The coal districts and iron-manufacturing towns of Wales were fruitful fields for the early Latter-day Saint missionaries. When the Saints gathered in July 1852 for their annual conference in Newport, Monmouthshire, hundreds of members, their families, and curious neighbors attended their meetings. “To this gathering,” reported the Liverpool Mercury, “had assembled many of the ‘Elders’ of the fraternity, some of whom have held rank as ‘prophets’ on the banks of the Salt River (Lake). Great preparations were made to celebrate this Conference on an extensive scale.”
On Sunday, July 15, 1852, the conference concluded with a reception and “a tea festival on a grand scale” in Sunderland Hall, a large building of several stories which the Saints had used as their meeting place for two or three years. Almost four hundred people met in a large room on an upper floor. A heavy wooden beam supporting the floor above divided the room into two distinct parts: The visiting elders and guests of honor were seated at the head table at one end of the room, other tables crowded with the Saints and their friends – men, women, and children – occupied the other end of the room. The hall was “filled to overflowing by the members of the sect, and their families, who reside in Newport, together with considerable numbers of the people from the hills, the colliery, ironworks, &c.”
One of the Elder rose to pronounce a blessing on the congregation and on the meal. The people were sitting down, the pleasant hubbub of conversation was rising, when –
Suddenly a creaking noise was heard, followed by a sound like a crash of thunder, and immediately the lofty ceiling of exactly one-half the hall, divided in the centre of a large beam, fell almost flat upon the multitude below. … For a moment all was blinding confusion; then succeeded the most appalling shrieks and the most terrifying clamour; and amidst the din and horrible confusion that ensued, people rushed from all the surrounding houses, apprehending that some great calamity had occurred.
Some of the Saints broke through the windows, a few falling to the ground below, others clinging to the sills, unable to decide whether to risk the total collapse of the building or risk injury from jumping. Others managed to find the staircase, but in the panic they piled up on top of each other, until the door could be forced open with the help of those outside, and the masses of humanity pulled to safety.
Ingress being at length obtained, the sight that presented itself was enough to appal the stoutest heart – beams and rafters, whole patches of ceiling, amidst clouds of dust, lying upon scores of people; while the tea-tables, affording protection to many, were crowded below with numbers crying aloud for mercy, for protection, and for a miracle to save them.
For an hour, elders in the undamaged part of the room, assisted by townspeople, worked to extricate those buried in the rubble and to carry them outdoors.
When the last trapped Saint had been rescued, the people gathered in the streets, counted noses, and took stock of the injuries.
The Leeds Mercury reported,
It is most remarkable that not a single Latter-day Saint received any injury from this accident, although the ceiling was heavy, and quite one-half of the ceiling of the whole hall, while attached thereto were the heavy pieces of timber which had previously supported it. It is also singular that the portion of the ceiling beneath which the “elders” or “prophets” sat was perfectly uninjured and sound..
Nothing less than a miracle is supposed … to have preserved so large a number of persons from the fate of death, which appeared so inevitable.
The Liverpool Mercury added,
It was intimated that two or three unbelievers, who had gone thither to revile and sneer at the true followers of Joe Smith, received slight injuries, which may serve their consciences as remembrancers.
The Saints borrowed another hall that evening, and their tea was converted to a service of thanksgiving.