Building collapse kills one and injures 32 during Yakima's Frontier Days celebration on May 19, 1935.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/17/2013
  • Essay 10300

On May 19, 1935, the cornice of the Mercy Building -- located in Yakima near the southeast corner of N 2nd Street and E Yakima Avenue -- breaks away as thousands line the street to watch a Frontier Days parade. Dozens of people fall from the roof amid piles of bricks onto the spectators below. One person is killed, and 32 are injured.

Falling Down

The accident occurred about 45 minutes into the final parade of Yakima's three-day Frontier Days celebration (sometimes referred to as Pioneer Days). Thousands of spectators lined the sidewalks and building roofs along Yakima Avenue, cheering as stagecoaches and covered wagons rolled by in both directions. In pioneer spirit, many men in the parade had spent the last month growing thick beards. Women wore hoop skirts and calico dresses, some owned by their grandmothers in the 1880s.

A large group of people watched from atop the two-story Mercy Building. Some were sitting on the cornice, where others standing to get a better look. Without warning there was a loud crack in the brickwork and the wall coping broke free. Those on the sidewalk below heard a loud roar just as they were hit by bodies, bricks, and mortar.

Joe Hubbard, who was watching the parade from the doorway of the Pioneer Drug Store across the street, looked up when he heard the cornice crack. "Children were sitting there with their legs hanging over the edge. Before my eyes, the bricks broke loose. It was terrible. It made me weak in the knees. Sprinkled through the falling bricks, sprawling, plunging down, were children clawing wildly, arms and legs spraddled out, clutching as they fell" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935).

Rescue Work

Atop the Mercy Building, H. P. Demery (1907-1992) held on to the few remaining cornice bricks, and dangled over the wreckage below. He tried to pull himself up but could not. Seeing this, 15-year-old Charlie Thomas, who had been standing farther back on the roof, rushed over. He pulled Demery up by his hair, saving his life, As soon as Demery was on top, Thomas leaned over and snapped a picture of the damage below.

A sign on the Talcott Music House had broken the fall of some of the cornice, possibly saving lives. One spectator on the sidewalk was able to push his two young children into the street before being covered by debris. Others had almost no time to react. As the dust settled, the cries and screams of injured men, women, and children rang out.

The parade halted momentarily and the sound of sirens approached. Stage coach drivers cracked their whips to clear a path for the ambulances. Policemen and parade goers formed to circle to cordon off the accident scene as the injured were removed from the rubble.  

Because the parade route doubled back on Yakima Avenue, the marching line continued -- albeit less enthusiastically -- pausing now and then to let the ambulances in and out.  A loudspeaker truck pulled up next to the accident scene, and as the names of victims were learned, they were broadcast to the crowd.

Emergency Measures

At St. Elizabeth Hospital, chaos ensued. Because there were so many accident victims, the elevators could not transport them all, and some stretchers had to be carried up the stairs. Every available doctor and nurse in the area was called in to help with the emergency. Every room and ward in the hospital filled to capacity.

One person, 18-year-old Victor Ruff (1917-1935) -- some newspapers listed him as Victor Russ -- died on arrival. His younger brother Godfrey suffered internal injuries and a broken pelvis. Others were severely injured, many with head wounds and broken arms or legs. Some of the injured children had gotten separated from their families, and cried out for their moms and dads.

Grief and Sorrow

Hundreds of people converged upon the hospital, seeking info about relatives and friends. Their presence created a strange tableau, as many of them were still dressed in their Frontier Days finery. Men with scruffy beards, wearing colorful silk shirts and neckerchiefs, shuffled through the hallways with spurs on their feet, grieving over injured loved ones. One mother, wearing her grandmother's gown from a previous century, wept and held her son's hand as he lay in bed. The boy, suffering from a skull fracture, still clutched the feathered celebration hat that he had received that morning.

Another boy, 11-year-old Allen Lee Wisner (1924-2009), suffered a broken arm and head injuries, but was able to recount his story as best he could to a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"I just don’t remember very well. I was on top in front. I think I was sitting on the edge. The sun was very bright. Then the place I was sitting began to break down. It kind of swayed, then I was falling -- falling -- I couldn't catch anything. Somebody was crying. I don’t remember any more."

"I don’t remember where I live. I fell -- and fell" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935).

Sources: "Youth Killed, 32 Injured in Yakima Parade Accident," The Seattle Times, May 20, 1935, p. 7; "Victims Drop 40 Feet Into Crowd Below," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935, p. 1; "List of Victims," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935, p. 1; "Victims' Story," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935, p. 2; "Eye-Witness Tells of Tragedy," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935, p. 2; "Police Act Quickly in Emergency," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1935, p. 2; "Yakima Parade Ends in Tragedy," The Bend Bulletin, May 20, 1935, p. 1;"Five Badly Hurt; Yakima Doctors Trying to Save Lives of Injured," The Lewiston Morning Tribune, May 21, 1935, p. 1; "Eight Victims of Wall Fight," The Spokesman Review, May 21, 1935, p. 1.

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