Every year, tens of millions people or so go through Denver International Airport, the fifth busiest in the country and in the top 20 busiest in the world. That’s a lot of bodies to get from hither to yon, so the airport relies heavily on Automated Guideway Transit System, a people-mover that connects all of the midfield concourses with the south terminal, providing the only passenger access to concourses B and C. And in 1995, a day that will live in infamy for staff and passengers alike, the system failed. They refer to that day as Black Sunday. My name’s…
So I said to myself the other day, you know what would make a good topic, days with colorful sobriquets, surely there are enough of those to write about. In what they call a good problem to have, there are in fact, too many! Most of the “black.” So I’m starting with a few Black Sundays and if you thinks it’s a fruitful area of discussion, I’ll make it a series, maybe one a month. I’d space them out because you don’t hear about the planes that land and you don’t call a day Black whatever if everything was chill. As such, today’s episode is two heavy topics and one packed with schadenfreude, so gauge how you’re feeling today., I don’t mind waiting – it’s not how long you wait, it’s who you’re waiting for. We’re going to go heavy, heavy, light, as decided by folks in our Facebook group, the Brainiac Breakroom, where anyone can share clever or funny things they find; same goes to the ybof sud-reddit.
Speaking of social media, folks are starting to post pictures of themselves wearing their Russian Warship go F yourself shirts to raise money for the Ukraine red cross (url). Thanks to them specifically and I want to send a sweeping cloud of thanks to people in other countries for taking in the refugees. Speaking of refugees, there was a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans were refugees in their own country. During WWI, wheat prices rose and farming in the open prairies of the great plains was an attractive proposition. Homesteaders and farmers set up shop, ripping up or tilling under the native grasses that had evolved as part of that ecosystem, with long roots that both held onto lots of soil, but reached down far enough to reach water waaay below the topsoil, allowing it to better survive drought conditions. But we don’t like to eat those grasses, so they replaced it with shallow-rooted wheat. The rain stopped falling in 1931, leaving instead a severe widespread drought that lasted the rest of the decade, eventually killed thousands of square miles of wheat fields. No other crops, either, and nothing to feed livestock. Without live plants to hold onto the topsoil, it blew away. The prairie wind became a sandstorm and people’s livelihoods blew away. It got so bad, the dust clouds eventually reached the east coast and beyond. At the same time, they had this Great Depression on, a real nuisance, you’ve seen the movies, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, the other versions of Of Mice and Men, O Brother Where Art Thou (only time I enjoyed George Clooney), and dozens more. The price of wheat [sfx raspberry] and people lost their jobs left right and center. Many families were left with no choice but to pile whatever they still had left onto the family car and follow rumors of work, sometimes migrating all the way to California, where, even though they were regular ol’ ‘Mericans, they were treated like foreign invaders.
Black Blizzard, American Dust Bowl, 1938
That’s a broad-stroke quickie overview – and boy do I want to rewatch Carnivale for the fourth time (love me some Clancy Brown, rawr, I still would) – but we’re here to talk about one day, a black Sunday, brought on by a black blizzard. It’s a blizzard but made up of dirt so thick, it blocks out the sun. 14 hit black blizzards hit in 1932, 38 in 1933, up to 70 by 1937 and so on. The worst of it hit Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The storms became so frequent that people could discern the origin of the storm by the color of its dirt – brown dust storms were from Kansas or Nebraska, gray from Texas, and red dust storms were from Oklahoma.
People tried to protect themselves from breathing the dust and cloth masks were the least of it. They’d hang wet sheets over doorways and seal up windows, sometimes with a paste ironically made of wheat flour because that’s what they could get. They’d rub petroleum jelly into their nostrils, anything to try to prevent the “brown plague,” dust pneumonia. Constant inhalation of dust particles killed hundreds of people, babies and young children particularly, and sickened thousands of others.
1934 was the single worst drought year of the last millennium in North America, temperatures soared, exceeding 100 degrees everyday for weeks on much of the Southern Plains, absolutely *baking the soil. When spring of 1935 rolled around, there was a whole lot more dry dirt ready to be thrown into the air. After months of brutal conditions, the winds finally died down on the morning of April 14, 1935, and people jumped on the chance to escape their homes. Hope springs eternal and people thought maybe it was finally over.
It was, of course, not over. The worst was standing in the wings in full costume, waiting for its cue. A cold front down from Canada crashed into warm air over the Dakotas. In a few hours, the temperature fell more than 30 degrees and the wind returned in force, creating a dust cloud that grew to hundreds of miles wide and thousands of feet high as it headed south. Reaching its full fury in southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, it turned a sunny day totally dark. Birds, mice and jackrabbits fled for their lives. Have you ever heard the sound *one terrified rabbit makes? I would not want to be on the ground while this was happening. Domestic animals like cattle that couldn’t get to shelter were blinded and even suffocated by the dust.
