NIGHTS OF HORROR AT PERU, IND.
THOUSANDS MAROONED ON TWO SMALL ISLANDS—BRAVE DEEDS OF RESCUERS—BOATMAN SHOT FOR CHARGING TO RESCUE.
Graphic description of the horrors of the flood that swept residents of Peru, Ind., to their death and made thousands homeless was given by Gilbert Kessler, one of the heroes of the calamity. Weary, tired eyed and almost unnerved from the loss of sleep and the sights he had witnessed, young Kessler, a muscular product of a northern Indiana farm, staggered from a relief train from the stricken city at Plymouth, Ind. There he recounted the terrors of the inky nights when the Wabash river drowned the piercing cries of the frantic and the groans of the perishing. To board the relief train Kessler had paddled three miles in a boat through the protruding treetops and debris that momentarily threatened to wreck him.
"It was too awful ever to forget," said Kessler with a shudder. "it was cold and damp and misty, and the sight of that black water rushing on pitilessly just seemed to take the heart out of most of us, especially the women.
"Night and day you could hear the shrieks of the women. And the conduct of some of them! I was piloting one of the rescue boats to our landing, the court house, and the boat was pretty well filled. One of our passengers was a woman.
"We were moving rather shakily through one of the main streets when all of a sudden I saw this woman rise from her seat and begin to wail: ‘Oh, what is the use! We’ll all be drowned anyway,’ and she plunged from her seat into the torrent.
"The next moment I found myself in the water. I saw a little arm stick up for a moment. I made a grab for it, but it went down. There was no chance to swim in that Niagara. I struck the stern of our rowboat and seized it with one hand. Then I gradually drew myself aboard.
"I picked up one of our oarsmen a little later. He was still alive.
"But the circumstances considered, you could scarcely blame the woman. A great many of them, though, suffered with a stoicism that had to be admired.
"Then again, I had a similar occurrence. We were bringing another boatload to the courthouse when a woman lunged out despairingly and all of us went over. Again it was a fight and I managed to save myself. Four times, altogether, I was thrown out into that muddy stream and I am still wondering how I managed to escape.
"The current swept around street corners with tremendous force and only the most experienced oarsmen could propel those craft with any degree of safety. One of the life savers from Michigan City took too wide a turn and they all landed in the tree tops.
"There were as many lives lost in the capsizing of boats as in the flood itself, but the boats were not to blame, because it required great experience to handle a boat in that current. We had 200 boats, but there was so much loss of life that finally the women refused absolutely to enter the boats. They preferred to stick to roofs and second floors."
Kessler gave a description of the flood on the first night.
"It was 7:30 p. m. when the water burst upon the city," he said. A temporary dam had been constructed by the lighting company and because of the threatened condition of the Wabash plans were made to break a hole in the dam and let the water out gradually. Instead the dam gave out and the water came with a roar.
"Families had just finished supper when the fire whistle sounded. Simultaneously all lights went out. People ran out to see what had happened and soon cries of anguish were heard. In the rain and darkness you could not see the water until it was almost upon you. I felt it swishing about my ankles and ran for my girl cousin. When I got to her house I was waist deep in water. Cries, shrieks and the reports of revolvers rent the air. Swifter, swifter ran the water. My cousin and I were almost swept off our feet. Above the din I could hear: ‘To the courthouse! To the courthouse!’ Half swimming, half floundering, we reached there.
"We found thousands of men, women and children. Families were separated. Women were crying for their children, men for their wives and wives for their husbands.
"Then came the roaring of lions and the neighing of horses. We realized in a moment that the Wallace circus, which has winter quarters at Peru, had been engulfed.
"The lions and other animals were in cages and died in the trap, roaring until the water swallowed them.
"But not so the elephants. These huge beasts tore and lashed their stakes until some of them got away. Several boats saw them trudging and swimming, roaring and lashing their trumpets in the stream. That was the last we saw of them.
