On Empire Day, 1913, The pier's floor broke suddenly, sending hundreds of celebrants through wreckage to the sand below.

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May 24, 1913, was to have been a day of unequaled celebration in Long Beach. It was Empire Day, a British national holiday celebrating the birth anniversary of Queen Victoria, who had died just 12 years earlier, ending her 63-year reign that took in the vast expansion of the British Empire. On this day, Long Beach celebrated the holiday for the first time, and it was going to be spectacular.

A week earlier, the local press described how arrangements were being made to entertain “at least 20,000 Britishers and natives of the British dominions, making it the largest single fete ever held in this city.”

The day kicked off as advertised with a massive parade down Pacific Avenue to Ocean starting at 10:30 a.m., with performances by the fledgling Long Beach Municipal Band along with Scottish pipers and a sing-along with the crowd of patriotic American and British songs. Cars bearing dignitaries motored along with decorated carriages and floats down the avenue, along with young women representing countries under British rule—Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, India and South Africa. A somber moment came with the introduction of a handful of “bent and gray haired veterans of the Crimean War,” which had ended in 1856.

Meanwhile, hundreds of attendees not willing to jostle with the crowd along the parade route, strolled over to the double-deck Pine Avenue Pier and its Municipal Auditorium to get in line for a good seat for a program that was to be held in the 6,000-capacity hall following the parade.

Postcard showing the Pine Avenue Pier and Auditorium, circa 1909. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

At the parade’s conclusion, the crowd outside the auditorium grew to over a thousand people, all waiting impatiently for the doors to open. Some began stomping their feet and still the crowd grew as the last stragglers from the parade joined the groups at the upper and lower decks of the pier.

Still, the doors remained closed.

At 11:33, when with not so much of a warning as a groan from the pier straining under the weight of the crowd, a large section of the upper deck floor, measuring about 25-by-36 feet, collapsed, sending a screaming mass of spectators falling 20 feet down atop the crowd on the first level, which then gave way and some 350 people continued crashing an additional 10 feet to the beach below.

Police and civilians hauled out the bodies of the dead and the injured—50 people were killed, either immediately or later as a result of injuries—and laid them on the sand to be administered to or loaded into vehicles to be rushed off to Seaside Hospital and clinics. The scene, of course, was sheer bedlam and because of the momentous occasion; the press was at the scene in large numbers as reporters waxed morbidly poetic and headline writers brought out the big type. The Los Angeles Times’ headline was “Seaside city’s day of joy is turned to one of horror in twinkling of an eye,” over a story that reported “Like a cloud that blots the sun and will not let it shine again, the hand of Death has overshadowed the largest celebration Long Beach has ever known.”

Long Beach Press reporter John Meteer, writing his story for the evening edition, described how “many begged piteously to die. A lad of 10 years was seen to pass away in his mother’s arms as she was raising a glass of brandy to his lips.

“A broken-hearted father carried the limp and almost lifeless form of his 14-month-old baby up the steps to hunt for a doctor. His wife lay on the beach with her life crushed out. A mother saw her little boy smile and die at Seaside Hospital, a half hour after he had stood and cheered with her as the parade disbanded for the Auditorium ceremonies.”

A man who had been hired to do the announcing at the athletic events later in the day (which, obviously, had been canceled) had the sole megaphone at the celebration and he was drafted to stand on the auditorium steps with the morbid task of announcing the names of the dead and wounded to the sobbing and frantic survivors who were still searching for loved ones.

In the hours and days following the disaster, it was determined by a team of architects and building experts that the collapse was due to a girder bracing the upper deck’s floor that had broken. It was a 4-by-4-inch girder that was made by putting two 2-by-2-inch ones together facing one another. One of the girders had rotted and broken beneath the crowd’s weight and, while the other had not, it wasn’t enough to bear the load. One architect simply stated that the building in general was badly put together.

And, of course, lawsuits were filed, with a total of $337,000 being sought from the city. The cases were ultimately settled, with the city ultimately paying only $22,100.

City leaders considered that a success.

The 1913 Empire Day was the first time the city held such a celebration. It wouldn’t hold another until 1920 when it was a considerably less ambitious event held on the lawn of the Hotel Virginia.

Along with the print reporters, a motion picture was made of the Empire Day parade and disaster, with the more grisly scenes deleted by censors made up of city councilmen. You can view it here.

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.