Updated September 16, 2021
The Glen Echo Flood
This wasn't a typical night for a dance fiddler!
by Ryan Thomson
While I was on a trip to Virginia to collect fiddle tunes, some friends invited me to play a contra dance at the famous Glen Echo ballroom. I offered the use of my red Toyota truck to carry band equipment. At the last moment we decided to use someone’s else’s car instead, and I left my truck behind at a band member’s home. That proved to be a fateful decision.
The dance started out as a lot of fun. The large hall was filled and I was enjoying the enthusiastic crowd while playing my Tucker Barrett 5 string electric violin along with a hammered dulcimer, piano, and my friend Laura Light on another fiddle. Meanwhile, the falling rain outside increased in intensity, and before long, water begin dripping through cracks in the ceiling to such an extent that some trash barrels were moved onto the dance floor to catch leaks.
In the middle of the evening, while the dancers swirled on the floor, I noticed a tall solitary figure in a long coat entering the ballroom from the back of the hall. While the rest of the band concentrated on their music I watched this fellow march directly towards toward the stage. As he got closer I could see that he was sopping wet and leaving a wet trail on the floor. He approached me directly as if wanting to talk. I lowered my fiddle.
In an insistent voice he exclaimed, "cars are floating away in the parking lot!" “Say that again?” I replied. He repeated that cars were being washed away in the parking lot and we'd better stop the dance and tell everyone. I thought about this for a moment. We were in the middle of a lively dance and I hesitated to bring everything to a halt on the word of a stranger. I needed more information. I put down my fiddle while band mates kept playing and left the building. The rain was extremely heavy. It was very dark and windy. I jogged down the path towards the parking lot.
Where the path crossed a low area to the parking lot, I discovered a raging torrent of water, several feet deep, and clearly impassable. On the other side, through the trees, I could hear people shouting, and saw flashing lights from emergency vehicles. I immediately thought of our parked car and ran back to the ballroom. Inside, the dancers continued to balance and swing to wonderful music, unaware of the drama unfolding outside.
I hurried to the stage and whispered in the caller's ear that there was some sort of 'flood" outside, and I was worried about the condition of our car, and that we should make an announcement to the crowd. I asked for the keys to the car and was told that the piano player had them. I went to her, asked for the keys. She said simply, “back pocket,” and didn’t miss a beat as I gradually worked them out of her tight jeans. The band played on!
I exited the ballroom and broke into a run. Since I couldn’t cross the newly formed creek I ran a quarter mile down a road that led to the vehicle entrance to the parking lot. It was very dark and I ran quickly, yet carefully, so that I didn't trip and fall over windblown storm debris. The sight that greeted me when I got to the parking lot was unbelievable. There were a number of police cars with flashing lights, people running about and the lower section of the parking lot was a raging river! Police were putting up barricades to keep motorists from approaching their vehicles as the water rose.
There was a women trapped in her car as the quickly rising water choked her engine. She rolled down her window and was climbing out onto the roof of her car as a police man was shouting instructions with a bull horn. I watched a white pickup truck being pushed downstream until it hit a Mercedes sedan and rode right up over the top of it. In all of the confusion I searched for our car, and finally spotted it, with the water already lapping at the wheels. I calculated that If I got to it quickly I could effect a rescue.
The police were momentarily distracted by the frantic woman on top of her car so I ran to our car, sloshing through the rising water, fumbling with unfamiliar keys. I managed to get the door open, jumped in, and put the key in the ignition. I heard men shouting warnings in my direction as the engine kicked over. As the water rose up towards the floorboards I threw the car into reverse. The wheels spun a bit, before the vehicle began backing uphill, out of the rushing water, to higher and safer ground. Success!
Meanwhile, vehicles of less fortunate people were literally disappearing one by one as they were washed down stream towards the Potomac river. With our car safe, my next thought was of the dancers in the hall. I ran in the darkness back to the ballroom and when entering, was amazed to see that the dance was seemingly continuing on in normal fashion.
While I was outside, the caller had made an announcement about “flooding.” Some folks ignored it, others went out to check. As they returned, the word spread, and more began leaving to check on their cars. Despite everything the dance continued. Up on stage, sopping wet, I removed outside layers of clothing, shoes and socks, hung my wet clothing on chairs, plugged my fiddle back in, and began playing again barefoot.
We later learned that a large storm drain had clogged, diverting water to an old creek bed which had formerly been in the lower area of the parking lot. Many cars were washed away down the creek, and eleven of them made it all of the way to the Potomac River never to be seen again! No one was injured however, and everyone who lost a vehicle that night managed to get a ride back home from other people attending the dance.
It also turns out that the lower part of the parking lot was also the closest place to the ballroom and exactly where I would have re-parked my truck after unloading equipment at the ballroom! My trusty truck would have been gone forever.
Written by Ryan Thomson
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