In Underworld, Don DeLillo describes Peter Breughel’s 16th century painting Triumph of Death as a “census-taking of awful ways to die.” Indeed, Breughel possessed an expansive view of physical suffering. In his work, scythe-wielding skeletal horsemen cut down peasants like fields of wheat; the already-fallen are gobbled by dogs; throats are opened; maidens ravaged; bodies are hanged, speared, and stuffed into the crotches of trees. One supplicant victim offers a prayer for relief to a god who — if he exists at all — will likely arrive too late to save the poor fellow’s head from being pruned by a broadsword.

If the victims of the 1922 Knickerbocker Theater disaster had thought about it a bit, they might have scoffed at Breughel’s failure to depict anyone being crushed or pressed to death, much less buried — as they had been — along with nearly a hundred others beneath a tumulus of cement, brick, timber, and steel. On January 28 of that year, roughly 500 moviegoers in the northwest corner of the nation’s capital took refuge from a ferocious blizzard by watching a silent comedy called Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford — a film, we presume, about a fellow named Wallingford and his zany schemes to get rich (and quick!) — when the flat roof of Harry Crandall’s theater buckled under the weight of more than two feet of snow. The blizzard, which had begun the previous day, had dumped snow from Greenville, South Carolina to Reading, Pennsylvania and from Knoxville to Cape Cod. By the evening of the 28th, several feet of snow had accumulated in the District of Columbia, with drifts as high as 16 feet in places. The roof of the Knickerbocker — held aloft by an arch of girders rather than support pillars — gave out a few minutes after 9:00 p.m., just as the second feature was getting underway. The New York Times described the moment as a “mighty symposium of exquisite pain.”

With a roar, mighty as the crack of doom, the massive roof of the Knickerbocker broke loose from its steel moorings and crashed down upon the heads of those in the balcony. Under the weight of the fallen roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was entombed. It was as sudden as the turning off of an electric light.

According to an eyewitness who had just entered the theater, a “hearty peal of laughter” preceded the collapse by a few seconds. Everyone in the balcony was crushed, followed by the orchestra beneath.

As survivors tumbled from the blown-out doors and rescuers yanked limp and de-limbed bodies from the mess, a candy store next to the theater was converted into a makeshift hospital.  Doctors from Walter Reed Hospital arrived on the scene and began tending to the injured. Several Catholic priests offered mass absolution to the unknown scores of people still pinioned beneath the rubble. A Christian Science church across the street was used as a temporary morgue. Among the dead was Andrew Jackson Barchfeld, Pennsylvania Republican who had served five terms in the US House before losing his seat in 1916. Among the living was Alben W. Barkley — Harry Truman’s future Vice President — who was then serving as Congressman from Kentucky.  The two men were not attending the film together, though Barkley later helped retrieve his former colleague’s body from the wrecked building.

Newspaper reports were stuffed with the usual familial dramas — newly-wedded husbands searching frantically for wives, children identifying the bodies of their dead parents, the rumored dead turning up alive and well. (Alben Barkley’s own son Murell, initially thought to be among the dead, was not.)  Rescue workers recounted the implausibly prosaic last words of brave men who expired before they could be withdrawn from the rubble, while others described the stoic demeanor of a nameless boy who lay patiently beneath a slab of roofing. The Times reporter, describing the anonymous lad’s plight, swelled with nationalist bathos:

He merely lay there, a set look on his face, a determination to get out of there if that were possible, to die game if that were inevitable. It was the American spirit intensified. Every man aiding in the rescue of this boy knew what that spirit meant, and it helped them mightily. It was the supreme splendor of the nation in the face of crisis. It was boyhood risen to man’s estate.

All told, 98 people lost their lives in the Knickerbocker Theater, while more than 130 were injured. An engineering report published a few months later criticized the design of the building, claiming that it was “not an example of poor engineering but rather an illustration of the entire absence of engingeering,” with the roof and balcony “planned and erected with a total disregard of all consideration of stability.” Five years after the disaster, the building’s architect killed himself.