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Survivors of 1935 Key West hurricane recall terrible night

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 01:14 AM
KEY WEST -

The seven elderly guests on stage at Island Christian Church were just kids 75 years ago when a Category 5 hurricane barreled into their homes in the Upper Florida Keys, leaving a trail of destruction and death.

A packed crowd listened recently to their harrowing stories of surviving the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, still the most intense storm to make landfall in the United States.

"I'll tell you it was a very hard night, and it's something that if you ever experience you will never forget," said 90-year-old Laurette Pinder Russell, who was 16 at the time. "I still have God to thank for most of my family being spared."

The seven survivors, ages 78 to 90, told of ferocious winds ripping the skin off their ears and the clothes off their bodies.

They remembered clinging to mattresses with their siblings and parents as the ocean that had been their playground turned into a scary monster, swallowing their tropical island paradise in the darkness of night.

They recalled cramming like sardines into a Ford, and hearing the screams of World War I veterans who drowned in a rock pit.

They remembered thinking: "We're going to die."

The seven - who came from the area's pioneering families of the Pinders, Russells, Alburys, Pellicers, Parkers and Roberts - relived their experiences for the Matecumbe Historical Trust, a nonprofit group that is trying to raise money to build a museum to preserve the history of the Florida Keys.

"Their stories are an important part of the area's history that we don't want to lose," said Barbara Edgars, a spokeswoman for the trust. "There are only a few survivors left."

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The hurricane, which one book called the Storm of the Century, began as a weak tropical system east of the Bahamas. It built intensity as it headed west over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Forecasters based in Jacksonville originally thought it would go south toward Cuba.

"Nobody really thought we were going to get a hurricane," said Everett Albury, 81, whose family took a leisurely drive from their home in Tavernier to Lower Matecumbe in the family's 1928 Model A Ford.

By the time those in Jacksonville got the forecast right, it was too late for most residents to evacuate from the remote islands.

The parents of some of the seven survivors knew by late afternoon of Labor Day, Sept. 2, that trouble was on the way due to the low readings on their barometers.

At the time, about 300 people lived on the four islands of Lower Matecumbe, Upper Matecumbe, Windley Key and Plantation Key, from mile markers 73 to 90 on the Overseas Highway. An unknown number of visitors also were in that part of the Upper Keys for the holiday weekend.

Several hundred WWI veterans were in the path of the hurricane, too, living in tent camps to work on the Overseas Highway as part of a federal program during the Great Depression. A 10-car evacuation train was sent for the veterans, but after delays it arrived just about the same time the storm struck, around 8 p.m.

All but the engine was washed off the tracks.

Hours later, when the winds subsided and the water surge receded, nearly 500 people were dead - about half veterans and about half residents and visitors, according to government documents listed in the book Category 5.

Charlie Roberts was 7 and living on Windley Key near the rock quarry where the veterans were working. He remembered the roof blowing off their row house and his father picking him and his two brothers up by the straps of their overalls.

He said their father and mother dragged and carried them through the wind and into the Ford.

"Eleven of us got into that car," said Roberts, now 81. "That's the only thing that saved us."

He told of "things flying through the air that night like Star Wars" and of water flooding up to their waists in the car. But the worst thing he remembers is the plight of the veterans, who had taken cover in a rock pit dug six to eight feet deep.

"When the water came, they got drowned like rats," he said. "You could hear them screaming all night long. I mean just a screaming and hollering for help, and we couldn't get out and help them."

Norman Parker had just turned 4, but he remembers that his family crammed into a cottage that was newly built by his sister and brother-in-law.

"It hadn't been tied down, so when the water came in, we became a raft," he said. "My father put all 10 kids on a bed and everyone held on."

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Siblings Joe Pinder and Alma Pinder Dalton were taken to their uncle's house in the middle of Lower Matecumbe Key to ride out the storm. But the house exploded into pieces, throwing all 14 people into the flooding waters.

"I was hanging onto my dad's leg and then a mattress went by and he put me on the mattress and that's what we rode the hurricane out on," said Joe Pinder, 80, who was 5.

Alma, then 11, survived thanks to her uncle who put her up on a piece of floating debris.

The night was pitch dark, making the storm even more frightening. So when Laurette Pinder Russell saw a light, she told her father they were never going to be found.

"I said, 'Well, we're on a pile of rubbish and we're floating out in the Gulf Stream because there's the (Alligator Reef) lighthouse,' " she said.

The light turned out to be from a nearby bus.

When the storm was over, it took days for help to arrive. Step one for some was finding something to cover their nude bodies. Parker wore his dad's underwear.

Roberts said his father found tomato soup. Parker also remembers finding soda at the old Rustic Inn (now the Green Turtle Inn) and the Holsum Bread Co. dropping bread from a plane.

"My brother Franklin found a cash register and wanted to see if any money was in it," Parker said, laughing. "I remember, that, too. My dad said, 'No, it's not yours.' "

The Pinders' mother and father were both in bad shape. Their mom had a broken back, broken collar bone and seven broken ribs and their dad had a bad cut on his hand and stick embedded in his head. A family friend from Key West picked them up in his boat two days after the storm and took them to Snake Creek, where an ambulance transported them to a hospital in Miami. Both recovered.

Parker's dad worked for the government, moving bodies to Miami for burial and cremation. The only person in his family who he remembers having difficulty dealing with the emotional after-effects was his youngest sister Barbara, who was 9 months old at the time of the storm.

"Every time mother put her in the bathtub, she would scream from the water," he said. "She associated the water with the hurricane."

Alma Pinder Russell said she does not remember any post-traumatic stress from the storm. "It was bad," she said, "but we're thankful we're here."

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