Ed and Fern Butters were not unfamiliar with stormy Florida weather and had experienced hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. They paid little mind as news of a tropical disturbance spread through Islamorada on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1935.
Monday morning, in fact, on that horrible Labor Day, Ed affixed the heavy hurricane shutters over the concrete windows of the Matecumbe Hotel and drove with Jack, his son, to Miami where the boys planned to spend some time painting a boat before picking up supplies for the hotel.
While in Miami, however, Ed heard the 1:30 p.m. report from the Weather Bureau. The report was sufficiently concerning to cause Ed to step inside a Flagler Street hotel and walk to the closest telephone booth. When he dialed the number of the Matecumbe Hotel and Fern picked up, he asked about the conditions. While convincing Ed that she did not think it was necessary for him to come home, the tenor in her voice changed. A gusting wind pried a shutter free from its hold and slammed it against the hotel. Startled, Fern said to her husband, “Well if you want to know the truth, it’s blowing like hell here.”
Unaccustomed to hearing strong language from his wife, Ed replied immediately, “I’m on my way.”
Ed picked up Jack and walked back to the Plymouth. At approximately 2:40 p.m. Fern went to the kitchen to inform the cook that supper for the hotel’s guests needed to be prepared and served by 4:30. Fern’s father-in-law Charles Butters and her son-in-law Olin Perdue went outside to double-check the hotel’s hurricane preparations. In the meantime, Ed was racing his Plymouth home to Upper Matecumbe Key, driving 80 mph. He made the 80-mile drive from Miami to Upper Matecumbe in just over an hour and roared up to the hotel at approximately 4 p.m.
The first thing he did was check the heavy duty storm shutters covering the windows; the sense of security was short lived. At 6 p.m. Ed ordered his family out of the hotel and into the Plymouth. Eight people climbed inside the car: Ed and Fern, their boys Jack and Chester, Ed’s father Charles Butters, daughter Loretta Perdue and her son Pete, and Mrs. L.A. Fritchmann, Ray Sheldon’s secretary. Ed Butters moved the Plymouth, backing it against a tour bus that had been parked behind the hotel for two years.
“I never knew a howling, raging wind to come so fast,” Fern said. “At six o’clock, we were forced to leave the hotel. We heard crashing and noise from the hotel and a piece of the building blew down and landed beside the left front wheel of the car. We watched it anxiously, fearing it might blow into the car.”
At approximately 8:20 p.m. pieces of the hotel fell onto a fire truck that had been parked behind the hotel. The falling rubble caused the engine’s siren to sound. A few minutes later, with the wind howling and the siren wailing, 18-feet of tidal surge flooded the Matecumbes; Ed’s Plymouth began filling with water. Outside, three employees from the hotel struggled through waist deep water to reach the car. When they reached the door there was not room for everyone to fit inside so Ed decided that everyone should make for the highest ground possible, the railroad embankment.
Ed put his youngest son on his shoulders and the others formed a human chain as they began making their way toward the tracks. Ed took a step, lost his balance, and stepped on a nail. Fern saw Ed falter and told him, “Ed, let’s stay together and get into that old bus.” The group weathered the hurricane inside the bus.
“The hotel sounded like it was going to fall apart,” Fern said. “The kitchen had exploded. We had constant flashes of sheet lightening, and all this with the wind howling like a banshee, the siren moaning, and water rising everywhere. You would have thought there would have been mass hysteria. Yet with everyone looking into the face of death, there were no hysterics. Everyone was quiet. We were all in a state of shock, I think. We started the five-mile trek to Snake Creek where a boat was waiting to take us across. When we reached the place where the boat was waiting, we had walked by the bodies of the dead and had recognized many. At the embankment there was a pile of bodies stacked up with a piece of canvas over them, but all of their feet were exposed, and so many were children’s feet that finally it was just too much for me. The last thing I remembered was falling toward the embankment. Someone must have caught me, for when I came to we were in the boat being taken across.”
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.