Wilbur Jones & the Killer in the Keys!

This following story is timely for two reasons: one, hurricane season begins in a few weeks and; two, the National Hurricane Center just officially reclassified the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 as the mightiest storm in history.  It replaces Hurricane Camille long thought worthy of such distinction.

I knew long ago the 1935 storm was the strongest ever. I knew because I interviewed one of its few survivors.  In my first book, “From Cartels to Competition”, I wrote about 24 year old Wilbur Jones.   Trapped inside an overturned rail road car,  he and others also were pinned beneath Henry Flagler’s rescue train.

I’ve just read that Jones,  formerly an insurance agent and well connected public figure, celebrated his 101st birthday. Perhaps his 1935 brush with death tells how fortunate we are today to have a Hurricane Center with advance warning systems.

Perhaps it’s a horrifying reminder of what mother nature may have in store beginning this June 1.  Enjoy!

“Killer in the Keys”, by Scott Johnson 

In 1935 the most powerful hurricane in U.S. Weather Service history eradicated an eight-mile chunk of the upper Keys. Never before, or since, has Florida been sucker-punched with such ferocity. Its wind speed, its destruction, its emotional and human toll, became the stuff of legends. Humphrey Bogart would later star in a movie capturing the fury and its prelude. Ernest Hemingway wrote poems and letters after traipsing through the destruction. Literally “horrified” at what he saw, Hemingway blamed the federal government and President Roosevelt—his public airing eventually generating a congressional investigation. 

Libraries have generous renditions—from rescuers who didn’t make it in time or from the few survivors who weren’t blown to oblivion. Your author was fortunate to have stumbled on the latter—a young bookkeeper for World War I veterans and workers constructing the overseas highway as part the depression-era’s New Deal.

Before becoming an FAIA member and owner of the Hunt Insurance Agency, this well-connected storyteller would receive a gubernatorial appointment to chair the State Road Department and become a respected lobbyist. At age 93, an amazingly lucid Wilbur Jones shared how 70 years earlier he clung to life and how hundreds of others (many WWI veterans) lost theirs.

“I was 24 I think (pause), yeah 24. I spent Labor Day in Miami. I was sent down early in the morning to help evacuate the workers at three veterans’ camps.”

Jones was bringing payroll sheets so names could be “checked off” as workers boarded Flagler’s train sent to evacuate the residents. “There were only waves, wind, and barometric pressure to announce its arrival,” he recalled. “No one had any idea what was in store. But, by the time I got there I knew we were in store for something big.”

But not even Jones knew that (according to some experts) 250 mph gusts would begin to hoist a 25-foot title surge that would sweep over some of the flattest and most narrow landscape in America. Like hosing off a patio, this monster would level Islamorada, hurling over 500 Lilliputians into the raging Gulf of Mexico. 

In the early tumult, Jones ran to refuge at the Islamorada train station where he waited, prayed, for Flagler’s rescue train. What he and the others, including the station manager, a sheriff’s deputy, a man, wife and child, didn’t know was that every inch of their salvation had been hampered with debris strewn tracks. Worse, at 6:50 p.m., about 20 miles north, and after picking up 20 evacuees, Flagler’s locomotive snagged a loose cable, forfeiting another hour and a half—ninety precious minutes.

Meanwhile, the shuddering train station began to disassemble. Category five winds threatened to blow Jones and his companions to the seas. Water was pouring in the door and covered the floor. “Just across the main track were three empty boxcars on sidetracks,” he recalled. “It was higher ground. We figured we needed to be there.”

Circumstances left little to debate. But…when they cracked the door, Jones and company were sucked into the fury; forced to claw the ground just to remain earthbound, they made the trek to the boxcars on hands and knees. Once inside they clung, huddled and cried, unaware Flagler’s train and its twenty evacuees had pulled into the station only twenty feet away—the roaring wind having completely obscured the sound of the locomotive.

Suddenly, horrible got worse. A wrecking ball wave slammed the entire train, leaving only the locomotive and the tracks beneath it. According to Jones, “It blew the train and the tracks right on to our boxcar slamming it face down on the sliding door, beneath a huge wall of water…we were trapped, upside down, and water was pouring in!” 

With only a two-foot air bubble at the top, non-swimmers and the child clung to the sides or struggled to tiptoe on barrels that had fortuitously been fastened down inside the boxcar. There they remained, in salt water, in darkness, for almost 48 hours—the storm roaring outside until afternoon the following day. When the water drained, the boxcars ax took another day to chop through the wood veneered metal walls of the murky tomb.

After squeezing through the jagged opening, drenched, dazed and bloody, future FAIA member Jones and his comrades-in-arms squinted at a landscape of purple, bloated bodies. Iron tracks twisted into macabre shapes. The station was gone. Flagler’s twenty evacuees were never found.

Other Islamorada residents and visitors were discovered 50 miles from where they were plucked—on other Keys or nearby islands. Most drowned, some were crushed by trees or impaled by limbs or lumber. Jones’s friend, George Pepper, U.S. Senator Claude Pepper’s nephew, had been on a personal mission to rescue his fiancé south of Islamorada. After reuniting, the couple and the automobile they raced north in were never seen again. Others who could be found were hogtied in mangroves—some unrecognizable because the 250-mph wind sandblasted off their faces.

In the coming weeks huge funeral pyres would fill the skies with human ash. For months bodies were discovered on offshore islands. Thirty years later a developer dredged up an automobile with a 1935 license plate. 

Inside were five skeletons. 

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