By Sherry Hill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The year was 1904 and the winter had been harsh with bitter cold.
It was a freezing December morning in Charleston that would forever change many lives, but that fact had not yet surfaced.
A 12-year-old girl was helping her mother bundle up two of her brothers for they would be late for school unless they hurried. Hurry they did. The girl covered up her long, blond hair with a scarf, put on a heavy wool coat and got her mittens on just in time to walk out the door with her younger brothers.
Her two other siblings — a boy and a little girl — were too young, of course, to go to school; as for her, she was made to quit school after the fourth grade in order to help her mother at home.
They all lived in a huge two-story house on Bigley Avenue on the West side, and the walk to Union School was a long one. The school was uptown and quite a distance.
The girl made each brother get on either side of her, and held on to them with her hands. Why she decided to take a longer route to the school will never be known, but she did. The wind was whipping through them like a knife and all three had a hard time seeing, much less walking.
Her brothers were much younger than she and they were restless and not ones to mind her so much.
One can only imagine how hard that would have been with the addition of frigid temperatures.
As they neared the bridge, it collapsed and fell into the Elk River. The horror of it made the girl stop in her tracks; she had to hold back her brothers because they wanted to see what had happened.
That holding onto them and her uncanny stopping saved all three of them.
She witnessed wire cables falling, pieces of the bridge, kids and adults falling, as well as teams of horses into the icy-cold river.
The time was 8:15 in the morning and it was rush time for adults as well. Within what seemed like hours, a barrage of people stormed the scene and began retrieving kids, adults and horses out of the river.
Many of the injured children and adults were taken to nearby houses while others were rushed to doctors. The dead horses were eventually dragged out of the frozen river as well.
Funeral home workers also arrived on the scene taking away two young dead girls. It was a scene of shock and disbelief.
The icy-cold wind had not stopped and it stung her eyes as well as those of her little brothers. They couldn’t help but watch the horror unfold and yet wanted to rush home.
The horror-struck children made the long trudge home. Who knows how long it took them to reach their destination? But they did, and hit the front door with their fists instead of just walking inside.
Their mother opened the front door and stared at them in confusion: Why weren’t the boys in school?
The girl had to recount the entire scenario which made her mother almost collapse. Off went mufflers, coats, scarves and mittens and down on the old couch went the girl and her brothers. Even though a fire was burning in the fireplace, none of them felt warm or would for hours.
Their mother had rushed outside and saw neighbors scrambling here and there and she knew they had to be worried about their own children. The people screamed about the bridge collapsing and off they went in search of not only their children but hope.
The mother returned to the inside of the big house and made all three children come to her so that she could hold them tight.
None of the three could calm down, much less do anything. An offering of hot potato soup from their mother was a welcome relief, but it didn’t sit well with any of them as they tried to eat it. The girl glanced at the huge Christmas tree and even that didn’t make her feel well when normally it would have.
What she had witnessed had sunk in more than it had to her little brothers, for she realized that she could have been in that freezing river as well them. Chills set in and her mother told her to go upstairs and get in bed, where she’d feel better.
Once in the bed, her mind was still racing about what she’d seen, even though she had snuggled up under tons of blankets and quilts. Eventually, she went to sleep only to wake up to find her father standing over her. He had come home from his printing store early for he knew the news.
He reached down and hugged her, which brought a sense of safety. They descended the staircase into the hallway where she saw all of her siblings sitting in the dining room around the huge, mahogany table.
Her mother was in the kitchen about ready to bring hot food to the table. Normally, the girl would have been helping out, but not this time, and her mother knew it.
After dinner and when the dishes were washed, all of them retreated to the big living room with the girl carrying her baby sister in her arms. The father was already seated in his big chair.
The blinds had not been pulled down and they could see it was pitch black outside. Doom and gloom hung over the room — how could it not? The little boys were scrambling around the Christmas tree but it was not pleasant to their mother at all.
Even though she was grateful that her daughter and two sons’ lives had been spared that fateful day, she was forever prim and proper. Her husband was quite the opposite even if he did have his own worries.
The evening seemed to last an eternity. When all were asleep in their beds, peace came at last. But that peace would not be a long one, for school was closed due to the bridge incident, businesses were affected and too many people were still in shock.
Whether it was a couple of weeks or a month is not known, but eventually lives turned back to normalcy and in the middle of all of this was Christmas, for the incident happened on Dec. 15.
Maybe you have guessed and maybe you have not, but the 12-year-old girl was my grandmother.
She told me this story over and over — that’s how gigantic this incident affected her. I told her that she was a hero because she saved her brothers’ lives as well as hers. She was humbled by my words.
On my part, I was never so grateful that she hadn’t been one of the casualties of that disaster, because had she, I wouldn’t have been here.
Fate stepped in that day and not only saved her but spared her two young brothers. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe my feelings. In this case, fate was a wonderful thing for my grandmother and two of my great-uncles.
Sherry Hill, of Charleston, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.