were tremendously burdened by the weight.

Shortly before 9:00 p.m., the Knickerbocker Theatre’s orchestra was play­ing for intermission. The lights had dimmed and the people were returning to their seats. Suddenly, a loud hissing noise filled the room. The ceiling, weighed down from the snow, had begun to split apart down the middle. The few people who had noticed the splitt­ing ceiling dove under their seats or ran for the door. Within seconds, the entire roof started to fall towards the crowd. As the roof came down, it collapsed the theater’s ce­ment balcony and pulled down portions of the theater’s brick wall. Concrete, bricks and metal crashed to the ground, burying dozens of people.

George Brodie had entered the theater moments before the roof collapsed and gave the following account: “I grabbed for my hat and coat, and the next minute found myself flat on my face with something weighty on top. I lay still for about five minutes when I noticed at the side of me a girl with an arch or pillar resting upon her. I tried to pull it off but couldn’t move it. Then I started work­ing my way slowly in some direction – I think the middle – and with four other fellows we saw a hole with a light shining through. The next thing I know I was on the street, but I don’t know how I got there. I stayed around for a while and helped several others, who were apparently uninjured, out of the place. It was a frightful sight within, nothing but moans, cries and darkness.”

The scene after the disaster was terrible. People ran through the ruins calling for miss­ing loved ones. Shouts from rescue workers mixed with the cries of anguish from victims buried under the wreckage. Lanterns and shadows could be seen darting about through the heavily falling snow. Great masses of twisted steel, splintered timber and crumbled masonry covered the floor of the theater. One reporter wrote that no description of the scene could convey the awfulness of what he had witnessed that night. Another reporter, with recent memories of the devastation of World War I in mind, wrote, “Stark and grim as any ruin in the war-swept area of France or Bel­gium stood the walls of the Knickerbocker theater.”

The chaotic rescue effort became better organized when the police and firemen ar­rived at the scene. Police lines were drawn and heavy equipment was called in. By 12:00 a.m., 200 police, soldiers and firemen were working feverishly, digging through the wreckage. By 2:30 a.m., over 600 rescue workers were on the scene. Residents in the vicinity of the theater supplied hot food and coffee to the rescuers.  One small boy was even sent into the wreckage, squeezing through the holes between the fallen concrete slabs, to distribute pain pills to those who were trapped under the rubble.

The rescue workers had to dig through two layers of debris to rescue the injured. First they had to remove the plaster and steel of the roof to reach the injured that had been seated in the balcony. Large saws were used to cut through the roof’s heavy wire screen that had once held the ceiling’s plaster. After the roof had been removed, the workers had to chisel through the cement structure of the balcony to rescue those who had been seated on the first floor. The rescue effort was not completed until the following afternoon.

The toll for the disaster was 98 dead and 133 injured. Every hospital in the area was filled with the injured. Many stores and houses served as short-term first-aid stations. Hotels opened their doors to the injured as well as the rescuers. The disaster ranks as one of the worst in Washington’s history. The snowstorm still ranks as Washington’s largest single snowfall.

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