Drivers were forced to take refuge in their cars, while other residents hunkered down anywhere they could, from fire stations to tornado shelters to under beds if a bed was the closest you could find to safety. Folksinger Woody Guthrie, then 22, who sat out the storm at his Pampa, Texas, home, recalled that “you couldn’t see your hand before your face.” Inspired by proclamations from some of his companions that the end of the world was at hand, he composed a song titled “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” [sfx song] Guthrie would also write other tunes about Black Sunday, including “Dust Storm Disaster.”
The storm dragged on for hours and peoples’ wits began to fray. One woman reportedly thought the merciless howling wind blocking out the sky was the start of the Biblical end of the world – can’t imagine how she arrived there– contemplated killing her child to spare them being collateral damage in a war between heaven and hell. By all accounts it was the worst black blizzard of the Dust Bowl, displacing 300,000 tons of topsoil. That would be enough to cover a square area of .4mi/750 m on each side a foot deep. “Everybody remembered where they were on Black Sunday,” said Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a history professor at Iowa State University and the author of “Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas.” “For people on the Southern Plains, it was one of those defining experiences, like Pearl Harbor or Kennedy’s assassination.”
The Black Sunday storm blew its dust all the way to the east coast, causing street lights to be needed during the day in Washington DC and even coating the decks of ships in the Atlantic ocean. The next day, as the remnants of the storm blew out into the Gulf of Mexico, an Associated Press reporter filed a story in which he referred to “life in the dust bowl of the continent,” coining the phrase that would encapsulate a phenomenon, a place, and a time. Inspired by the myriad tales of suffering that proliferated in Black Sunday’s wake, the federal government began paying farmers to take marginal lands out of production. It also incentivized improved agricultural practices, such as contour plowing and crop rotation, which reduced soil loss roughly 65 percent. By then, however, many families had given up hope and ¼-⅓ of the most affected people fled the Southern Plains, never to return. But in the win column, thanks to better agricultural management practices, the massive black blizzards never returned either.
Bondi Beach, Australia, 1938
The phrase Black Sunday isn’t exclusive to the US, of course. My one sister’s adoptive country of Australia has had their fair share as well. Like Black Sunday from 1926, an especially bad day during an already disastrous bushfire season. 60 people were killed and 700 injured. Or the Black Sunday bushfires across South Australia in 1955. 60 fire brigades and 1,000 volunteers were needed to get the fires under control. Thankfully this time only 2 people died that time.
On the far side of the element wheel is the story of Bondi Beach, minutes east of Sydney, on a February Sunday in 1938. Sydney had recently celebrated its 150th birthday, or sesqui-centenary, with a big old parade and events planned to last until April. The city was a-bustle with visitors, many of whom joined the locals spending the hot, sunny day at Bondi Beach.
The sky was clear, but the sea was already acting a fool. A large swell was hitting the coast and lifeguards at Bondi were busy all day Saturday pulling people from the heavy surf, as many as 74 rescues in one hour. Despite the heavy seas, beach inspectors gave a mayor of Amity-approved thumbs-up to opening the beach on Sunday, February 6. Beachgoers started coming and coming and coming. The morning started out relatively quiet for the lifeguards, but business got brisk, even as they tried to wave swimmers toward safer parts of the beach. As the tide moved out, more and more people ventured out to a sandbar that ran parallel to the beach. The crowd had grown to 35,000, enjoying the surf and sand. Extra surf reels were brought out to the beach as they tried to keep pace with the ballooning battery of bathers. A lifesaving reel is an Australian invention that was brilliant in its simplicity. It was a giant reel of rope, with a belt or harness at the end, in a portable stand. The life saver would attach the harness to his or her self then swim out to the struggling swimmer or surfer. The lifeguard –and I am going to persist in saying the American lifeguard rather than the Australian lifesaver– then puts the rescuee in the harness and a lifeguard on the beach would reel them in. The lifeguard in the water either accompanies that person back or goes on to rescue someone else.
Boat crews were out in the water dropping buoys to mark out a race course for weekly races held by and for the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club. This would turn out to be as fortuitous as when a woman had a heart attack on a trans-atlantic flight, but there were 15 cardiologists on board, going to a conference. At about 3.00 p.m. two duty patrols were changing shifts at the Bondi surf club and some 60 club members were mingling around waiting for the competition.
