The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Knickerbocker snowstorm became D.C.’s deadliest disaster 100 years ago

Nearly 100 people died as the roof on the Knickerbocker Theatre collapsed from a record-setting snowfall of more than two feet.

Two nurses and a workman move outside the Knickerbocker Theatre on Jan. 29, 1922, the day after the roof collapsed. The theater was located at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. (Library of Congress)

On the evening of Jan. 28, 1922, several hundred people fought their way through the greatest snowstorm in Washington history to see a motion picture at the Knickerbocker Theatre. It was the Titanic of theaters, the city’s largest and most modern of the time, located in what is now the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Unbeknown to the moviegoers, the theater’s flat roof was seriously stressed from the more than two feet of freshly fallen snow. It would collapse, killing 98 people and injuring 133. One hundred years later, the roof collapse remains the deadliest disaster in the District’s history.

Remembering the 100th anniversary of Washington’s Knickerbocker theater disaster

The sad sequence of events began to unfold at 9 on a Saturday night. The featured film of the evening, “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” had just started to roll, and the theater’s orchestra struck up a lively tune. A few latecomers were still entering the auditorium and finding seats. Almost 300 movie patrons were in attendance in a theater that could hold more than 1,000.

A few minutes after the show’s start, a loud hissing noise was heard above the orchestra’s music. Some survivors also described the noise as the sound of ripping sheets and breaking slate. The theater’s roof and ceiling was splitting apart down the middle.

A dust cloud began to spew from a crack formed in the ceiling, and it slowly descended over the stage and orchestra. Most of the audience members didn’t know what was happening, and they stayed in their seats and continued to watch the film. The orchestra continued to play, synchronizing their music to the action in the movie.

The ceiling’s crack was caused by the roof sagging due to weight from the snow. The roof’s support beams and trusses were bending but not breaking. The ends of the support beams rested on the theater’s brick walls and, in some places, only a few inches of brick supported the beams.

As the roof’s steel beams and trusses continued to bend deeper down the middle, the ceiling crack widened, and chunks of plaster began to fall. Finally, the ends of the beams began to lift upward where they made contact with the theater walls, and the inside edges of the brick wall began to crack.

The crash happened in a split second. The roof broke free from the walls and fell toward the ground in one massive piece. The falling roof slammed into the theater’s balcony with such force that it collapsed, and the roof and the balcony fell to the theater’s floor.

As tons of concrete and plaster rapidly fell, the air pressure inside the theater increased, which blew out its windows and doors. As a result, several people standing near the auditorium doors were blown into the lobby. Because the lobby roof did not collapse, these people were the lucky ones. They survived.

Inside the auditorium, the audience and orchestra members were buried under a tremendous mass of concrete, plaster and twisted steel beams. Darkness filled the theater, and moans of pain and cries for help could be heard from under the enormous piles of rubble.

Rescue and recovery

Immediately after the roof caved in, a chaotic rescue effort began from nearby pedestrians and neighbors of the theater. It became better organized when the police, military and firefighters arrived on the scene. Police lines were drawn, and heavy equipment was summoned. A fleet of ambulances arrived from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help evacuate the injured to hospitals.

By midnight, 200 police officers, Marines and firefighters were working feverishly, digging through the wreckage inside the theater. By 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, more than 600 rescue workers, including Army soldiers from nearby Fort Myer, were methodically removing the collapsed roof and balcony to search for survivors. Residents in the vicinity of the theater supplied hot food and coffee to the workers. The rescue effort continued into the following day, led by Army Maj. George Patton.

A temporary morgue was set up in the basement of the Christian Science Church, which was located near the theater. Sadly, many of the victims were crushed and unrecognizable. Clothing, shoes and personal possessions, such as watches, were used by family members to identify loved ones. Some victims remained in the morgue for days before family members identified them.

