In the aftermath at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, I watched the news each day with equal parts anguish for what had taken place, and awe at the effort put forth by the New York City firefighters and other rescue personnel.
For days – then weeks, and even months – they clawed at the mountains of wreckage, sometimes with the help of construction equipment, sometimes with their gloved hands.
At first, the frantic search was for survivors. Quickly, it turned into a recovery operation that was no less strenuous physically, and which had to be even more trying emotionally.
Although I had rooted for the FDNY the way some people pull for sports teams, I’d never had much cause to think very highly of New Yorkers in general.
The days after 9/11 taught me otherwise.
Wow, I thought on more than one occasion. I’d never seen such toughness, and if you’d told me, I wouldn’t have believed it existed.
I still felt that way until last month, when the yearslong Stone Bridge lighting project came to fruition. I had to work that night, but when I saw the photographs, I had one of those “light-switch” moments.
I realized that I’ve been around people that tough – or their legacy, at least – for most of my life.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, or moved to town in the past week or so, you’re probably aware that floods have been an indelible part of Johnstown’s history. The most catastrophic came on May 31, 1889, when the dam at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club near present-day
St. Michael gave way.
While most people in this area probably know that the resulting flood devastated Johns-
town and communities along the flood’s path – killing more than 2,000 people – many may be unaware of the scenes of horror that unfolded at the bridge
The span, which carried the Pennsylvania Railroad over the Conemaugh River just downstream from the Point, was already clogging with debris from high water when the enormous flood wave hit.
By that time, the torrent was pushing not just trees and smaller rubble, but railroad cars, barns, wagons, livestock, horses, the wreckage of many homes and businesses and factories from Johnstown and smaller communities such as Mineral Point and East Conemaugh, along with hundreds of people, living and dead.
And all of it began piling up at the bridge.
The mountain of rubble eventually reached higher than the bridge itself, and was so thick that it became nearly watertight, turning the city into a vast lake of death and destruction.
And if that was not enough, sometime after nightfall the whole ghastly mess caught fire.
No one will ever know how many people who had somehow survived the torrent were incinerated in the resulting fire at the bridge.
In his book “The Johnstown Flood,” historian David McCullough relates the story of flood survivor Victor Heiser, who wrote: “... we struggled for hours trying to release them from this funeral pyre. ... We could not save them all. It was horrible to watch helplessly while people, many of whom I actually knew, were being devoured in the holocaust.”
As happened at the Trade Center site, the recovery effort in Johnstown went on for weeks, at the bridge and across what was left of the city. But unlike the NYC site, where heavy construction equipment quickly was brought in to help, the appalling work in Johns-
town was carried out with teams of horses, oxen and mules, along with whatever hand tools were available.
The pile at the bridge proved to be too tough for horses, or even trains. Eventually, work crews had to resort to dynamite to blow it up.
But as days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, somehow the city recovered.
People cared for their injured, buried their dead, cleaned up as best they could and began rebuilding.
Tough? How could any group of people be that tough?
And the city went through the whole gut-wrenching process again in 1936. And yet again in 1977.
If Johnstown ever had a defining moment, it was the 1889 flood.
And if that event had any place that could be called “ground zero” for the devastation, it was the Stone Bridge.
Maybe it was because of the sheer horror of what took place there that no one ever got around to building any sort of memorial.
Possibly, the memories were just so distressing that everyone tried their best to forget.
To a large extent, they succeeded.
Though the national memorial near St. Michael does an outstanding job of telling the story of the flood, as does the Flood Museum downtown, there is no memorial in the city to the events that took place in 1889, or the subsequent floods.
That is, at least there didn’t used to be.
I’m not sure whose idea it first was to turn the bridge into a memorial, but it was a moment of true brilliance.
The committee, which worked for years to bring the project to its completion, deserves an enormous thank you from the community.
Given the events that unfolded in 1889, there may not in the entire nation be a dozen bridges with more historical significance. And thanks to the committee’s work, now ours looks the part.
It’s a dazzling tribute, not just to those who lost their lives in Johnstown’s tragic floods, but to those whose determination allowed the city to endure.
And to a city that’s as tough as they come.
Paul Rowan is a copy editor at The Tribune-Democrat.