Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Empire Day Disaster

May 24, 1913 - Long Beach, California

38 people die, 200 injured

     It was supposed to be the greatest British celebration ever held on foreign soil but turned into the greatest tragedy to strike California up to that time.  On May 24, 1913, the first "Empire Day" in Southern California was celebrated.  Ever since she started her reign in 1838 May 24th was a national British holiday celebrating Queen Victoria's birthday, but after her death in 1901 her subjects still wanted to continue the celebration, establishing "Empire Day" to commemorate the expansion of the British Empire duing her reign.
     Twenty thousand British and former British subjects gathered in Long Beach that day for a festive celebration which was to include a parade, athletic conpetitions, games, music and speeches at the Municipal Auditorium.  It was just at the close of the parade when disaster struck.  The marchers, and those in vehicles, marched up the ramp leading to the double decked pier and auditorium where the program was to begin.  However, the main entrance to the auditorium became blocked by the crowd and those in the rear pressed forward in such large numbers that they caused a rotten 4 x 14 foot girder to break.  Masses of people fell through or on top of another crowd packing the lower deck; then the floor of the lower deck also gave way, tumbling people to the sand and water below.
     The Long Beach Press reported the day of the tragedy:
     What must go down in history as the most terrible disaster in the annals of Southern California, made gruesome history this morning when a four foot square section of the Municipal Auditorium fell to the sand below.  Heart rending scenes, never before equaled in the history of Long Beach were enacted on the beach as the dead and living were carried out and tenderly laid on the beach.  Many begged piteously to die.  A lad of ten yers was seen to pass away in his mother's arms, as she was raising a glass of brandy to his lips.  A broken-hearted father carried the limp and almost lifeless form of his fourteen-month-old baby to the steps to hunt for a doctor.  His wife lay on the beach with her life crushed out.  A mother saw her little boy smile and die at Seaside Hospital, a half hour after he had stood with her and cheered as a parade disbanded for the auditorium ceremonies. 
     It took a full ten minutes for the crowds on the pier, only a few hundred feet away from the disaster, to realize what had happened.  When the fire chief's auto came dashing up to assist in the relief work, many thought the fire department was giving an exhibition as part of the festivities.
     The Daily Telegram reported on the aftermath:
     Most of the wearing apparel and valuables dropped by the visitors of Saturday are on display at the Council chambers awaiting identifiction by the owners or relatives.  There are nearly 200 men's and boys' hats and caps of every shape, size and style generally in a battered and mashed condition.  There are bows, gloves and numerous hair switches of every shade of color, most looking as if they had been torn roughly from the head which it adorned.  Perhaps the most valuable article is a solid gold watch, the case of which is made of three kinds of the yellow metal, collected by the owner in America, Australia and South Africa, the three colors forming a curious combination set off by a half caret blue white diamond.  A heavy gold chain is attached to the watch.  It was the property of Thomas Beck, whose body is on a slab in one of the morgues.....
     Long Beach felt responsible for the tragedy.  Doctors donated their services free of charge.  $10,000 ($234,000 today's money) was quickly raised to aid the victims.  The following statement was issued in the Daily Telegram on May 26, 1913:
     The citizens of Long Beach will courageously and promptly meet every responsibility and humane demand growing out of Saturday's awful tragedy.  The dead will be given proper burial and the wounds of the injured will be cared for by the best obtainable medical and nursing skill.  The needs of every surviving victim will be promptly and heartily supplied.  There will be no red tape to handicap our people in demonstrating to the world, that we entertain a full understanding of our obligations to suffering humanity and propose to meet them with decision and sympathic candor.
     The Citizen's Relief Committee was true to their word.  Arthur Lett, a former conductor on the Pacific Electric who lost his wife and two of his three children, was one example.  his slender savings could not cover funeral expenses nor buy lots in the cemetery.  The Committee provided money to cover the burials and purchased cemetery plots.
       As a result of this tragedy many State and Federal laws had to be examined and changed as a result of the Long Beach Empire Day Disaster.  The city also instituted stringent building codes which few people today realize helped prevent greater tragedy during the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.
     If you're interested in learning more about this tragedy and its aftermath please read my book Murderous Intent.  To learn more about what was happening 100 years ago check out my Author's Blog at www.claudineburnettbooks.com