How a 16-Year-Old Boy Saved Millions of Lives

In 1889, Victor Heiser was in his family’s barn, because that’s where 16-year-old boys hung out back then. Victor was probably in the middle of milking a goat when he looked across the way and saw his father in the second story window of their house screaming for him to climb up to the barn’s roof. Victor did.

The Johnstown Horror, or Valley of Death, a bestselling book published in 1889.

When Victor reached the roof of the barn, he saw a mass of water and debris as tall as his family’s house hurtling towards him. Little Conemaugh River’s south fork dam had just burst moments before after days of torrential rain, releasing 20 million tons of water upon the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Victor, on his barn’s roof, watched as the flood crushed his parents home. It swept him away, too. Victor, purportedly on top of some debris, rode the violent wave until he miraculously jumped onto the roof of a brick house. There, he stayed overnight with 19 other survivors in the home’s attic. Tragically, the flood killed 2,209 people, including Victor’s entire family.

Later, Victor Heiser would become a doctor and develop the first effective treatment for leprosy, saving millions of lives. It’s a gut-wrenching tragedy, but there’s some triumph in it, too. Think of the millions of lives that ultimately hinged on this 16-year-old boy jumping to the roof of a brick house to survive a deadly flood. (source)

One Crisis at a Time

Victor Heiser barely survived the 1889 Johnstown flood. There were two key moments that saved his life. First, he sought high ground immediately after seeing his father tell him to do so. Second, he leapt to the brick house’s roof. If he did anything else, he would have certainly died.

An 1889 picture of the South Fork Dam. You can see the sides of the dam at the edges of the picture, and the massive gap between them.

I think we take for granted a story like this, and assume we’d do everything to try to survive in this situation. But think about it. Victor had other crises that could have distracted him. He just watched his parents die. He just watched his home and barn get destroyed. What was his future? Everything was wiped out in an instant. But he remained focused on the most pressing crisis—his survival. And because he did everything he could to survive, he was able to conquer a major world crisis later in his life (leprosy).

The lesson: focus on one crisis at a time. You can think about this in multiple timeframes, too. In this moment, what is the most important and pressing thing you need to get done? Over the next week or month, what is the single most important thing you can accomplish? 

The worst we can do is trying to figure out how to solve all of our crises at once. For Victor, that would have meant literal drowning. For us, it means figurative drowning in overwhelm. When you divide your focus, it feels like you’re doing the right thing in trying to fix the most problems possible, but it makes you weaker. Don’t divide your strength over many areas when you can conquer one and using that momentum for the next one. 

With every crisis you solve, you will feel (and be) more in control of your life.

As a kid, I watched the cartoon Captain Planet, and this recycling superhero could only save the day when earth, fire, wind, water and heart combined into one force. This process is well-known science today.

Whenever possible, combine all of your energy and focus towards the most critical crisis you face right now, and let the others go. You’ll get to them when you can, and you’ll be more focused and powerful when that time comes.

If you ever find yourself near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, be sure to visit the Johnstown Flood Museum.

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