The worst tornado in U.S. history passes through eastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and southern Indiana, killing 695 people, injuring some 13,000 people, and causing $17 million in property damage. Known as the “Tri-State Tornado,” the deadly twister began its northeast track in Ellington, Missouri, but southern Illinois was the hardest hit. More than 500 of the total 695 people who perished were killed in southern Illinois, including 234 in Murphysboro and 127 in West Frankfort.
A tornado is a dark, funnel-shaped cloud containing violently rotating air that develops in climate conditions that, in the United States, are generally unique to the central and southern plains and the Gulf states. The rotating winds of tornadoes can attain velocities of 300 mph, and its diameter can vary from a few feet to a mile. A tornado generally travels in a northeasterly distance at speeds of 20 to 40 mph and usually covers anywhere between one and more than 100 miles.
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 traveled 219 miles, spent more than three hours on the ground, devastated 164 square miles, had a diameter of more than a mile and traveled at speeds in excess of 70 mph.
On March 18, 1925, the Great Tri-State Tornado tore across Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois, and Southwest Indiana. With its rapid movement, monstrous size, and long track, the tornado took hundreds of lives and injured thousands. By all means, the Tri-State Tornado was a rare event&mdashan event that few people will ever experience in their lifetime. To give you some idea of this tornado&rsquos magnitude, this section is devoted to a list of incredible statistics on the tornado.
3 states affected (Missouri, Illinois, Indiana)
13 counties affected, including:
Missouri: Reynolds, Iron, Madison, Bollinger, Perry
Illinois: Jackson, Williamson, Franklin, Hamilton, White
Indiana: Posey, Gibson, Pike
19+ communities affected, including:
Missouri: Ellington, Redford, Leadanna, Annapolis, Cornwall, Biehle, Frohna
Illinois: Gorham, Murphysboro, De Soto, Hurst-Bush, Zeigler, West Frankfort, Eighteen, Parrish, Crossville
Indiana: Griffin, Owensville, Princeton
3/4 mile average path width (some accounts of 1 mile wide&mdasha record width)
3 1/2 hours of continuous devastation
1:01 p.m.&mdashtornado touched down 3 miles NNW of Ellington, Missouri
4:30 p.m.&mdashtornado dissipated about 3 miles SW of Petersburg, Indiana
N 69° E heading maintained for 183 of the 219 miles
73 mph record speed between Gorham & Murphysboro
F5 tornado on the Fujita Scale, with winds perhaps in excess of 300 mph
28.87" lowest pressure measured on a barograph trace at the Old Ben Coal Mine in West Frankfort, Illinois
695 deaths&mdasha record for a single tornado
234 deaths in Murphysboro&mdasha record for a single community from such a disaster
33 deaths at the De Soto school&mdasha record for such a storm (only bombings and gas explosions have taken higher school tolls)
Even in today&rsquos record books, the resultant toll of 695 fatalities from the Tri-State Tornado remains the largest number of casualties from such a disaster. When searching for an explanation as to why, the answer is clear. From technology to communications and the science of meteorology itself, many things have changed since 1925. Back then, radar and satellite imagery were not even close to invention. In fact, it would take such historical events as World War II and the launch of the U.S. Space Program to bring about the use of these two technological breakthroughs that today&rsquos meteorologists could not live without. Communication was also in its primitive stage, as radio was just coming into existence in the larger cities during the 1920&rsquos, and television wouldn&rsquot make an appearance for another 25 years or so.
When the Tri-State Tornado struck in 1925, there was no such thing as a "Tornado Watch" or "Tornado Warning." People relied on the local newspaper, government mail, or word of mouth to relay a message or communicate current events from one town or family to another. So even if a watch/warning program were in place, the message would have never been disseminated in such a fashion to give people the necessary lead time to seek shelter.