Suddenly, five tremendous waves crashed high onto the beach, one right after the other, in such quick succession that the water could not recede. Even though most bathers were only standing in water up to their waists, they were thrown onto the beach, and pummeled by the following waves. Then the water receded. What goes up must come down and what comes in must go back out. The backwash, which is the term for water on the beach finding its level and returning to the ocean, swept people who’d been nowhere near the water, including non-swimmers who never planned to get in the water, into the water. The people on the sandbar were then swept further out. The club recorded 180 people, but news reports at the time put the figure as high as 250 – 250 people now in need of rescue, panicking and thrashing in the surf.
All hands from the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club lept into action. Beltmen took every available line out, many went in without belts and held up struggling bathers. Lifesaver Carl Jeppesen is said to have simply dived into the surf to rescue six people without the aid of a surf reel. One of the main problems was not lack of assistance but too much unskilled help from the huge crowd on the beach. One beltman, George Pinkerton, was dragged under water by members of the public trying to haul him in. He ended up in need of medical attention. Once the lines had been cleared and a certain amount of order restored, the lifeguards could get on with the job. Thankfully there were people who *could help. “I was co-opted into the situation because I was a strong swimmer and they put me on a line,’’ said Ted Lever, just 16 at the time, a member of the Bondi Amateur Swimming Club who would soon be invited to join the renowned Bondi lifesaving club.
Even when the well-meaning public had been cleared from the lines to leave them in trained hands, there were still problems. The beltmen often found themselves swamped by swimmers seeking assistance. Some of them had to punch their way through a wall of distressed bathers to get to others in more danger. One beltman spoke of being seized by five men who refused to let go. “I was trying to take the belt to a youngster who was right out the back but I didn’t get the chance. As I went by, dozens yelled for help and tried to grab me. I told them to hang on to the rope as soon as I got it out. I didn’t think I had a chance when they all came at me. One grabbed me around the neck, two others caught me by one arm, another around the waist and another one seized my leg. I hit the man who had me around the neck, managed to get him on his chin and he let go. I had to do it; but for that, I would have been drowned myself.”
The boat was still out after laying the buoys but the crew were waiting for the race to start, but they were completely unaware of the chaos just off the beach. Nobody thought to signal them, but even if they had, the boat could have posed a danger to people in the water with overactive waves and rip currents.
It was difficult to tell exactly how many people had been rescued during the course of that chaotic 20 minutes. Rescued swimmers were brought up the beach by the dozens. About 60 needed to be resuscitated to one degree or another. Five people died, including one man who died saving a girl.
American doctor Marshall Dyer, there on vacation, helped resuscitate swimmers. “I have never seen, nor expect to see again, such a magnificent achievement as that of your lifesavers,’’ he said. “It is the most incredible work of love in the world.’’
There were inarguably many heroes on Bondi Beach that day, but the Lifesavers’ club stance afterwards was that “everyone did his job.” “It must be realised that though perhaps less spectacular, the work on the beach and in the clubhouse was just as necessary if not more so,’’ he told a newspaper. Instead of recognising individuals for their efforts the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia recommended the entire club for a special meritorious award.
Opening day of Disneyland, 1955
even a potential COVID outbreak or the measles outbreak they had a few years ago would pale in comparison to the disaster that was opening day at Disney. Disneyland is known as the happiest place on Earth. But when the park opened on July 17, 1955, the now-ubiquitous nickname was downright ironic. Disney employees who survived the day referred to it as Black Sunday.
So opening day at Disney was a bit more like the Simpsons episode where they went to itchy and scratchy world.
The opening day was meant to be a relatively intimate affair, by invite only, not for every Huey, Dewey and Lewey. If you were friends and family of the employees, members of the press, and celebrities of the day, you received a ticket in the mail. If you were everyone else, you bought a counterfeit ticket. The park was only expecting 15,000 guests; 28,000 showed up, nearly doubled what they prepared for. Well, what they meant to prepare for, we’ll ride the teacups back around to that in a sec. The counterfeit tickets might have been better than the legit ones, as those were only good for half the day, morning or afternoon, to spread the workload out more evenly. The morning tickets had an end time of 2:30 pm, when, assumably, they figured people would see that and just say, oh, bother, my time is up, guess I’ll leave then. Nobody did that. One is stunned. You buy a ticket for a theme park, you’re there all day. So the morning people were still milling about when the afternoon people started showing up. And then there were the people who started just sneaking in. One enterprising self-starter set a ladder up against the outside fence and charged people $5 to climb it. That’s about $50 adjusted for inflation, many many times over for schlepping along a ladder that I like to think he nicked from his neighbor’s yard.
