Collapsed dam

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Wooden Toys DETOA Albrechtice s.r.o.

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The village of Albrechtice is the location of the greatest water catastrophe in Central Europe – the failure of the dam on the Bílá Desná River. The impulse for the construction of the dam lay in a series of periods of rainfall and floods that afflicted Northern Bohemia. The structure that was supposed to protect against flooding paradoxically brought about more damage than hundreds of similar floods could have – mostly to lives.

The entire tragedy happened 10 months after the final building permit was issued – on the 18th of September 1916, and it meant greater strife than the ongoing World War for the citizens of the small township of Desná in Jizerské hory. Sixty two citizens lost their lives; hundreds of people lost their homes; more than a thousand lost their jobs.

The dam construction, which would not even be initiated these days due to a badly selected location with unsuitable subsoil, was permitted for use and declared to be suitable for filling with water. It was only filled two thirds of the way when the dike started to leak and within an unbelievable 70 minutes it burst completely. The opening in the dike increased from the original two centimetres up to 40 metres. For details, please see the the text below. Each second, 150.000 litres of water poured out from the dam, and it rushed through the valley to Desná and Tanvald, taking with it everything that got in the way.

The tragedy was amplified by the unfortunate location of the saw-mill, in Desná, where the water took the stored timber and forced it like a battering ram towards the little village. The houses placed in the middle of the valley stood no chance – even those built of stone with a firm foundation could not endure the thrust of the immense mass of water. Large buildings – saw-mills, glass grinding plants – were not taken at once by the floodwater, but they gradually fell apart due to the influx. More interesting details are mentioned here.

Although there were plans for the reconstruction of the dam, they have never been realized. Maybe due to the fact that those who survived the catastrophe would not be able to live peacefully below such threat. Between the world wars, the place became a much-sought-after tourist destination, as can be documented by the photographs of the Krömer Cabin, which perished after 1945. Today, there is only the slide-valve tower and the tunnel, which once connected the Collapsed dam with its sister – Souš. The dark and inaccessible premises are an ideal hibernating location for bats; it is currently the largest of its kind in Europe.

Photographs from the construction

The course of the catastrophe

  • 3:00 p.m. the dike warden inspects the dike for the last time; it is perfectly fine
  • 3:30 p.m. the foresters notice there is a 2cm-diameter stream running from the dike
  • 3:35 p.m. the dike warden calls the office of the Water-works Association in Dolní Polubný
  • 3:35 p.m. the construction manager orders both the closures to be opened in order to decrease the pressure
  • 3:40 p.m. the dike warden and the workers start to open the water closures; the split keeps getting bigger
  • 3:55 p.m. there is water and sand and stones spouting from the split; the workers run away, fearing for their lives; the closures are not entirely open
  • 4:00 p.m. a message is sent to the villages along the Bílá Desná River, saying that "for some time, there will be more water flowing in the watercourse"
  • 4:15 p.m. the paving of the dike falls in; the villages receive a warning; the fire-fighting horns are heard
  • 4:40 p.m. the dike fails; there is a split of 18 metres in diameter; there are 260 million litres of water in the dam
  • 4:55 p.m. there are dust clouds hovering over the woods; water is approaching Desná
  • 5:00 p.m. water arrives at Desná; it gets to the saw-mill and now it forces 5,000 cubic metres of wood onto the village
  • 5:05 p.m. the wave equals a two-storey house in height; it wipes away the houses and everything that gets in the way; people run away to the hillsides, but not all of them make it
  • 5:10 p.m. in the lower part of Desná, the timber is caught by the viaduct and the railroad, which causes the occurrence of a "dike" that slows the water down
  • 5:15 p.m. the dam is empty; it has released 150.000 litres of water per second
  • 5:20 p.m. water reaches Tanvald, where it only floods the cellars and takes away sheds with no foundations

The consequences of the failure

Interesting facts

  • Although the fire-fighting sirens gave the warning in time, the 62 victims suffered due to the fact that Desná had experienced many floods in the past, where the humming water was heard and the people received the warning, and yet the floods did not bring about death. Lots of people were therefore standing in front of their homes, watching the water course, so they could take their valuables and furniture up to the higher floors. Infants were left in the houses. The wave then, unfortunately, came too fast.
  • In Mladá Boleslav – 80 km downstream – the level of the Jizera River increased by 20 cm. The fact is that the Bílá Desná flows into the Černá Desná, which then flows to Kamenice, and only the Kamenice River forms a right-side branch to the Jizera River.
  • The obituary mass on the Sunday after the catastrophe was attended by an immense number of people. There were 6.000 tickets sold on the railroad from Liberec during that one day. The mass was visited by tourists from Vienna, Linz, Hamburg and Berlin.
  • Among the reasons for the construction of the dam, there were the floods caused by heavy rains. The hypothetical last drop occurred in July 1897, when it rained 345 mm of water in a single day in Bedřichov (10 km away from Desná), which is still the Czech record today. There is approximately the same amount rainfall in the Chomutov area in one year!
  • After the catastrophe, the unemployed people were called upon to remove the damages. Their pay was huge for that time – 3-6 Kroner per hour, which would correspond to CZK 250 today.
  • Over 14 months after the catastrophe, 601.608 K (approx. 30 million Czech crowns today) was collected in material aid, with a government promise of a further 250.000 K, all that in the atmosphere of the ongoing World War I.
  • The tunnel connecting the dam with the similar Souš Dam is a hibernating location for bats; it is the largest hibernating location in Europe. There were 11 types of mammals identified here; an individual Brandt’s bat survived here for 29 years (1980-2009).