Today, NOAA&rsquos National Weather Service (NWS) is a leader in the most effective and sophisticated weather warning system in the world. Thanks to years of research and modern technology, forecasters at NOAA&rsquos Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issue forecasts outlining the most likely locations for the development of tornadoes and other severe weather 48 hours in advance, then fine-tune the forecast as the potential for inclement weather draws near. Using GOES satellite imagery, current surface observations, upper-air data, and computer forecast models, the meteorologists at SPC issue Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Watches when severe weather is expected a few hours out.
From there, the local NWS Weather Forecast Offices (WFO&rsquos), such as the office in Paducah, continuously monitor WSR-88D Doppler Radar time-lapse imagery on sophisticated AWIPS Workstations to determine a storm&rsquos severe potential. An invaluable resource to the radar operator&rsquos final warning decision is the steady stream of reports from a network of trained and dedicated SKYWARN spotters, emergency managers, local law enforcement, and amateur radio "ham" operators.
When severe weather is either spotted or indicated on radar, the WFO radar operator issues a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Warning via WarnGen to alert the public to the imminent or existing threat of severe weather. As soon as the warning is disseminated, special tones are broadcast on NOAA Weather Radio in conjunction with the warning message&mdashalerting the public to the impending threat to life and property. Meanwhile, various television and radio stations occasionally interrupt regular programming in order to communicate the NWS warning information to a large segment of the country&rsquos population. During the entire process, it takes a tremendous amount of coordination between government and private entities to ensure the best possible warning coverage.
After a severe weather episode, the NWS takes an active role in surveying locales most devastated and compiling information on the storms for research and climatological purposes. Newspapers and broadcasts from radio and television keep local residents updated on storm damage and clean-up efforts. The driving force behind the disaster relief process includes such organizations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross. Together, these two agencies bring necessary relief supplies to storm victims, assist in clean-up efforts, and are often instrumental in obtaining state and federal funds to accelerate the clean-up efforts.
Thus, through technological advancements, improved communications, and dedicated scientific research, a death toll of nearly 700 people from such a disaster is highly improbable today&mdashbut it is not impossible, especially if the tornado were to strike a highly populated area. Of course, the present warning system is not perfect, as evidenced by sometimes late or missed watches and warnings. However, we have obviously come a long way since the early 1900s! Through a continued cooperation between the NWS, FEMA, the American Red Cross, researchers, emergency managers, spotters, the media, and all concerned entities, the current warning system will undoubtedly experience significant improvements as we journey deeper into the 21st Century.
If today's technology were available back in 1925, what types of watches and warnings would have been issued? Click here to find out!
Following is a description of each facet of the modernized National Weather Service operations and technology mentioned in the preceding text.
AWIPS &ndash Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System. State-of-the-art NWS computer system integrating automated weather observations, satellite imagery, radar data, and numerical model forecasts into forecaster workstations. There are currently over 130 sets of AWIPS Workstations located at numerous Weather Forecast Offices and 13 River Forecast Centers across the United States.
Computer forecast model &ndash A numerical projection of future weather conditions derived by using current weather data in hundreds of mathematical computations. The computations are performed on supercomputers at NOAA&rsquos National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) in Silver Spring, Maryland. Currently, there are several forecast models in existence, including the NGM, NAM/ETA, GFS, and RUC.
GOES &ndash Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. A geostationary satellite rotates at the same rate as the earth, remaining over the same spot above the equator. At any given time, there are two GOES satellites in orbit over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These satellites monitor the earth&rsquos atmosphere over the entire United States in addition to adjacent land and water masses.
NOAA &ndash National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA is the parent organization of the National Weather Service.
NOAA Weather Radio &ndash Continuous 24-hour-a-day VHF broadcasts of weather observations and forecasts directly from National Weather Service offices. A special tone activates an alarm on certain receivers when watches or warnings are issued. With some radios, this alarm can be tailored to sound for specific warnings affecting counties of your choice. Consult your local electronics retailers for more information.
