DC history

100 Years Ago: DC's Deadliest Disaster Kills 98 When Roof Collapses in Blizzard

On Jan. 28, 1922, the Knickerbocker Theatre's roof, piled high with snow, collapsed onto the audience

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The worst snowstorm in D.C. history was 100 years ago Friday — and that snowstorm also caused D.C.'s deadliest disaster.

Nearly 100 people died Jan. 28, 1922 at the Knickerbocker Theatre in Adams Morgan when the building's snow-heaped roof collapsed onto the audience.

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Police officers, rescue workers and onlookers stand amid the wreckage of the Knickerbocker Theatre, Jan. 29, 1922.

The Knickerbocker was a grand theater at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, with seating for 1,500 people.

The weather forecast for that day was calling for a mild snowfall, but the snow ended up being anything but mild.

About 300 people made their way through the snow to the Knickerbocker to watch a silent film comedy accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra.

The snow continued to pile on the theater’s weakening roof.

"There was 28 inches measured here, 32 inches measured in Rock Creek Park and about 30 to 35 inches in Northern Virginia, so it was just a tremendous snowfall," author Kevin Ambrose said.

Ambrose, part of the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, has written two books about the Knickerbocker disaster.

"Just about at 9 p.m. when the first show started ... the ceiling started cracking, and a dust cloud came down over the orchestra and stage," he said. "Most everyone just sat there watching the show. The orchestra played on, and at one fell swoop, all the support beams broke free from the walls, and the roof came down in one flat piece, worst case scenario."

Firefighters, police and soldiers were brought in for the massive rescue effort.

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The structure's roof collapsed under the weight of 28 inches of snow from a blizzard, resulting in 98 deaths and 113 injuries.

"General Pershing of World War II fame was in the area and made personal calls to the military commanders to mobilize a rescue effort and get his Marines and Army soldiers there to help dig through the rubble," Ambrose said. "And George Patton of World War II fame was at Fort Meyer at the time. So he took about a hundred soldiers and Army trucks down the hill across the Potomac River."

In all, 98 people lost their lives and another 133 were injured.

In the weeks and months following the disaster, investigators found the cause: The roof was only being held up by the walls of the building.

"So the architect — the name was Reginald Geare — he was immediately charged with manslaughter for poor theater design," Ambrose said.

In the weeks and months following the disaster, investigators found the cause: The roof was only being held up by the walls of the building.

Charges against the architect were dismissed, and a lawsuit against the owner was also dismissed, but the disaster would continue to haunt the two men, who both later took their own lives.

The Ambassador Theater was later built on the site, but it was never a success and was torn down in 1969.

Today, an empty building that once housed a bank and a public plaza occupy the location. There’s no signage or monument telling today’s residents what happened there 100 years ago.

Two events are planned to commemorate the Knickerbocker disaster. The names of the victims will be read at 6 p.m. Friday. On Saturday afternoon, another ceremony will be held.

The location is slated to be redeveloped, but there has been some community opposition to those plans and there is now an effort to erect a monument on the site to remember those who died.

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