"While the work of rescue was going on a great glare lit the sky. We saw that the Miami County Lumber company was ablaze. The reflection in the sky and on the water gave new terror to the refugees in the courthouse, but it aided the relief parties in their work.
"The next day I saw bodies in the water. One sight wrung my heart. I saw a couple go floating by— a husband and his wife—locked in each other’s arms. For fear they might be separated they had bound themselves together with cord.
"Another time a woman in our boat was carrying her baby when the boat was brushed through the tree tops and the branches tore the baby from her arms. It disappeared in the water."
Charles H. Thatcher of 8260 Groveland avenue, Chicago, his wife, Mrs. Louise Thatcher and Mrs. Charles Hoover were among refugees from Peru.
"We were marooned on the second floor of our house," said Thatcher. "When we started to flee from the city Tuesday we could only get two blocks from the house. The rising water drove us back, and my wife and Mrs. Hoover were compelled to go to the second floor, with all of the provisions we could find in the house. These were few and quickly gave out. We had no water.
"Several boatmen passed our house, but demanded as high as $100 to take each of us away. One of them came close to our window and said that he would rescue us for $25 apiece. I told him I would pay him, but he said he could only take two of us. My wife and I refused to leave without Mrs. Hoover and my wife refused to go unless I went. The boatman rowed away and went to another house across the way, where he evidently extended the same offer.
"As he rowed away there was a report of a revolver and the boatman toppled forward in his boat, dead. All day the boat with the dead body was swept in and out among the houses near us, but it never came close enough for us to get hold of it.
"We saw the Broadway bridge go out and the wreckage rushed down with the flood against the inter-urban bridge, a concrete structure. The wreckage was hurled with such force against the concrete pier that it snapped like a match and was lost to view in the swirl of water."
At no time were the newspaper correspondents in and near Peru able to adequately describe the horrors of the situation. Following a night of awful suffering, pestilence broke out among the 2,000 refugees in the courthouse square. Small-pox, diphtheria, mumps, measles and scarlet fever were reported. A quarantine was established. Leo Freuh a newspaper correspondent was given an opportunity to leave the plague-stricken district before the quarantine was formally established, but he chose to remain there as a volunteer nurse and also to continue informing the outside world of the disaster.
The night was one of terrible suffering and anguish.
Worn out by the hours of suffering, seven persons gave up their battle with death in the courthouse and the number of unfortunates who succumbed in the street outside can only be a matter of conjecture. Three of the sufferers died the same hour. One victim was a mother, who had a few minutes before given birth to a child. One other baby was born during the night.
A blinding snowstorm sent terror to the hearts of sufferers. Two thousand people in the courthouse, made ill by the filth in the building, strove for permission to get into the streets. Those on the single square not yet submerged, in their turn prayed for shelter from the blinding storm.
All through the night from the steps of the courthouse could be heard the wails of the people in the street. And as the moans and shrieks of the sufferers floated across the muddy waters groans from those within the temporary refuge joined.
A man and woman were seen floating down the river dead, hands closely clasped. C. D. Hollowell was rescued by Charles Knight and Dr. Hoff, two Peru men, after thrilling attempts. Hallowell had sent off his wife and children in a boat in which there was no room for him. Driven from his home, he finally climbed to the top of a tree on the bank of the river. Here he was seen by the two men, who rowed up the river time after time and floated down. They asked how much longer he could hang on. Finally, half frozen with cold, he shouted that he could not hold but fifteen minutes. The last time the two men floated down he fell fainting into the boat.
At a meeting at the courthouse, in which the 2,000 sufferers took an active part, the following committee was chosen to take permanent charge of the rescue:
Lieutenant-Governor O’Neil, Frank D. Butler, R. A. Edwards, president of the leading Peru bank, and the Rev. Dr. Bailey.
A law and order league was organized with Mayor Kreutzer at the head. Others on the staff were Sheriff Hostetter and Prosecuting Attorney Phelps.
The physicians organized and to the best of their ability cared for the sanitation. The law and order league placed an embargo upon the sale of liquor. This was unnecessary in most cases, as the saloon men closed.
