Disasters

The Wawaset Disaster of 1873

Few remember it today, but in 1873 “the Waswaset horror” broke the hearts of many in D.C. and the surrounding area.

On August 8, 1873, the Wawaset was heading towards Cone River from Washington. Around 11:30AM, near Chatterson’s Landing, the fireman of the steamer raised the alarm that a fire had broken out on board. The boat was very dry, “almost like timber”, and it spread quickly on the oiled machinery of the steamer. Captain Woods immediately steered the boat towards shore. He stayed in the pilot’s house in order to keep the steering ropes from catching on fire; if those were lost, there would be no way to direct the steamer. If the steamer could make it to shore before the fire became too much for those on board, any loss of life could be avoided. Sadly, it didn’t happen that way.

Two Tragedies in One Day

It was snowing on the 14th Street Bridge and traffic had ground to a standstill as thousands of federal workers and other rush-hour commuters tried to get home ahead of a major storm. With an awful metallic crack, a blue-and-white jet swept out of the swirling snow at 4 p.m., smacked against one of the bridge's spans, sheared through five cars like a machete, ripped through 50 feet of guard rail and plunged nose first into the frozen Potomac River.

Moments later in a crowded subway car underneath the National Mall:

The train reversed direction.... with a loud popping and crunching sound and a sudden showering of sparks and electrical arcing.... Dozens of people of both sexes screamed. Slowly, surrealistically, the concrete abutment grew larger, closer and actually pressed the left center-rear of the car. The side and roof slowly caved in, almost as a foot crushes a tin can. More screaming, arcing, then silence.

It sounds like a scene in a Hollywood movie right before the hero or heroine springs into action. Tragically, however, this was no movie. It was real life in Washington on January 13, 1982.

Hugh Bennett and the Perfect Storm

Think the impacts of the Dust Bowl were only felt in the Great Plains? Think again. In the spring of 1935, a dust storm nearly blocked out the sun above Washington, alarming local citizens and spurring Congress to take action on soil erosion policy.