Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
The date was April 21, 1938, and it will never be forgotten no matter how many years pass. On that day, Phenix City suffered its worst tragedy ever – the death of 22 people and the injury of 80 more in a single location near the Dillingham Street Bridge. And it all took place due to overcrowded conditions, poor construction of a building of more than 40 years old, and greed.
The April 22, 1938 edition of the Phenix-Girard Journal described the event as follows:
“Twenty persons are known to be dead and at least 80 received treatment for injuries suffered when the Ritz café in the Girard Section of Phenix City collapsed at 1:04 o’clock Thursday afternoon.
Sixteen of the dead persons had been identified early this morning. Four more, buried in the wreckage, were visible, but workmen had been unable to remove them from the wrecked structure.
A number of the persons hurt were in Columbus and Phenix City hospitals in serious condition. Sergeant T.J. Carlisle, member of the Alabama state highway patrol said he estimated at least 10 were still beneath the wreckage.
While a score of workmen was removing debris early this morning, all of the bodies were not expected to be removed until late today.
Three of the injured were white. Luther Jones, who lived over the structure, was in a serious condition at the city hospital. Two girls, employed by the café, were injured.
Jones was in his room when the building collapsed. He was imprisoned in the debris for several hours before the rescue crews could remove him to a waiting ambulance.
Officials this morning had no way actually of knowing how many had lost their lives in what was termed one of the greatest tragedies in the history of this section of Alabama. Tons of brick, steel and timber still covered a section of the building where a large number lost their lives.
A crowd of people, estimated from 100 to 250 were in a hall adjoining the café when the accident occurred. A steel beam supporting a wall between the hall built three months ago and the main building fell first and then the floor of the hall caved in sending scores to the ground below. Immediately following the collapse of the floor, the roof of the hall fell pinning a large number beneath it.
After the 16 dead had been removed from the wreckage, hope for those remaining was abandoned at 7 o’clock by Chief of Police O.O. Gay who ordered the portion of the main building torn down. Chief Gay feared it might fall while workmen were busy removing bodies.
Early this morning a score of workmen were still busy demolishing the remainder of the structure. Two tractors and a giant crane belonging to the city of Columbus were used in tearing down the building.
Chief McAvoy, after making an inspection of the building, notified Governor Bibb Graves about the accident. The governor immediately ordered as many available national guardsmen in Montgomery to Phenix City immediately and 24 enlisted men and four officers arrived at 9:30 o’clock.
Adjutant General John C. Coleman was in charge of the detachment which relieved Fort Benning troops at 10 o’clock and in cooperation with Phenix City officers, Sheriff Kimbrough and his deputies and state patrolmen took charge.
It was soon found that more state troops were needed and 24 were dispatched from Opelika at the order of the governor. They arrived early this morning. Besides General Coleman other national guard officers in Phenix City were Major Curtis A. Gipson, Major T.R. Borougs and Captain John A. Schneider.
Two Columbus fire companies were sent to Phenix City about an hour after the accident. Using their apparatus, they took a leading part in the rescue work and removed many of the dead and injured. Companies four and five under command of Captains S.P. Wilson and T.C. Turner directed the local firemen.
Captain Wilson, a veteran fireman, said it was one of the most gruesome sights he had seen in his many years as a fireman. He assisted in removing an iron beam beneath which four were imprisoned. Two were dead, probably killed immediately, Captain Wilson said, and one died as he was taken from the wreckage. The fourth was sent to the hospital.”
The reason for the large crowd that day was because the group was awaiting the results of what was known as the “bugs lottery” – a form of gambling – in the recently completed hall. According to the architect for the hall and the civil engineer over the project, a shift in the older building connected to the hall caused the new steel beams to twist away from a cast iron column which caused the collapse of both buildings.
When the final numbers were totaled following the clean up of the accident, 22 were dead and 83 were injured in the worst tragedy in the city’s history. But it was not the last tragedy to take place on this spot near the Dillingham Street Bridge. Next week, the story of the second tragedy.