John Mueller and his wife were rescued clinging to the chimney of their house. A man by the name of Youngblood was rescued after the water had reached the eaves. The "island" on which the people were huddled was a piece of territory three blocks wide. It included one block east of the courthouse and four blocks west. In all other parts of town the water was up to the second story of the houses.
Dr. W. A. Huff, a dentist, started for South Peru with Theodore Knight on Tuesday night. The boat capsized in a heavy swirl. Huff saved himself by grasping the limbs of a tree. He remained in the tree all night. He died from exposure. Knight disappeared.
Charles and Theodore Knight, brothers, were credited with rescuing 300 persons.
At 272 First street a woman was rescued from a tree at 8 o’clock Tuesday evening. For two hours she had held her baby in one arm and preserved her balance on the tree limb with the other.
A newspaper photographer dared the flood’s dangers and after a perilous trip in a small boat reached Peru on Wednesday. His story was as follows:
"All of the survivors were on two islands. The first we reached was at the corner of 5th and West Smith streets. There were forty homes there and 1,300 people had been imprisoned there since the flood began.
"The first thing I saw was a bread line with 800 standing in it. Men rowing boats over from the inter-urban line had brought bread and coffee, and it was being served to the starving people. That was after 6 o’clock in the evening, and it was getting dark. We decided to stay there all night. There were fifty people in the house where we stayed. We slept on the floor without any covering over us, and it was pretty cold. There was not an inch of extra floor space. Few of the people went to sleep at all. They sat up and talked about the missing. That was the terrible part of it—there wasn’t a soul in the house but had a wife or child or brother or father or mother missing. It was heartbreaking to hear them.
"Seven people died on our island that night. Cold, exposure, starvation and grief did the work. One woman had lost her baby—she screamed all night. Every one was asking questions of every one else—always the same question. ‘Have you seen my little girl?’ or ‘Have you seen my brother anywhere?’
"I heard some strange stories that night as I lay there on the floor. They told of a man who clung to a roof with his wife and child. The flood wrecked the house and all three were swept away, the man holding to both the woman and child. They were washed into the branches of a tree, which held them up. Some men in a boat came and took the wife and the baby. They rowed to the island and then went back for the man. All three were saved. They were there on the island. Every one seemed to have experienced adventures of that kind.
"They told a strange experience of the chief of police of South Bend, who, with a sheriff, was distributing supplies in a motor boat. They started for the western bank and the motor went dead. As they drifted they bumped into a skiff in which two young fellows sat crying. They had lost their entire family and didn’t care to live. When the motor struck them the skiff was smashed and the young fellows leaped aboard the launch. Then they caught hold of telegraph poles and stopped themselves, worked their way back to a barbed wire fence and got the engine started again.
"One man on the island was ‘in jail,’ He had seized a boat and was charging people for taking them out of their garrets to the islands. If they didn’t respond to his prices he would row away and leave them. As he landed one family the people on the island got wind of it. They took away the young man’s boat, along with $90 he had made that day. Then they whipped him and locked him up."
"They told me about the Wallace circus down in the flats, the first place where the flood struck. All the animals of the Wallace-Hagenbeck show were there and through the first night the people heard shot after shot. It was supposed the keepers were killing the animals as the flood rose. The screams of panthers and lions and tigers arose over the flood and people nearly went mad with terror, thinking that the animals had been freed and would be upon them.
"We got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and rowed over to the other island, which was the courthouse. In that building there were 3,000 persons marooned, with no light and no heat and not much food.
"There had been seven births in the courthouse the night before. We rowed over to the Lake Erie & Western tracks where relief cars were being sent in from South Bend. There we worked all the morning loading rafts and boats with food, milk and water. "Then I started back. We passed tiny knolls on which there were horses and farm animals. I saw one horse standing alone in a precarious position. A little farther on there was a hummock about twenty-five feet wide. There were thirty or forty horses there, all fighting and kicking to maintain their positions."
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