The temperature outside still hovered at a balmy seventy degrees, but inside the crowded, smoke-filled, second floor speakeasy, it was a different story. Several people would later remember the room being decidedly hot and stuffy.
The five-piece orchestra had just finished playing a lively Charleston, and dozens of couples—men in their shirt sleeves and women in the latest, flapper-style dresses—remained on the floor while they waited for the last dance of the evening. The orchestra leader was skimming through his sheet music, trying to decide what to play, when the lights suddenly grew dim, flickered a few times, and then went out, plunging the room into darkness.
A moment later the old, five story building began to shake, sending fears throughout the crowd that an earthquake had struck.
The first anguished screams were quickly drowned out by the ear-splitting screech of boards and timbers being torn apart, then the ripping, tearing noise gave way to a thunderous roar as the ceiling fell and countless tons of bricks and debris started to crash down from the upper floors. Terrified patrons rushed for the door. Many of them didn’t make it. The floor gave way beneath them sending everyone and everything—tables, chairs, bricks, beams, and plaster—tumbling downward like an avalanche into a pitch-black abyss. No one could have imagined that the collapse had been triggered by vibrations set off by dancers doing the Charleston.
The Pickwick Club Disaster spotlights the negligence and the deliberate deceptions that brought the building to that sorry state. It describes the hurried investigation, the criminal trial, and the frantic efforts of public officials to distance themselves from blame, and it takes a glimpse into the lives of each of the forty-four people who perished.