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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Johnstown Flood: An Open Letter to Hollywood*

Photos from the Johnstown Heritage Society Collection

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 26, 2008
as "Story of 1889 flood should be basis of epic film"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

May 31, 1889 had been a long, dreary day. For several days, rain had been falling, at times incomprehensibly heavy. The streets of Johnstown, Pennsylvania were flooded, with up to 3 feet of water. In some homes, families grimly abandoned the first floor, carrying their belongings up the stairs to safety. Flooded streets were not all that unusual, especially in the spring. You moved what you could, waited for the water to recede, and then you cleaned up. But shortly after 4 p.m., the people of this sodden southwestern Pennsylvania town heard a roar from the north. A forty-foot high wall of debris, followed by 20 million tons of water thundered out of the mountains and exploded on the unsuspecting city. The wave spread across the valley and in a matter of 10 minutes, a city of 20,000 people ceased to exist.

The story of the Johnstown Flood has been told numerous times in print, most notably by historian David McCullough. Within those words are tales of tragedy and destruction that wound the heart, but there also are accounts of courage, heroism, and the character of a community that, to this day, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

As you have shown over the years, a filmmaker is a storyteller. While the story of the Johnstown Flood has been told in print, it has never been portrayed on the screen. Part of the reason for this would have to be the lack of special effects technology to accurately represent the magnitude of the disaster. With the advance in CGI technology, that is no longer the limiting factor.

This is a tale aching to be told. The mounting drama of the long afternoon as the dam weakened; the terrible moment when the earth yielded and the water exploded into the narrow gorge; the heroic efforts of those who did everything possible to alert people in the path of the deluge; the terror of those caught in the flood waters; the uncomprehending horror of those whose lives were spared by happenstance, only to watch helplessly the deaths of their families and neighbors. There were the heroic efforts to organize by the surviving townsfolk, attempting rescue after rescue through that long, dark first night in a cold plain of mud, debris, and death, completely cut off from the outside world.

People died in the narrow valleys as the water and debris cascaded down from the mountaintop. People died as town after town was swept clear. People died in the city, crushed by debris, and drowned in the swirling waters. And when a mountain of debris piled up against a stone railroad bridge caught fire, people trapped in the rubble burned to death, their terrified screams echoing through the darkness across a cold sea of mud.

1,600 homes and 4 square miles of Johnstown were destroyed. 2,209 people died, including 99 entire families and almost 400 children. Remains of victims were recovered downstream as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio as late as 22 years later. But some researchers think the toll was much higher. Johnstown was a city of immigrants, those who fled the squalor of Europe hoping for a better life in the steel mills and coal mines. Some of them were never entered on anyone’s list of residents. They came, lived almost invisibly, and vanished, leaving no one to mourn or even note their passing.

The Johnstown Flood is not just about water, debris, and destruction. It’s a human story, a story about people who were confronted by the worst kind of terror, and yet still tried to reach out to others, even when those acts sealed their own fate. It’s about the collective character of a community, who in the complete absence of outside help, pulled together instead of apart, setting aside their private grief long enough to reach out to each other in unity.

In a time when the passions of politics threaten to destroy us as a nation, this is a story of unity that needs to be told. Please come to Johnstown and walk the streets; talk to us, and in your conversations you’ll find not only warmth and welcome, but also toughness and resolution, the still-strong echoes of those who stood united on that terrible, terrible day.

And in that experience, the story teller will find an epic tale to weave.

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