I have been on a man-made disaster binge lately and I mentioned before that I think it is partly because of the disaster all around us right now that is also man-made; our idiot-in-chief is certainly not helping here in the US, and is in fact out-right LYING - as is his cheering squad over at Faux News.
Reading about past pandemics would make me feel worse, so instead I have found books involving other kinds of disasters - train wrecks, explosions, fires. Even so, in these stories there is hope because there are always people willing to help, to put themselves in harm's way to save the life of another, even if that person is a complete stranger. Despite the loss of life in these true stories, we can take hope from them as well. If everyone does their part and what they are supposed to do, we will be okay.
Here is another event that I knew nothing about, which surprised me given the time period that it happened in - 1944. The loss of life was quite large, and so many were children. Nearly 7,000 fans had entered the big top, ready for a fun afternoon provided by the Ringling Brothers. Somehow, and the cause is discussed but never 100% determined, the tent caught fire and panic set in. There were not enough exits for the thousands of spectators, and one of the exits was even blocked by an animal ramp so people were having to try to climb over, which slowed so many down and increased the number dead. Then the whole tent itself collapsed and anyone still alive perished within minutes. 168 people died that day, with hundreds more injured.
This is a quick read of only 144 pages, but it is packed with information. The author uses so many sources, including firsthand accounts given by witnesses, as well as interviews with survivors. I was also impressed with the exhaustive amount of photos and diagrams included, as they greatly aided in telling the dramatic and terrifying story.
Roughly 40% of the book is dedicated to identifying the victims. This is the best I have seen done in any of the disaster books I have read lately, because here the victims are identified by name and, when available, photographs. As happens all too often, victims get lumped together and lose their identity. Not so in this case and for that I am grateful because those who died deserve to be remembered. What made this section so overwhelming, however, is that the majority of the victims were children. This is a crucial, but devastating, section of the story.
Random Fact: Charles Nelson Reilly was at the circus that day and escaped the tent before it collapsed.
Overall I found this to be a concise and factual account of a major tragedy. I appreciate that the space today is marked with a monument to the victims, located at exactly the point where the middle tent post stood. This memorial was unveiled on the 60th anniversary of the fire. It lists the names of all those who died, accompanied by a diagram of the tent.
One thing that is frustrating here, is that no cause was ever determined. The farthest any investigation got was that it started near the men's restroom, which was attached to the main tent. There was a man who confessed to starting the fire, but recanted, and there are a whole slew of reasons he should and should not be believed. It is thought that a dropped cigarette could have started the blaze, but it is unlikely we will ever know for sure what caused the fire that terrible day.
On June 23rd, 1900 Engine #7 and its passengers were due in Atlanta. The problem was, a massive storm was raging and the train waited for quite some time before finally being given the green-light to continue on its way from McDonough. This area of Georgia had seen rainstorms for WEEKS. With one storm after another filling rivers and creeks beyond capacity, on this night disaster struck. The water in the Camp Creek had rushed forward so quickly, it had eroded the bridge supports holding the tracks in place. As Engine #7 crossed the bridge, it gave way. Only nine people aboard survived, the rest were killed in the wreck, the ensuing fire, or the creek itself.
So I am kind of perplexed with this one and how to truly rate it, because author perspective does matter. An Author's perspective dictates how he or she writes. In giving a history of the area prior to the crash, the author relates how the town came to be a suburb of Atlanta over decades. It is when he is describing the Civil War that troubles me however, because in one of the many photos provided throughout the book, one is captions as "A nighttime view of the monument of Colonel Charles T. Zachry, Civil War hero of McDonough, located in the square downtown" (15%).
Hold up a second. You don't get to call someone a "Civil War Hero" if they fought for the South. You can call someone a dirty treasonous traitor, which is accurate. Never a hero. NEVER. Don't come at with the "States' rights" bullshit argument. Yes, the Civil War was about states' rights. STATES' RIGHTS TO OWN SLAVES. Fuck off with every other pathetic argument, good-bye.
So, back to the book.
This gave me pause because I wondered how the rest of the story would then be told, and what kind of bias there might be, intended or otherwise. I did not seem to find any, and in fact found the author gave explicit praise to various African Americans for their acts that night. He first mentions a railroad employee by the name of T.C. Carter who aided survivors in escaping the rail cars, all while dealing with the intense pain of a dislocated hip. He also wrote of how the train's flagman, J.J. Quinlan was able to scale the embankment - no easy task as the ground continued to give way beneath him - and alert people along the way that there had been a wreck and they needed help.
"As he made his way up the track, he passed the houses of several African American families. Waking them up, he told them of the wreck and said that their help was needed to rescue survivors. He instructed them to gather all of the rope they could find and take it with them to the washout. Quinlan knew this was the only way the survivors could be pulled out of the chasm below the tracks. Although unnamed, these African American residents neat McDonough responded quickly and heroically" (40%).
So, I don't really know what else to say about this, except that calling confederates 'Civil War heroes' really bothers me.
One of the great mysteries of this wreck is the story of a mother and babe who perished. Or didn't. No one really knows for sure. What is known is that there was a woman and her infant on board the train, and that they were thought to have left that train before the stop at McDonough. Yet there were reports of a clothe diaper found downstream, still pinned, indicating it had been washed off the child.
"Why did the rescuers report seeing a woman and baby lifeless on the creek bank and then washed downstream? were they delirious from their work, or is it possible that there was another woman onboard in another car? Perhaps we will never know if this woman was involved in the crash. Several bodies were never recovered, and it might be that she and her baby were two of them" (49%).
Subplots like this one make these disasters stories so much worse, because there is that aspect of not knowing. To me it is a terrible thing to have potential victims never able to be acknowledged because we know nothing about them, their names, or if they are even real. The only survivors of this wreck were those in the back, in the Pullman car. Those in the locomotive and first two train cars were killed in a variety of horrible ways, and in most cases were unable to be identified by sight. The dead were not able to recovered until the fire was out, which was not until the following morning. Those still within the wreck and not washed away by the rushing water were disfigured and/or burned beyond recognition, so they had to be identified by whatever documents or paper that were in their pockets. Who really knows then how many bodies were never recovered?
All in all, this is quick read about another disaster that was not entirely preventable. It was preventable in terms of having workers out constantly checking the bridge supports during the string of such terrible storms, but on that specific night it would have been impossible to be monitoring due to the heavy winds and rain.