The great Labor Day hurricane, remembered

Some of the most arresting passages in the new book by Thomas Neil Knowles, Category 5: The 1935 Labor Day hurricane are the descriptions of how small children and babies perished in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, many of them torn from their parents' arms by the force of the storm.

But almost as striking are the stories of those who made it through alive, and how they did it. With so many ways to die -- so many buildings collapsing, so much water rushing, so many timbers flying through the air -- every survivor story seems a miracle.On page 193, Knowles tells of Jimmy Woods, age 19, who sees his mother crushed to death by a large icebox that falls over when the family's house starts falling apart. Jimmy grabs his infant sister and makes a dash for the door as the house falls to pieces. But something hits the baby's head, crushing her skull, and then something hits Jimmy, splitting open the back of his head.

"That thing hit me, and before I passed out, my 11-year-old sister said 'Lord Save Me' and she came through the storm without a scratch," says Jimmy.

Divine intervention might have saved some, but credit, also, is due to survival instincts, or experience with hurricanes in the Keys. On Sept. 2, 1935, the father of one Upper Keys family drove his 1930 Ford in between two coconut palms so that it was wedged in between the trunks of the tall trees. He and his wife and their children stayed in the car for hours as debris was flung through the air all around them, and the water rose up, sometimes filling the car. Eddie Williams had cut open the top of the car before that happened, and had instructed his wife and children how to pull themselves up by wires to get a breath of air at the top. They all lived, except Eddie, the father, who'd gotten out of the car briefly and been struck in the head by debris. He was cold before morning.

Dozens of others ran from collapsing buildings in the middle of the hurricane, and went up to the railroad tracks, which were built up on fill. They lay on the ground and clung to rails as the storm raged all around them. Another small group of men found shelter in an abandoned railroad car.

Thomas Neil Knowles was born and raised in Key West and now lives in Tallahassee. He spent 10 years on research and interviews for Category 5.

If anything, the book may be overly researched. We don't necessarily need to know the biographies, for example, of all of the men working at the weather bureau in Jacksonville as the storm approached the Keys - unless to weigh the decisions they made against their character and training.

The forecasters didn't correctly predict the direction of the hurricane that was forming in the Bahamas, and although they had limited information, they stated as fact something that they were only guessing: that the storm, located south of Andros Island in the Bahamas, was headed straight west, in which case it would pass well to the south of Key West. It didn't, of course. It was heading north-northwest, curving up and heading straight for the Florida Keys. The center of the storm passed over Craig Key at about 8 p.m. on Sept. 2, 1935. More than 400 people were killed. It was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Continental U.S.

In movies made of disasters, it seems, there is always a rescue that arrives too late. It was that way too with the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

Hundreds of veterans of World War I were living in a camp on Upper Matecumbe Key at the time, where they'd been sent to work on building roads and other infrastructure projects. The camps were to be evacuated in another month or so, and the men dispersed. But on Sept. 2, the men were still there, living in tents.

The manager of the camps, Ray Sheldon, called the mainland in advance of the storm to see how long it would take to get a train down to Upper Matecumbe to evacuate the camps. Four hours, was the answer. But the train, in the end, was called too late, and it took more than five hours to gather a crew and to hook up the extra cars. The train came into the Upper Keys at about the same time the hurricane did.

A photograph in Category 5 tells best what happened. A surge of water turned the empty baggage cars over and put out the fire in the engine. In the aerial photograph, the train, sent as a rescue train, lies wrecked next to the tracks, with only the locomotive and the tender still standing.

More than 400 people died in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, and many of the survivors left the Upper Keys, never to return to the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Thomas Neil Knowles' book, published by the University Press of Florida, tells many of their stories. It is likely to become the definitive account of the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.