KEY WEST — The seven elderly guests on stage at Island Christian Church were just kids 75 years ago when a Category 5 hurricane barreled into their homes in the Upper Florida Keys, leaving a trail of destruction and death.
A packed crowd listened recently to their harrowing stories of surviving the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, still the most intense storm to make landfall in the United States.
"I'll tell you it was a very hard night, and it's something that if you ever experience you will never forget," said 90-year-old Laurette Pinder Russell, who was 16. "I still have God to thank for most of my family being spared."
The seven survivors, ages 78 to 90, told of ferocious winds ripping the skin off their ears and the clothes off their bodies.
They remembered clinging to mattresses with their siblings and parents as the ocean swallowed their tropical island paradise in the darkness of night.
They recalled cramming like sardines into a Ford, and hearing the screams of World War I veterans who drowned in a rock pit.
They remembered thinking: "We're going to die."
The seven relived their experiences for the Matecumbe Historical Trust, a group trying to raise money to build a museum to preserve the history of the Keys.
"Their stories are an important part of the area's history that we don't want to lose," said Barbara Edgars, a spokeswoman for the trust. "There are only a few survivors left."
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"Nobody really thought we were going to get a hurricane," said Everett Albury, 81, whose family took a leisurely drive from their home in Tavernier to Lower Matecumbe in the family's 1928 Model A Ford.
The parents of some of the seven survivors knew by late afternoon of Labor Day, Sept. 2, that trouble was on the way due to the low readings on their barometers.
At the time, about 300 people lived on the four islands of Lower Matecumbe, Upper Matecumbe, Windley Key and Plantation Key, from mile markers 73 to 90 on the Overseas Highway.
Several hundred World War I veterans were in the path of the hurricane, too, living in tent camps to work on the Overseas Highway as part of a federal program during the Great Depression. A 10-car evacuation train was sent for the veterans, but it arrived just about the same time the storm struck, around 8 p.m.
All but the engine was washed off the tracks.
Hours later, when the winds subsided and the water surge receded, nearly 500 people were dead — about half veterans and about half residents and visitors, according to government documents listed in the book Category 5.
Charlie Roberts was 7 and living on Windley Key near the rock quarry where the veterans were working. He remembered the roof blowing off their row house and his father picking him and his two brothers up by the straps of their overalls.
He said their father and mother dragged and carried them through the wind and into the Ford.
"Eleven of us got into that car," said Roberts, now 81. "That's the only thing that saved us."
He told of "things flying through the air that night like Star Wars" and of water flooding up to their waists in the car. But the worst thing he remembers is the plight of the veterans, who had taken cover in a rock pit.
"When the water came, they got drowned like rats," he said. "You could hear them screaming all night long. I mean just a screaming and hollering for help, and we couldn't get out and help them."
Norman Parker had just turned 4, but he remembers that his family crammed into a cottage that was newly built by his sister and brother-in-law.
"It hadn't been tied down, so when the water came in, we became a raft," he said. "My father put all 10 kids on a bed and everyone held on."