NWS &ndash National Weather Service. Agency of NOAA responsible for providing weather services to the nation. The mission of the NWS, in part, is "to provide weather and flood warnings, public forecasts and advisories for all the United States, its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas, primarily for the protection of life and property." This mission is carried out by a network of weather offices located throughout the Unites States and its territories along with a highly trained workforce. Through this network, the NWS provides an invaluable service to government agencies, emergency managers, the media, and the general public 24 hours a day.
Severe Thunderstorm Watch &ndash Issued by the SPC when conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms in and close to the watch area. A watch is generally outlined by a parallelogram and is usually valid for a period of 4 to 7 hours. A severe thunderstorm is defined by wind gusts of 58 mph (50 knots) or greater, 1" diameter hail or larger, a tornado, or any combination thereof.
Severe Thunderstorm Warning &ndash Issued by the local NWS office when a severe thunderstorm is indicated by radar or reported by trained observers. A warning may cover a part of a county or several counties and is normally valid for 30 minutes to 1 hour in duration. A severe thunderstorm is defined by wind gusts of 58 mph (50 knots) or greater, 1" diameter hail or larger, a tornado, or any combination thereof.
SKYWARN &ndash A dedicated team of official NWS-trained storm spotters who devote their time and effort to aiding the NWS mission of savings lives via timely warning services. Essential to the warning process, these observers work in conjunction with local emergency officials to relay timely reports of severe weather and tornadoes to local NWS forecast offices. SKYWARN spotters who are licensed in amateur radio operations ("ham" operators) are especially valuable since they bring an alternative means of rapid communication to the warning process.
SPC &ndash Storm Prediction Center. Situated in Norman, Oklahoma, this office is responsible for monitoring and forecasting severe convective weather, as well as winter weather, in the contiguous United States. This includes the issuance of Tornado and Severe Thunderstorm Watches and various outlooks to highlight the degree of severe weather threat.
Surface observations &ndash Information, including such variables as sky condition, present weather, visibility, temperature, humidity, wind, and barometric pressure, analyzed on a map to determine the various weather phenomena occurring at the earth&rsquos surface. An integral part of the NWS surface observing program is ASOS, which stands for the Automated Surface Observing System. There are nearly 1000 ASOS units primarily co-located with airports across the United States.
Tornado Watch &ndash Issued by the SPC when conditions are favorable for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in and close to the watch area. A watch is generally outlined by a parallelogram and is usually valid for a period of 4 to 7 hours. A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air usually extending from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud and in contact with the ground. A condensation funnel cloud need not be present, but flying debris near the ground should mark the tornado&rsquos lower circulation.
Tornado Warning &ndash Issued by the local NWS office when a tornado is indicated by radar or reported by trained observers. A warning may cover a part of a county or several counties and is normally valid for 15 to 45 minutes in duration. A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air usually extending from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud and in contact with the ground. A condensation funnel cloud need not be present, but flying debris near the ground should mark the tornado&rsquos lower circulation.
Upper-air data &ndash Information, including such variables as temperature, humidity, and wind, analyzed to determine the weather phenomena occurring in that part of the atmosphere above the earth&rsquos surface.
WarnGen &ndash Warning software accompanying AWIPS and used by local NWS offices to issue warnings and statements of inclement weather.
WFO &ndash Weather Forecast Office. Designation of local NWS operational offices, each with its own area of forecast and warning responsibility. For example, WFO Paducah (the NWS office in Paducah, Kentucky) issues forecasts and warnings for a 58 county area, comprising portions of southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, southwest Indiana, and western Kentucky.
WSR-88D &ndash Weather Surveillance Doppler Radar (1988). Whereas conventional radar only detects areas of precipitation, Doppler radar also determines whether atmospheric motion is toward or away from the radar and is useful in detecting rotation within a thunderstorm. To date, over 120 systems have been installed at Weather Forecast Offices with over 30 additional systems at Department of Defense (Air Force) and Department of Transportation (FAA) sites.
