Survivor remembers: 'When the water came, they drowned like rats'

Screams of men dying in the flooded Windley Key quarry stay with Charles Roberts 75 years later.

Laurette Pinder Russell remembers despair, thinking she and her family had been stranded far out to sea by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

Joe Pinder, then 5 years old, describes being blasted by sand blown by 200 mph winds that raked Islamorada. “It felt like buckshot hitting you behind the ear,” he said.

A group of seven people who survived a direct hit from the strongest hurricane ever to strike the United States coastline came together at an April 27 event in Islamorada to tell their stories, tales of being young in a time of calamity, destruction and death.

“We didn’t have time to be scared,” said Alma Pinder Dalton, then 11.

Four of the 14 people in the house where Dalton’s family futilely sought refuge didn’t survive. They were among the hundreds who died on Sept. 2, 1935.

Desperately seeking shelter

Roberts, age 6 when the storm struck, joined his family in a Windley Key house near the quarry. “Around 7 [p.m.], the roof went completely off,” he said, “not a stick left.”

His father grabbed Roberts and a brother “by the straps on our overalls” and tried to make their way to a car parked nearby.

His mother carried her youngest, 6 months old. “She could barely stand up, the wind was so strong.”

They found the car, a Ford, and climbed inside. “There were 11 of us in that car,” Roberts said. “That was the only thing that saved us. We were packed like sardines.”

Hurricane winds blew the back window out. “We had to hold the back seat up to keep the wind out and keep the car from flying,” he said.

The storm surge inside the car rose to around their waists, Roberts said, “and that spot is 15 feet above sea level.”

“We had to sit there for hours,” he said. “As a kid, it seemed like it took forever to subside.... It wasn’t easy but we made it.”

Drowned in quarry

About 600 World War I veterans were living in Upper Keys camps while they built the Overseas Highway, a Depression-era works project. Some of them scrambled into the Windley Key quarry, seeking shelter from the winds in walls cut 6 to 8 feet below ground level.

Then came the storm surge, about 18 feet high with wind-whipped waves.

“When the water came, they drowned like rats,” Roberts said. “They were screaming and hollering all night long. We couldn’t get out [of the car] to get them. That was the worst part. You could hear them screaming and there was nothing we could do.”

Water was not the only killer. “Things were flying through the air like ‘Star Wars,’” Roberts said.

The next day, his father found a veteran mortally injured by large piece of splintered wood “that went right through him.” His father used the only pain-reliever at hand — a found can of Prince Albert tobacco — to place on the wound. “It didn’t help. He passed,” Roberts recounted.

For days afterward, Roberts said, bodies of veterans could be seen “the way they died, hanging onto something.”

Laurette Pinder Russell, then 16, went with her family to her married sister’s house, farther inland on Upper Matecumbe Key. When water started coming under the door, her father tasted it to confirm it was saltwater.

“This house is coming apart. We have to get out of here,” her father declared. They fled in the rising waters. Stay together at all costs, her father said: “Don’t ever turn loose.”

“We were just floating” until they came across a pile of coconut logs and debris.

“The wind was terrible,” Russell said. “When it was all over, all my clothes were torn off.”

Receding water dropped rapidly, “like coffee out of a cup,” she said.

They were stranded on “a huge pile of rubbish,” wondering if anyone else on the island had survived.

Lost at sea?

Then she saw a flashing light in the distance. “I told my father we may as well give up,” Russell said. “We’re only a pile of rubbish and we’re floating out in the Gulf Stream because there’s the lighthouse. They’re never going to find us out here.”

The light turned out to be fellow survivors, signaling from a nearby bus. “It was a very hard night but we survived, thanks to God,” said Russell, who would later marry fellow hurricane survivor Bernard Russell.

Alma Pinder Dalton was with younger brother Joe when a house sheltering 14 people “exploded, it went completely to pieces.”

“We were all thrown into the water,” she said. Like Joe, she remembers “ears skinned from the weather.”

They survived the storm, Joe riding on a mattress their father found floating.

Like Russell, Dalton didn’t recognize the island and assumed they were lost “out on the bank.”

Their mother was seriously injured when trapped in debris, and was among the first to be evacuated by boat to Snake Creek, where ambulances were waiting. Their mother was hospitalized for a broken collarbone and ribs but largely recovered.

“As far as suffering from it or having any kind of trauma, we never did,” Dalton said. “I guess it was our faith and the way we were raised.”

Norman Parker, then the 4-year-son son of the local constable, said his family left its two-story oceanfront home on Upper Matecumbe Key before the storm to shelter in a relative’s small house farther inland.

“We had 15 people in that little cottage,” he said. “We had dinner and everything was quiet until around 8 [p.m.]. I remember the roof coming off.”

All 10 children in the house were piled onto a double bed that became a raft. “Everybody held on,” he said.

“The flying debris was a terrible thing that killed numerous people and friends of the family,” Parker said.

Collecting bodies

After the storm, his father helped collect bodies. “My mother made him take his clothes off when he came home; the smell was terrible,” Parker said.

When Miami morgues filled up, a decision was made to cremate the bodies on a spot near the Rustic Inn (now the Green Turtle Inn), with the remains interred until they could be moved to what is now the Hurricane Monument.

The official death toll in Islamorada was placed at 423 victims — 259 veterans at the highway camps and 169 civilians.

Charlie Pellicer and Everett Albury weathered the storm in Tavernier, just far enough away that the storm’s devastation was less severe.

“I do remember the [rescue] train going by at 7:30 [p.m.] or so,” Pellicer said. “It never made it all the way down.”

Albury said he remembers a ride in his father’s 1928 Model A Ford before the hurricane came ashore. “Nobody really thought we were going to get a hurricane,” he said.

In a house in Tavernier, “about eight to 10 inches of water got inside,” Albury said. “The door blew open.”

Adults “used a broom stick [to lean outside] and see how deep the water was,” Albury said. “The house might have floated for a couple hours, we didn’t know where we were.”

Many of the families moved to the mainland while Islamorada — virtually leveled — was rebuilt.

“As soon as the [Red Cross] concrete homes were done, we moved back,” Parker said.

“We were happy to be back,” Dalton said.