A Winter's Tale of Tragedy

By Gershon Fishbein
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fresh on the heels of the pomp and festivities of the presidential inauguration, Washington will have a somber anniversary Wednesday.

Jan. 28 marks the date of one of the city's worst disasters, which occurred during one of its worst blizzards, 87 years ago.

In 1922, the flat roof of the ornate, 1,700-seat Knickerbocker Theater at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW collapsed under the weight of more than two feet of snow, killing 98 people and injuring 133.

The blizzard, which had begun a day earlier, is known as the Knickerbocker Storm because of the disaster, and it remains the snowstorm by which all others in this area are measured.

According to witnesses, nobody heard a thing before the crash.

The audience was absorbed in a silent movie adaptation of Broadway showman George M. Cohan's comedy, "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford."

Suddenly, a roar and crash filled the theater. The roof had caved in. The balcony was crushed first, and then the orchestra.

"With a roar, mighty as the crack of dawn, the massive roof of the theater broke loose from its steel moorings and crushed down on the heads of those in the balcony," The Washington Post's John Jay Daly reported in the following morning's edition. "Under the weight of the falling roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was terrorized. It was as sudden as turning off an electric light."

The weather had been atrocious for two days. Streetcars and automobiles were stranded all around town. Shivering residents had plowed through knee-high snowdrifts to reach their jobs.

Joseph Wade Beal, the first violinist at the Knickerbocker, was among those in the theater, only five days after his marriage. He was crushed to death.

A honeymooning couple, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Bowen, had braved the blizzard to see the show, according to news accounts. Taking their seats in the balcony, they were struck by plaster, stone, timber and steel. A slab of concrete smashed down on Mrs. Bowen's left leg. Another chunk covered her body.

Rescue efforts were tedious and agonizing, with scores of theatergoers buried under snow and timber.

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