Tri-State Tornado: 96 years since the deadliest tornado in U.S. history
WSIL -- Thursday marks the 96th anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado that devastated several communities in southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, and southwest Indiana on March 18, 1925.
Longfellow School in Murphysboro
To this day, the twister still holds many records in the United States including the deadliest (695 deaths) and longest tracking (219 miles).
In total, 695 people lost their lives and more than 2000 sustained injuries, many of whom were in southern Illinois.
Logan School in Murphysboro
In Missouri, Annapolis and Biehle were two of the hardest hit towns, killing four people in each community.
When the tornado crossed the Mississippi River, it hit multiple population centers in southern Illinois like Gorham, Murphysboro, DeSoto, West Frankfort, and Parrish. The loss of life in Murphysboro alone was 234. Another 147 died in West Frankfort.
School in DeSoto Tri-State Tornado Damage in West Frankfort
The path would continue into Indiana, destroying the towns of Griffin and Princeton before finally ending three and a half hours later.
Many survivors of the infamous storm were left homeless. In Murphysboro, a large fire ravaged part of the town the night after the tornado.
Meteorology in 1925 was in its infancy, so there was no warning of a tornado until it hit. Meteorologist have conducted numerous studies to determine what made the Tri-State Tornado so unique, but no single factor can be attributed.
Twisters in a time of climate change
As with nearly all matters of science, direct lines of causation seldom explain a given topic in neat, simplistic terms. To date, there is no direct connection between tornadoes and human-induced global climate change. Such a claim is unsupported by science. However, tornadoes are caused by multiple conditions and there is direct evidence linking climate change to one or more of those conditions. The basic conditions needed for the form a tornado are:
- A moving thunderstorm front
- Two air masses separated by the storm front
- One air mass containing warm, moist air
- One air mass containing cool, dry air
- Each air mass moving in opposite directions when they collide
In a post by Penn State environmental ethics professor Donald A. Brown, the author makes the following claims regarding the ethical importance of “…acknowledging links between tornadoes and climate change.”
Before discussing tornadoes, it is important to note that it is scientifically uncontroversial to conclude that climate change is causing more violent weather particularly in the form of: (a) more damaging thunder storms, (b) the kind of devastating flooding we have seen this year in Australia, Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, along the Mississippi and the Tennessee valleys, and (c) more severe droughts such as those experienced this year in China, Brazil, and Texas. Similarly more intense hurricanes have been linked to climate change although it is still uncertain whether global warming will increase hurricane frequency. (Emanuel, 2005)
Most climate scientists agree that future weather will be characterized by far more chaotic weather…It also can be said that in one way climate change is already changing all global weather including tornadoes. This is so because climate change has already caused changes to the global climate system such as raising ocean temperatures and increasing the amount of water in the atmosphere. Increased ocean temperatures and the water content of air have an effect on the amount and timing of precipitation that is being experienced in any one location. And so a strong claim can be made that climate change is now at least partially responsible for all global weather although the part played by climate change could be small for any individual climate event relative to other causes such as normal ocean circulation patterns. Yet, no tornado or hurricane experienced recently would likely be the same without some contribution from climate change. That is no tornado would appear at the same place, the same time, with the same wind speed without changes to the climate system that have been caused by human impacts on climate And so every tornado is very likely affected somewhat by climate change. That is although strong tornadoes have occurred before recent human-induced climate change, no recent tornado is likely to have happened in the same way at the same place in the absence of global warming.
It is important to note that the increased amount of moisture caused by the average rise of ocean surface temperatures due to global climate change, (approximately 1 degree Centigrade), is not always linked to the warm air masses involved in all tornadoes. However, air masses affected by the Gulf of Mexico’s evaporation are measurably contributing to the amount of moisture in warm air masses involved in the formation of tornadoes.
As Professor Brown states in his post, there exists a great deal of scientific uncertainty as to any link between the number of tornadic events. What the great preponderance of evidence does suggest is that, for those tornadoes that are affected by global warming, the intensity of those tornadoes will likely be greater than those produced without the effects of climate change.
