On the Wings
of Fire





THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE




On the Wings of Fire

The following is an excerpt from the story of Father Peter Pernin, a French missionary priest, who found refuge from the fiery holocaust of 1871 in the Peshtigo River. This and many other stories about the Peshtigo Fire can be found in Remembering the Peshtigo Fire.

The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one's eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight.

Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together.

The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house, all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel. The silence of the tomb reigned among the living. Nature alone lifted up its voice and spoke.

Almost with the first steps taken in the street, the wind overturned and dragged me with the wagon close to the tavern as already mentioned. Farther on, I was again thrown down over some motionless object lying on the earth; it proved to be a woman and a little girl, both dead. I raised a head that fell back heavily as lead. With a long breath I rose to my feet, but only to be hurled down again.

Farther on I met my horse whom I had set free in the street. Whether he recognized me, whether he was in the spot by chance, I cannot say, but whilst struggling anew to my feet, I felt his head leaning on my shoulder. He was trembling in every limb. I called him by name and motioned him to follow me, but he did not move. He was found partly consumed by fire in the same place.

Arrived near the river, we saw that the houses adjacent to it were on fire, whilst the wind blew the flames and cinders directly into the water. The place was no longer safe. I resolved then to cross to the other side, though the bridge was already on fire. The latter presented a scene of indescribable and awful confusion, each one thinking they could attain safety on the other side of the river.

Those who lived in the east were hurrying toward the west, and those who dwelt in that west were wildly pushing on to the east so that the bridge was thoroughly encumbered with cattle, vehicles, women, children and men, all pushing and crushing against each other so as to find an issue from it. Arrived amid the crowd on the other side, I resolved to descend the river, to a certain distance below the dam, where I knew the shore was lower and the water shallower, but this I found impossible.

The saw mill on the same side, at the angle of the bridge, as well as the large store belonging to the company standing opposite across the road, were both on fire. The flames from these two edifices met across the road, and none could traverse this fiery passage without meeting with instant death. I was thus obliged to ascend the river on the left bank above the dam, where the water gradually attained great depth. After placing a certain distance between myself and the bridge, the fall of which I momentarily expected, I pushed my wagon containing the tabernacle as far into the water as possible. It was all I could do. Hence-forth, I had to look to the saving of my life.

The whirlwind in its continual ascension had, so to speak, worked up the smoke, dust, and cinders, so that, at least, we could see clear before us. The banks of the river as far as the eye could reach were covered with people standing there, motionless as statues, some with eyes staring, upturned towards heaven, and tongues protruded. The greater number seemed to have no idea of taking any steps to procure their safety, imagining, as many afterwards acknowledged to me, that the end of the world had arrived and that there was nothing for them but silent submission to their fate.

Without a word - the efforts I had made in dragging my wagon with me in myflight had left me perfectly breathless, besides the violence of the storm entirely prevented anything like speech - I pushed the persons standing on each side of me into the water. One of these sprang back again with a half smothered cry, murmuring: "I am wet"; but immersion in water was better than immersion in fire. I caught him again and dragged him out with me into the river as far as possible. At the same moment I heard a splash of the water along the river's brink.

All had followed my example. It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath. It was about ten o'clock when we entered into the river. When doing so, I neither knew the length of time we would be obliged to remain there, nor what would ultimately happen to us, yet wonderful to relate, my fate had never caused me a moment of anxiety from the time that, yielding to the involuntary impulse warning me to prepare for danger, I had resolved on directing my flight towards the river.

Once in water up to our necks, I thought I would at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands, that we kept the flames at bay.

Clothing and quilts had been thrown into the river, to save them, doubtless, and they were floating all around. I caught at some that came within reach and covered with them, my head, the heads of the persons who were leaning against or clinging to me.

These wraps dried quickly in the furnace-like heat and caught fire whenever we ceased sprinkling them. The terrible whirlwind that had burst over us at the moment I was leaving home had, with its continually revolving circle of opposing winds, cleared the atmosphere.

The river was as bright, brighter than by day, and the spectacle presented by these heads rising above the level of the water, some covered, some uncovered, the countless hands employed in beating the waves, was singular and painful in the extreme.

So free was I from the fear and anxiety that might naturally have been expected to reign in my mind at such a moment, that I actually perceived only the ludicrous side of the scene at times, and smiled within myself at it.

When turning my gaze from the river, I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees and the air itself were on fire. Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence as we see masses of clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest.

Near me, on the bank of the river, rose the store belonging to the factory, a large three-story building, filled with tubs, buckets, and other articles. Sometimes the thought crossed my mind that if the wind happened to change, we could be buried beneath the blazing ruins of this place, but still the supposition did not cause me much apprehension.

When I was entering the water, this establishment was just taking fire; the work of destruction was speedy, for, in less than a quarter of an hour, the large beams were lying blazing on the ground, while the rest of the building was either burned or swept off into space.

Not far from me a woman was supporting herself in the water by means of a log. After a time a cow swam past. There were more than a dozen of these animals in the river, impelled thither by instinct, and they succeeded in saving their lives.

The first mentioned one overturned in its passage the log to which the woman was clinging and she disappeared into the water. I thought her lost; but soon saw her emerge from it holding on with one hand to the horns of the cow and throwing water on her head with the other.

How long she remained in this critical position I know not, but I was told later that the animal had swam safely to the shore bearing her human burden safely with her; and what threatened to bring destruction to the woman had proved the means of her salvation.

At the moment I was entering the river, another woman, terrified and breathless, reached its bank. She was leading one child by the hand and held pressed to her breast what appeared to be another, enveloped in a roll of disordered linen, evidently caught up in haste. Oh horror! On opening these wraps to look on the face of her child - it was not there.

©1998 Peshtigo Times. All Rights Reserved.

This article can be read in its entirety along with various other stories about the Peshtigo Fire and the city's history in Remembering the Peshtigo Fire.



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