I walked down the steep hill towards town and my job, a bit tired from having been woken up by two early-morning fire alarms. I had spent my morning shift reassuring folks that no buildings had burned, since they were both false alarms. My job as the town operator also included being the information person and so far no one seemed to realize it meant telephone information. Why, I even had one kid call in for help about what to do when he smashed his thumb. Not that I minded the kids calling, since my husband and I couldn’t have any children of our own I enjoyed this chance to talk to them.
Breathing in the brisk fall air as I walked, I looked at the valley where my town was located. At the far end, I could see the amazing dam that had been built to hold water for the new pulp mill. The dam was declared by everyone to be an engineering marvel. The mill had kept our town going by creating many jobs and bringing more people to our area. Of course, there were rumors of the mill owner taking short cuts on the dam, but most people dismissed that idea as crazy.
I returned from lunch to find a party atmosphere on Main Street. I had to jump out of the way of balls flying, and zigzag around jump ropes to cross the street to the small telephone building where I worked. Chatter was buzzing in my ears as women gossiped on every corner. The women had taken the opportunity to come to town to shop and visit while all the men gathered together to vote on the new county commissioner.
As I sat down at the switchboard, I surely hoped that the afternoon would be calmer than the morning had been. As it progressed I only had the usual tasks of connecting people to whoever they wanted to call and answering the normal information questions.
“Information, may I help you”?
“Why, yes, Nora, I’ll run next door and let Will know the cow is out again.”
“You’re connected to Philadelphia now, Ida.”
My heart stopped. “God, help us all.” I prayed.
My hands shook as I connected a switchboard line to the pulp mill.
“Sound the alarm! The dam has broken!”
As I went out the door I heard the eight short hoots and a long blast sounding from the mill whistle. I ran as if the devil was on my tail, screaming as I went, so all could hear.
“The dam has broken!”
“The dam has broken!”
I heard the pounding feet behind me as adults and children started running. But some didn’t understand how fast it would happen. Several went into the stores or stopped to talk. Others stood in doorways as I went past, ignoring my screaming and the alarm. I heard laughing, like it was some kind of joke.
“The dam has broken.”
Didn’t they realize?
I reached the top of the hill and turned towards the valley. Below me the great wall of water and wood was crashing down onto the town. There was nothing more I could do to warn them. I covered my ears, trying to drown out the sounds. Buildings were crushed, twisted and flying about. People were screaming. Within a few minutes all I could see was water below. How could anyone survive?
The tears flowed from all of us as we watched in silence. We who had managed to get to the hill in time became as one, holding each other up, calming those who didn’t know where their loved ones were, and comforting those who had lost loved ones.
More people came up the hill from the water’s edge; some had barely missed the water’s arms grabbing them. Others had been tossed onto higher ground from the impact of the water hitting. Children had been thrown over the top of the big mill fence by their parents into the waiting arms of others who paused to help. These children escaped in the nick of time after their parents had become tangled in the barbed wire at the top. As the survivors came up the hill, each told their story of sorrow, miracles, heroism, or courage.
In the days that followed, my heart cried at the loss of 78, but rejoiced that, even with the town destroyed from the water, 1,922 people had survived.
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