Area residents recall 1977 Johnstown Flood

‘Communities came together’

Photos by George Kollar/Courtesy Johnstown Area Heritage Association / Vehicles are piled along the river banks in the West End of town.

JOHNSTOWN — Forty years ago this week, a storm described as a “once in a 5,000- to 10,000-year occurrence” hammered the city of Johnstown.

The Johnstown flood of July 20, 1977, killed 85 people, 39 of them in Tanneryville, where the Laurel Run Dam broke.

The storm began about 9 p.m. July 19, 1977, and ”just got stuck over the ridges” for about six hours, dropping up to 12 inches of rain, said Richard Burkert, president/CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

Six dams failed and more than 128 million gallons of water poured into the Conemaugh Valley.

A phenomenal amount of rainfall — 11.82 inches in 10 hours — was too much for the dams and the sewers in the Conemaugh Valley.

The National Weather Service said a once-in-a-1,000-year flood in the valley could have resulted from 7.32 inches of rainfall in a 10-hour period, according to Mirror archives.

Blair County residents and organizations responded to their neighbors to the west in need of help.

The Blair County Community Action Agency coordinated the Blair County recovery effort.

“What I remember are the target area groups we had in Blair County. We had six or seven in the city and several outside of the city. They came together to bring supplies to take over to Johnstown,” recalled James Pritchard, who was agency executive director at the time.

Under agency direction, nurses from Altoona Hospital, high school and college students and Boy Scouts volunteered.

According to Mirror archives, the agency took 11 vans filled with volunteers on weekdays and full-size buses on weekends.

Food, supplies sent

It delivered 37 tons of food, 16,700 gallons of water, 25,800 pounds of ice, $20,000 worth of medical supplies, 1,000 buckets, 20 cases of brooms, 200 pairs of boots and 100 pairs of gloves, according to an agency report on flood-related activities.

Agency vehicles logged 5,724 miles and coordinated the work of 218 volunteers who logged 3,000 hours. Eighteen additional medical volunteers logged 298 hours.

Twenty agency employees logged more than 2,000 hours.

The agency helped direct five truckloads of clothes and cleaning supplies from a CB club in Plainsville, Ohio.

“We made sure we did whatever we could do, whether it was supplies or people to get them over to assist in the cleanup, whatever was necessary,” Pritchard, now 84, recalled. “I think we played a significant role. Back in those days, communities came together.”

Then Altoona Mayor William Stouffer also helped lead local recovery efforts, according to Mirror archives.

By 1 a.m., six trucks of food, clothing and medical aid were on the way to Johnstown.

Collection centers were set up in Altoona, and volunteers let people know that if they couldn’t deliver to the centers, donations would be picked up at their homes.

Thousands of Blair Countians sent caravans of canned food, hot food, baby food, bottled water, all sizes and types of clothing, ice, blood, blankets, sheets, disposable diapers, mops, money, buckets, time, sweat, energy, medical supplies and chain saws.

Medical supplies from Altoona Hospital were flown by helicopter, and food and clothing, drinking water and cleaning materials were trucked into the disaster area.

The Salvation Army was one of hundreds of organizations and thousands of volunteers that swarmed into the battered area to help relieve the suffering. For example, the agency sent 190 hot meatloaves from Altoona at the peak of the food brigade, according to Mirror archives.

According to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, 20 mobile units moved through the flooded areas serving 20,000 meals a day.

The Salvation Army also delivered food, water clothing and cleaning supplies and provided counseling and informational services.

The Salvation Army also established soup kitchens and refugee centers in cooperation with other relief agencies.

Half of Route 56 washed away

Lois Gutshall was administrator of the Allegheny Lutheran Home in Hollidaysburg in 1977 and served as an American Red Cross volunteer.

“We loaded up supplies and went; going down Route 56, half of it was washed away. We spent the night at a shelter at a school across from the Richland Mall. I took with me blankets, towels and sheets and dressings. We ended up at the shelter,” Gutshall recalled.

Keystone Search and Rescue Team provided anywhere from eight to 20 workers in the flooded area of Cambria County for a period of 11 days.

They picked people off roofs, off trees and out of cars. They hunted for bodies and found them. They transported medical and other supplies. Some of them rode in helicopters and ambulances, according to Mirror archives.

Mount Aloysius College set up an emergency food relief center.

When the flood hit, Antis Township resident Ray Nycum was among 800 members and guests of the Jaffa Shrine on a weeklong cruise to Bermuda and the Bahamas.

Nycum said when he got back to Altoona he received a call from Fred Imler Sr. of Imler’s Poultry, a member of the Jaffa Mounted Patrol.

Imler donated hundreds of chicken halves, and Boyd Shaw — of the former Shaw Packing of Newry — contributed many products, including sausage and hot dogs. Over a period of a few days, Imler made three trips to Johnstown to cook chicken halves.

“Ray and I got help together and built a pit with charcoal, that stirred up some excitement, when that odor flowed around town. They were so appreciative of that,” Imler recalled.

“Fred’s brother, Richard, provided the charcoal, and the Blair County Highway Department provided racks to cook the chicken,” Nycum said. “It was amazing what these people went through. It was great we could help them with something to eat. I give a lot of credit to Fred for getting the whole thing started.”

At least two Altoona-based businesses were impacted by the flooding.

Sheetz Inc., which had 45 stores at the time, saw three of its stores damaged by the floodwaters.

“Our store on Napoleon Street downtown was flooded. At our Bedford Street location, the foundation of our store was damaged. Our store at Messenger Street had a tree trunk through the window, but the shell of the building was still standing. When we went there, there were eight to 10 cars piled up against the building. Dan Weaver’s Cadillac was stuck in the ground; you could just see the tail lights standing up. It was unbelievable, the damage,” said Steve Sheetz, chief operating officer at the time. “We had property damage, and then we heard about what happened in Tanneryville, where a lot of people lost their lives.”

Ward Trucking had a terminal in Tanneryville in 1977.

G. William Ward, company president at the time, and Charles “Chick” Dillen, director of customer relations, went over the morning after the flood.

“We got as close as we could get to our terminal in Tanneryville. It was right in the path of the storm. Our parking lot, it was totally washed away. One of our employees, Stan Pilot, lost his parents in the flood, they were never found. He lived above the terminal,” Ward recalled. “The devastation was unreal. It was hard to believe.”

“The concrete slabs of the road were up on their end. You couldn’t get through,” Dillen said.

Laird Rager, 88, of Mineral Point was a driver for Ward Trucking in 1977.

“I drove the last truck that got out of the terminal. The Laurel Run Dam burst after that. My car was parked next to the terminal. The dam burst and all kinds of debris came down. It was a Saab. I have a photo of my car with the back end raised up against the building. It destroyed my car,” Rager recalled.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.