Monday night means cable car crashes, air disasters, burning churches and a folk song or two | Steve Canavan

I take part in an online folk music session every Monday evening.

By Steve Canavan
Friday, 21st May 2021, 5:00 pm
The 14 St Bridge Complex over the frozen Potomac river. The Arland D Williams J Memorial Bridge is on the left. Picture by Shutterstock.
The 14 St Bridge Complex over the frozen Potomac river. The Arland D Williams J Memorial Bridge is on the left. Picture by Shutterstock.

There. Like an alcoholic coming clean at an AA meeting, I’ve admitted it.

It’s true. Each Monday at 8.30pm, I retreat to a small room in my house and sit listening to a group of elderly people with beards – some of the men have facial hair too – sing 27 minute ditties about sailors going off to sea and leaving their sweethearts behind.

Being folk music, there is rarely a happy end to the song.

Indeed in the last verse, just when you’re expecting Willie to be reunited with his true love Annie (the protagonists in folk tunes are always called Willie and Annie – it’s the law), the song will go:

‘And just as the great ship pulled into the quay,

It smashed on a rock and Willie drowned in the sea.

Young Annie was distraught, never would she be a wife,

So the very next day, she took her own life.’

By the time it ends you’re borderline tempted to construct a noose yourself.

(Actually, I’ve just re-read the lyrics above and am pretty damn impressed. I’ll send them to Elton on the off-chance he’s considering a new folk direction and has had a barney with Bernie Taupin).

Anyway, the folk club has themed nights, and this week’s was ‘disasters’.

It was all quite entertaining, in a hugely depressing kind of way, and I got to learn of disasters I’d never heard of. Indeed by the end of the night I counted myself lucky to live in this country because, by god, have there been some pretty horrific instances elsewhere on the planet.

Have you ever heard of, for example, the Church of the Company Fire?

It happened just before Christmas in 1863 in Santiago (the capital of Chile, for the benefit of those with anything lower than a C in GCSE Geography) and resulted in the largest number of people to die in a fire in one building ever.

With the church packed with worshippers, a strong wind blew the main doors open and the gust knocked a candle off a podium and ignited a veil adorning a wall. Somebody tried to put it out using a cloth but the fire simply spread to the rest of the veils and on to the wooden roof.

Panic ensued but all the side doors (which opened only inward) had been locked to accommodate more people, leaving the main entrance as the only escape route - but this became jammed with a pile of approximately 200 desperate women and children, making it impassable. Part of the problem was the women were all wearing the big hoop skirts fashionable in the 19th century, but which were so big they made it impossible to escape. In fact most of the women fell and were trampled on.

Around 3,000 people died, with entire families wiped out – though, interestingly (or perhaps shockingly is a better word), the priests retreated to a small room at the back of the church to gather valuables, then out through a rear door to safety, all unharmed. Many tried to follow the priests but they locked the door in order ‘to gather valuables in peace’.

An absolutely terrible event, but that death toll is dwarfed by the biggest ever natural disaster, the 1931 China floods. Due to a series of different elements – lots of melting snow and ice after a particularly bad winter, heavy rainfall, nine cyclones hitting the area – the massive Yangtze River flooded an area almost as big as the UK, half destroying major cities such as Wuhan (you may have heard of the place?) and killing, after subsequent famine and disease are taken into account, a whopping 4m people.

Some disasters haven’t resulted in as many fatalities but are incredibly shocking nonetheless, mainly because it could have happened to anyone.

Take the Cavalese cable car disaster, which happened – and this is of no interest to anyone but myself – when I was 24-hours-old, on March 9, 1976.

With a fully loaded cable car carrying 44 people down Mount Cermis after a day’s skiing, the steel cable snapped and the car plunged 200m down the mountainside, then skidded another 100m before coming to a halt.

Miraculously, there was one survivor, a 14-year-old girl called Alessandra Piovesana, who broke both legs and a pelvis but eventually recovered after a lengthy stay in hospital.

The inquest found high winds had caused the stationary and moving steel cables to cross and one had severed the other. A terrifying thought for all those who’ve been on a cable car.

Now I’m aware that at this point you can probably take no more misery, so I want to finish on something slightly more uplifting.

Step forward Mr Arland Williams Jnr He was a passenger on an Air Florida flight which took off from Washington in January 1982 during a period of extraordinary freezing weather. The plane failed to gain altitude, crashed into a bridge (where it hit six cars and truck, killing four motorists) and then plunged into the freezing Potomac River.

Only six of the 79 aboard survived the crash and escaped into the icy waters. A police helicopter was scrambled and dropped a rescue rope. Williams refused to take it, repeatedly passing it to others, who were all saved. Just as the helicopter was returning for Williams the tail section of the Boeing 737 he’d been clinging to sank into the water, dragging him under with it.

The next day the Washington Post reported, ‘the man was one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived. To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them to the others. On at least two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life-line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety.’

Williams was posthumously awarded medals presented to his parents by then president Ronald Reagan and when the bridge was repaired and reopened it was re-named the Arland D Williams Jr Memorial Bridge.

Definitely a folk song in that, though they’d have to change his name to Willie.