Saturday, January 19, 2013

the last book I ever read (David McCullough's The Johnstown Floor, excerpt two)

from The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough:

Debris began building rapidly among the massive stone arches. And now it was no longer the relatively small sort of rubbish that had been clogging the bridge most of the day. Now boxcars, factory roofs, trees, telegraph poles, hideous masses of barbed wire, hundreds of houses, many squashed beyond recognition, others still astonishingly intact, dead horses and cows, and hundreds of human beings, dead and alive, were driven against the bridge until a small mountain had formed, higher than the bridge itself and nearly watertight. So once again, for the second time within an hour, Lake Conemaugh gathered in a new setting. Now it was spread all across Johnstown and well beyond.

But this time the new “dam” would hold quite a while longer than the viaduct had and would cause still another kind of murderous nightmare. For when darkness fell, the debris at the bridge caught fire.

No one knows for sure what caused the first. The explanation most often given at the time was that oil from a derailed tank car had soaked down through the mass, and that it was set off by coal stoves dumped over inside the kitchens of mangled houses caught in the jam. But there could have been a number of other causes, and in any case, by six o’clock the whole monstrous pile had become a funeral pyre for perhaps as many as eighty people trapped inside.

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