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  • Smithsonian Magazine

When a Winter Storm Triggered One of the Deadliest Disasters in D.C. History

It was a seemingly inconsequential homework assignment that saved Charles Lyman III’s life on a frigid night in January 1922.

Then a 14-year-old prep school student, Lyman was visiting family in Washington, D.C. when a major storm buried the city under almost two and a half feet of snow. On Saturday, January 28—the second day of the blizzard—Lyman’s cousin David suggested spending a cozy evening watching a movie at the Knickerbocker Theatre in nearby Lanier Heights (now known as Adams Morgan). Lyman told him to go ahead with a friend, Kirkland Duke, and promised to join the pair after finishing his schoolwork.

Trudging through the snow about a half block away from the theater, Lyman heard a sudden boom followed by a chorus of terrified screams. The Knickerbocker’s roof had come crashing down, overwhelmed by the weight of the record-breaking snowfall.

In total, the collapse killed 98 people—including David and Kirkland—and injured another 133. According to Kevin Ambrose, author of a 2013 book on the blizzard, the tragedy marked the city’s deadliest single-day disaster. A century later, however, the Knickerbocker Theatre remains little known among the denizens of the nation’s capital.

“It’s not common knowledge now,” says Ambrose. “It was a horrendous disaster at the time … and [publicized] widely. But over the years, it’s slowly been forgotten.”

Lyman, who became a rear admiral in the United States Navy and lived to the age of 69, was a “very even-keeled kind of person” and didn’t express much emotion about the tragedy, says his daughter, 92-year-old Marge Miller. But he did tell his family the basic facts about what would later be dubbed the Knickerbocker Storm in honor of the fallen theater. (full story)

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