A huge explosion occurred on Feb. 21, 1922, killing 34 soldiers.
The disaster garnered bold headlines, across the globe, for weeks.
But on the centennial anniversary of that tragedy, not a peep was heard.
So, here’s a look back in history of the fateful day the dirigible Roma, an army airship carrying 45 souls, crashed in Virginia.
It was the largest airship disaster at the time. Its 11 cells of hydrogen — holding a million cubic feet of highly inflammable gas — erupted after the ship hit high voltage lines.
Eleven airmen survived. Some jumped, when it was clear that the ship was crashing.
Those killed in the crash were burned beyond recognition.
Only the captain was identifiable because he was still gripping the controls steering the ship.
He never left his post in his desperate attempt to save lives.
The historical marker near the site in Norfolk, Virginia, of this barely remembered disaster, took 98 years to erect. Even the inscription on it says prophetically, “In later years, the story of Roma was largely forgotten.”
This happened 15 years before the more famous Hindenburg disaster, which was caught on film and killed the same number of people.
Books and movies were made about the Hindenburg.
The Roma is forgotten.
But for folks in the Tampa Bay area, the ship’s heroic captain is remembered, and everyone knows his name.
There’s a legacy left behind by him that cuts through the heart of Tampa — in the form of a heavily traveled highway.
The captain’s name? Dale Mabry.
The day after the disaster, the Tampa Morning Tribune headline screamed, “34 PERISH WITH DIRIGIBLE ROMA.”
This smaller headline was accompanied by a photograph of the captain: “Capt. Dale Mabry of Tampa, a victim.”
Mabry had lived in Tampa before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I, and he had family here.
His father, a prominent attorney, had served as Florida’s Lt. Governor, and then later on the Florida Supreme Court, at the turn of the century.
The first mate of the Roma also was a son of a man of prominence — Walter Reed. Dale Mabry had served as best man at the younger Walter Reed’s wedding.
Reed’s father conquered yellow fever and Washington D.C.’s most famous hospital was named after him.
The junior Reed survived the Roma disaster and went on to serve as a general in World War II.
In the years after the Roma tragedy, a road was built to connect MacDill Air Force Base with Drew Field, since both airfields were being used by the military (Drew Field later became Tampa International Airport). The road between the airfields was named after Capt. Dale Mabry.
In decades to come, the road was lengthened through rural cow pastures and orange groves extending from one end of Hillsborough County into neighboring Pasco County.
Aerial photos from the 1950s show Dale Mabry’s northern route bisecting uninhabited pastures.
Today, the pastures and groves have disappeared.
Over the years, millions have used this road that connects the world’s most strategic military operations — Central Command — to thousands of businesses along its route. Dale Mabry Highway is a busy commercial corridor, flanked on both sides by businesses, restaurants, car dealerships and other types of development.
Raymond James Stadium is on one side of the road and George M. Steinbrenner Field is on the other.
It is one of the region’s busiest arteries, named in honor of a man who heroically perished a century ago, hands firmly at the wheel.
Travelers on the road today may not realize it, but as they grip the wheels of their vehicles, they replicate the final posture of Capt. Mabry who perished, while trying to limit casualties from the exploding aircraft.
The story of the ill-fated Roma and her crew has been largely forgotten over time.
But one name remains widely known locally, and now, a century later, his courage on that terrible day, is worth remembering.
By Charlie Reese
Published March 30, 2022