An investigation into the roof collapse followed, conducted by Congress, the District and the courts. The study concluded that faulty design and construction of the Knickerbocker were responsible for the disaster. The theater’s architect, Reginald Geare, was charged with manslaughter. However, the courts ruled that the theater’s construction complied with existing building codes, and all charges were dropped.

Families of victims sued the theater, but again the court sided with the Knickerbocker Theatre Company. The Supreme Court refused to consider appeals to reinforce the lower court’s decision. As a result, families who lost loved ones in the theater never received a cent of compensation.

Geare, while cleared of charges, found his career ruined, and he suffered from depression. He died by suicide in 1927. Ten years later, the owner of the theater, Harry Crandall, took his own life.

This weekend, there will be two remembrance events for the 100th anniversary of the disaster. The first event is a candlelight vigil that starts Friday at 6 p.m. in the plaza at 1801 Adams Mill Rd. NW and the second event is a centennial commemoration that begins Saturday at noon at 18th and Columbia Rd NW. Both events will remember the disaster victims, the rescue workers and the medical professionals who cared for the injured and dying.

The record-breaking snowstorm

The snowstorm that led to the disaster began during the afternoon of Jan. 27, 1922. It was poorly predicted. The forecast that morning in The Washington Post read: “Cloudy and somewhat warmer today, probably snow or rain tonight or tomorrow; moderate easterly winds.” Nine inches of snow fell that day.

By late morning on Jan. 28, the snow depth catapulted 18 inches. By afternoon, 25 inches had accumulated. The snow did not stop until the early morning hours of Jan. 29, with an official snow depth of 28 inches, a single storm snowfall record for D.C. that still stands.

The temperature was in the mid-20s at the start of the storm but rose to 31 degrees as the snow ended.

The storm responsible for the record snowfall formed east of South Carolina on the morning of Jan. 27 and moved slowly northeast to a position east of Cape Hatteras the next morning. It then drifted east-northeast slowly out to sea. A stationary high-pressure system north of New York state ensured that temperatures remained cold in D.C. and blocked the storm from moving north, prolonging the snowfall.

The Northeast was spared the worst of the storm.

“Once forecasters saw how crippling the storm was in Washington, they forecast those conditions to translate northward toward New York and New England, but those conditions never materialized,” wrote meteorologists Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini in their book “Northeast Snowstorms Volume II,” which described the storm.

In the days that followed the storm, the weather warmed in Washington with afternoon high temperatures in the 40s and 50s, and the snow melted quickly. One week later, only an inch remained on the ground.

Knickerbocker family stories

Stories about the Knickerbocker Theatre victims, survivors and rescue workers have been passed down through families for decades and are still remembered. After Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote about the disaster last week, several readers responded with comments and emails recounting their family stories about the tragedy.

After my book, “The Knickerbocker Snowstorm,” was published nine years ago, I received emails from families with stories to share. Once I obtained their accounts, I felt a responsibility to save them because much of the information had been passed down by word-of-mouth and was never documented in print. So, because I didn’t want the stories to be lost, I recently published a second book titled “Knickerbocker Stories.”

The book contains a collection of short stories about people affected by the disaster. It includes their accounts of life and death and what happened to the families in the years that followed the tragedy. Many stories are sad, but other accounts describe the good fortune of how people missed the crash. Some of them I previously wrote about in articles published in The Post (see list below).

More stories exist, and I hope to document them before they are lost.

Read more about the Knickerbocker storm, including victim and survivor stories from the author:

Knickerbocker snowstorm short stories

The Knickerbocker snowstorm: Inside insights on D.C.’s deadliest disaster

98 people died in the Knickerbocker collapse. Courts never found whom to blame.

The crushing Knickerbocker snowstorm and rise of The Washington Post’s John Jay Daly

Knickerbocker stories: The story of Agnes Mellon

Knickerbocker stories: The story of David Lyman Jr.

Knickerbocker stories: The final performance and Ernesto Natiello

Haunting faces, scenes and stories from the Knickerbocker Theater roof crash