A lot of things were not ready on opening day, within the park and without. The Santa Ana Freeway outside turned into a 7 mile long parking lot. The opening of the park essentially shut the freeway down. There were so many people waiting so long, according to some media reports, there was rampant  relief on the side of the road and even in the Disney parking lot. Like the video for Everybody Hurts, if folks couldn’t hold their water. If you just flashed back to your life when that video came out, be sure to stretch before you mow the lawn and don’t forget your big sun hat.
Today might think of a Disney park as being meticulously manicured and maintained. Opening day, not so much. Walt Disney tried to have everything ready on time, hustling his people to work faster, but there’s only so much you can do. So there were bare patches of ground, some areas of bare ground that had been painted green, weeds where the lawns and flowers were meant to be. Weeds and native flora that they couldn’t get rid of in time, they instead put little signs with the Latin name of the plant in the weeds, so it kind of looks like it was meant to be there. Turn a liability into an asset, I always say. Returning to the topic of bathrooms, there was a plumber’s strike going on during construction; Walt basically had to decide between working water fountains or working toilets. Florida heat notwithstanding, he chose to have the toilets working, and I’d say that was probably a good call. If you’ve ever played theme park tycoon or any of those games now, you know that a lack of water fountains means people *have to pay for drinks now… Or they would… if the park’s concessions had been fully stocked. The overabundance of people meant that the food and drink sold out completely in just a couple of hours. Did I mention it was literally 100 deg freedom/38C that day? The asphalt had been finished so close to opening that it began sticking to people’s shoes. Some people even claimed to have gotten their shoes completely stuck to the pavement on Main Street, where lots of people spent lots of time, because the rides, kind of a big deal at a theme park, they were not ready. A number of rides, like Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage, and the famous Flying Dumbo either broke down or never opened at all.
Disney’s Black Sunday lasted for weeks. A Stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it became clear that they were as safe against rollovers as a Bronco II with a roof rack loaded with building supplies. 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving on the part of the patrons. I’m starting to wonder if Disney ever met people. Ironically, the ride was designed to help children learn to be respectful drivers on the road. There were a number of live animals in a circus attraction, which was not great when a Tiger and a Panther escaped, which resulted in a furious death struggle on Main Street, USA. Now that’s an attraction you can’t pay for, like Baghera vs Sher Khan, 8 years before The Jungle Book. Like the park, the Mark Twain Riverboat was over capacity on opening day with over 500 people cramming onto the boat, causing it to jump its tracks and sink in the mud. It took about half an hour to get it back onto the rail, and as soon as it pulled up to the landing, everyone rushed to one side of the boat to get off…. and tipped it over. Thankfully, the water was shallow and there were no injuries. There was, however, a gas leak inside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, which could have been a serious problem and prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland for a few hours because, whoopsie-doodles, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is on fire. Well, trying to catch fire. Reports vary as to how severe it actually was. Walt was so busy handling the press that he didn’t even learn about the fire until the following day. That’s how chaotic things were.
Disney was a shrewd and clever businessman, so he thought, I am opening this park. Let’s make this into a big live television event. He partnered with ABC, which had also helped provide nearly a third of the funding. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland for the year before it opened. So on opening day, Walt hosted a 90 minutes live TV special with Art Linkletter and future President Ronald Reagan. 90 million people tuned in to see the happiest place on Earth and that kind of ratings was no mean feat for the 50’s. The cameras showed all of the fun and excitement of Disneyland, completely obscuring all of the disasters and unhappiness that was actually happening. But if you think the live broadcast would go off without a hitch, you may have pattern-recognition problems. It was riddled with technical difficulties. Parkgoers kept tripping over camera cables that snaked all over the park. They were on-air flubs, mics that didn’t work, people who forgot their mic *did work, and unexpected moments caught on camera, such as co host Bob Cummings caught making out with one of the dancers. “This is not so much a show as is a special event,” Art Linkletter said during the broadcast. “The rehearsal went about the way you’d expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes, all erupting at the same time and you didn’t expect any of them. So from time to time, if I say we take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in adventure land and instead somebody pushes the wrong button and we catch Irene done adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain. Don’t be too surprised.”
The train system is essential for the airport to function at its full capacity since it provides the only passenger access to Concourses B and C. In rare instances of the train system being out of service, shuttle buses have been used. While the system is highly reliable, one major system failure took place on April 26, 1998. A routing cable in the train tunnel was damaged by a loose wheel on one of the trains, cutting the entire system’s power. The system was out of service for about seven hours. United Airlines, DIA’s largest airline (who operates a large hub out of Concourse B), reported that about 30 percent of their flights and about 5,000 passengers were affected by the failure.
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