The day time stood still in St. John Parish: Part III

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 22, 2010

(As told by Helen Schlosser Burg to Lt. Wayne Norwood)

Daddy thought if we went far enough into the swamp, we might be safe. We just knew we were going to die. We had gone way out into the swamp when we heard the train whistle blowing. It was train number 99 bound from Hammond to Harahan. The engineer knew where everyone lived and was stopping at each home and blowing the whistle so they could come and get in the train.

As the train got by the school and church, the engineer started blowing. We were scared he would leave us. We all began to wave our arms and scream, hoping the engineer would see or hear us. We paddled with our hands and just as the train started to pull away, someone saw us.

As we got by the track, we saw the school had blown down and was washing around in the water. We loaded onto the train and then headed south, stopping at each house and picking up people. I only owned one pair of shoes and they got lost in the swamp and I was crying about it.

After a few miles, the train stopped and the engineer said that the track had washed away. The engineer then started to back the train up, and after a few miles we were back by the place where the school was located and the track had now washed away there also. We were now stranded on the train with the track washed out in front and back of us. Waves were about 15 feet high and hitting against the train. Water had risen to between 20 and 25 feet now.

With water about two feet deep in the train, we could do nothing. Everyone kneeled down in the train, in the water, and prayed for hours. We knew a lot of our people were still outside somewhere in the storm. About 50 people had crowded into the train station at Ruddock and were on their knees praying when the building blew away, and everyone inside was thrown into the water.

Mr. Hazlegrove, road master of the Louisiana Division of the Illinois Central Railroad, took refuge in a section house occupied by Elardo and Mr. and Mrs. Louis Burg. They also were on their knees praying when the front wall of the building blew down.

Everyone was forced to get back into the storm. Mr. Hazlegrove, to prevent a child from being blown from her mother’s arms, insisted on carrying the child. He helped the mother and child onto the train and then went back to the section house to rescue another child. As he started back toward the train with the child, he was singing a hymn to comfort the child when the wind just picked them up and blew them away. They were both found dead after the storm, out in the swamp, and the child was still clutched in his arms.

Peter Elardo, the last man to leave the section house, knew he was going to die. He said goodbye to everyone as he helped them get out of the falling house. As he helped the last person get out, a large wave hit the building, and he and the building were washed away in a few seconds. His body was found the next day way out in the swamp.

I remember George Schlosser and his 12-year-old daughter, Lizzie Belle, were just swimming around when a dog house came floating by. They grabbed onto the house and floated for hours in the storm. Sometime during the night, the conditions just became too much for them, and they were both found dead a few days later.

Mrs. Schlosser hung onto an old boat and saved herself. Lydia, who was 10 years old, held onto the roof of a chicken house until she was saved. Adam Schlosser and his brother George Schlosser were buried under the section house when it collapsed.

Adam’s wife saved herself by hanging onto the tin gutter of the second story. Ethelney Woodsen and her 2-year-old brother got into a boxcar for safety. The boxcar washed about 3,000 feet into the swamp. When found, Ethelney was holding onto the ceiling of the boxcar with one hand and holding her drowned baby brother in the other hand. Even with the boxcar filled with water and only a few inches of air space to breathe, she refused to let her brother go.

“This day was also Lena Windecker’s 16th birthday, and she and her brothers William and George were killed by this deadly storm. There was an old black lady that everyone called Aunt Julie Brown. Aunt Julie was a big property owner, and she lived beside the track at Frenier. She always sat on her front porch and played the guitar and sang songs that she made up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day she would die and everything would die with her. Well, the day before the storm came, Aunt Julie died.

People had come from New Orleans to wake her. She was laid out in a cypress box at her house when the storm hit. When everyone realized it was a bad storm, they all tried to leave. Her body was found the next day out in the swamp. Only one man survived, and he was Mr. Brown. He had climbed a large cypress tree and watched seven of his friends as they were swallowed up by the waves. Mr. Brown said, “Even with the wind blowing and the rain and noise he could hear his friends screaming for help as they died.”

Look for Part IV on Wednesday, Sept. 29.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John thhe Baptist Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Treasures Museum.