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Photographer returns to hometown 40 years after historic Johnstown flood

Mary Pickels
| Friday, July 14, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
George Kollar's grandparents' house. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.
George Kollar's grandparents' house. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.
Thomas Venet house closeup from “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.
Thomas Venet house closeup from “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.
Bulldozer moving debris — “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood
Bulldozer moving debris — “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood
Water jugs being filled. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood
Water jugs being filled. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood
Trees and cars near the Shell plant. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.
Trees and cars near the Shell plant. “Photographs by George Kollar” exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood.

When George Kollar heard that his hometown near Johnstown had flooded in 1977, the Pittsburgh man grabbed his wife and headed east.

Shocked by the damage he witnessed, he returned one day later, camera in hand.

"I just graduated from the Ivy School of Professional Art with a degree in art. ... I had only three rolls of film," he recalls.

Photographs he shot with that film are included in a special 40th commemorative exhibit by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association called "Photographs By George Kollar."

Kollar, 69, of Regent Square, and his wife, Deborah Dragovich Kollar, both originally hail from Johnstown-area communities.

"We were living in Edgewood at the time of the flood and couldn't believe our ears to hear that the river walls overflowed," Kollar says.

Overnight on July 19, 11 inches of rain fell in the Cambria County community. Eighty-five people lost their lives in the rush and gush of water, mud and muck after several dams failed.

Property damages reached the $300 million mark, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association website. Many of the deaths occurred in the community of Tanneryville, Deborah Kollar's neighborhood.

George Kollar's family lived in Coopersdale.

"My parents' house got flooded, and needed pretty much new everything. ... My mother laughed about it. She said it took a flood to get a new kitchen," he says.

His mother, the late Mary Kollar, rode out the flood by climbing atop a piano at the former Roseland Skating Rink, where she and others had been playing bingo.

His father, the late George Kollar, and his sister, Michele, sheltered three stranded motorists on their family home's second floor.

Deborah Kollar was pregnant at the time, and was advised to not travel.

"But we went in on July 21 to see what happened. We went a back way to her parents' house. There was no damage because it was built on a hillside, but they needed supplies," he says.

The home's basement was flooded, but Kollar's father-in-law knocked out some bricks and the water flowed right through the bottom of the house, Kollar says.

"I thought that was pretty smart on his part," he says.

There was no electricity, and food was spoiling in the summer heat.

They helped clean up and Kollar traveled into the worst part of Tanneryville. He traveled on foot, as the roads "were demolished," Kollar says.

"Friends of ours perished in the flood. There was no warning. People were sleeping when 100 million gallons of water came down the mountain and snaked down the valley in Tanneryville," he says.

Organizations like the American Red Cross, emergency responders and government officials arrived, bringing survivors fresh drinking water and other supplies.

And Kollar aimed his camera, capturing photographs of vehicles buried under rubble, homes that had collapsed, cleanup efforts, residents waiting in line to fill water jugs and the exterior of his grandparents' house, damaged property piled in front.

"I was a little careful. ... I was trying to compose the best stuff and think about what had happened," he says.

Because many people knew him, they did not protest his presence.

"People were mourning the loss of families and homes," Kollar says. "The pictures tell a story and the story is me walking through this valley. ... I took some pictures of my parents' house and my grandparents' house. That had to be torn down. It had shifted off its foundation."

Photos show agencies arriving to help, helicopters searching from the air, a couple walking past a swing set, vehicles up ended on what's left of the playground behind them.

While taking those photographs was difficult, he says, he understood the need to preserve history. He donated the approximately 100 images to the Johnstown Flood Museum. The photos were shown once before, Kollar says, after the 25th anniversary in 2002.

"It gives me some legacy back in my hometown," he says.

Kollar will attend a July 20 event at the heritage center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., where he will sign copies of his self-published book, "The Third Great Flood."

The Heritage Association continues to seek people willing to contribute oral histories, photos and objects related to the 1977 flood.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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