2004-12-31 / Front Page

1923 Tsunami Killed 2 Girls

By Howard Schwach

On Monday, August 6, 1923, several youngsters from the Convalescent Home For Hebrew Children on Beach 110 Street were taking their daily salt-water bath nearby the Park Inn Baths on Beach 116 Street when they were hit with what The Wave of that time termed “a large and unusual wave” that pulled them out to sea.

The three boys and two girls attempted to hold on to life-poles that were planted in the water, but Miriam Levin and Pauline Higgins lost their lives despite action by the home’s nurses that were watching the children from the beach assisted by local officers assigned to the traffic police.

The two girls were declared dead on the beach by Dr. Ben Brokaw of the Rockaway Beach Hospital.

What happened in Rockaway that day?

The National Weather Service says that a tsunami may have hit Rockaway Park, causing the “large and unusual wave” that killed the two young girls.

In fact, the Website for the Philadelphia/Mount Holly Forecast Office (www.erh.noaa.gov) lists the wave that came out of the clear ocean that day a “possible tsunami.”

According to the New York Times on August 7, 1923, “The large wave came out of the sea without notice by the three nurses on the beach until it broke on the shore. While the three boys in the water caught a rope leading to a float, the two girls did not and their bodies were later brought ashore by the nurses and police.

A letter to the editor of The New York Times two days later noted that the wave came in three phases, with the water receding prior to the third wave.

Almost a year later, on August 8, 1924, a “large wave that came from a clam sea” hit Coney Island, just to the west of Rockaway, injuring four bathers and “felling hundreds.”

That wave also is listed by the National Weather Service as a “possible tsunami.”

While those two events, listed by the weather service as possible tsunamis were nothing like the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia and Africa that killed tens of thousands, experts question whether a tsunami of that magnitude could hit the east coast of the United States.

The conjecture centers on a volcano in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco.

Known as Cumbre Vieja, the volcano split in half after its last eruption in 1949.

Some experts believe that another eruption could cause a rock slab the size of Manhattan to slip into the sea, causing an earthquake that would spawn a tsunami of epic proportions.

A University of California seismologist named Steven Ward did a computer model in 2001 that reportedly showed that such an event with Cumbre Vieja would create a 325-foot wave that would first strike Africa and then, about eight hours later, the east coast of the United States with waves as high as 80 feet.

A British researcher recently wrote an article stating that such a wave could wipe out everything from Boston to Miami.

“There would be no more Rockaway,” says Wave historian Emil Lucev. “Rockaway would become the sand bar that it was before the Indians came.”

Experts say that, while the volcano has been dormant since 1971, it historically erupts every 20 to 200 years.

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