A history of tornadoes in the Tri-State area:
Aug. 16, 1954: An F1 tornado briefly hit Berkeley County, W.Va., around 5 p.m.
July 24, 1961: An F1 tornado struck Washington County. No injuries reported, but $25,000 in property damage.
Aug. 26, 1965: A tornado briefly touched down around 3:30 p.m. in Jefferson County, W.Va. No injuries reported, but there was property damage.
July 29, 1974: An F1 tornado tore off part of a store roof and damaged a mobile home in Fayetteville, Pa., around 7 p.m.
March 21, 1976: An F0 tornado briefly hit Franklin County, Pa., around 10:50 a.m. No injuries reported.
July 20, 1979: An F0 tornado briefly touched down three miles northeast of the Martinsburg, W.Va., airport. Several trees "thrown about."
Sept. 5, 1979: An F0 tornado briefly appeared that afternoon in Washington County. No injuries or damage reported. A Clear Spring-area farmer reported a cloud that looked like a tornado moving through a field.
The Great Tri-state Tornado
On the afternoon of March 18, 1925, a warm day for mid-March, about sixtyfive degrees, threatening clouds began to gather in southeastern Missouri, forming a vast dark, menacing super thunderstorm cell. From this blackness a funnel descended, touching down three miles north of the little Ozark town of Ellington. There it killed a farmer, the first of nearly seven hundred who would perish that day in America’s most deadly tornado.
For the next three and a half hours, the tornado followed a remarkably straight northeastern course, never leaving the ground. Sucking up huge quantities of debris—dirt, houses, trees, barns—it ejected them as deadly missiles along its route. It cut a path of destruction one-half to one mile wide across three states, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Before its wrath was spent, it had traveled 219 miles, the longest uninterrupted track on record.
My father had just opened a new automobile dealership in the southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. A former mining and farming community of twelve thousand people, Murphysboro had become a bustling manufacturing and railroad center. On that Wednesday at 2:34 P.M. , most men were at their jobs and most women were home. As the blackness approached, bells had just signaled the end of recess, summoning children back into their classrooms.
Striking with demonic fury from the southwest, the monster storm smashed its way through the city, killing 234 people and injuring 623, while laying waste 152 blocks and destroying twelve hundred buildings. Water mains burst, electric wires fell, and fires raged out of control. Tall brick school buildings collapsed on students gathered in the hallways. Twenty-five died. Some children crawled from under the debris and in shock wandered home to find no house and, in some cases, no neighborhood. Years later a friend told me that when she reached home, she found only an open field in the middle of it was her decapitated grandmother, still sitting in her rocking chair.
Searching through old newspapers, I found a remarkable letter published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch four days after the storm. It was written by May Williams, a religious mission worker from the St. Louis area, who was in Murphysboro assisting at a revival meeting held by the Reverend and Mrs. Parrott. Williams wrote her mother: “We left the Logan Hotel about 2:25 P.M. and a goodly crowd was awaiting us in the Moose Hall. Mrs. Parrott opened the service singing More About Jesus . She had sung the first verse and chorus which we were repeating when it suddenly grew dark and there fell upon us what we thought was hail. Rocks began to break through. We were being showered with glass, stones, trash, bricks, and anything. I saw the concrete wall at the back of the hall collapse and come crumbling in. Then the roof started to give way. From outside as well as from within, we could hear terrible cries, yells, screams, and there was a great popping noise. The wind roared—I cannot describe it—and it tore great handfuls from the roof above us. You could see shapes hurtling over us in the air.
“Then the storm passed. We went out into the street. We walked the city for an hour or more, terror-struck by what we saw. People went about almost without clothes, with no shoes on, wrapped in rugs or blankets. It was indescribable, the confusion. We picked our way among tangles of wires, trees, poles, brick and lumber to our rooms.”
After nightfall, ”… everything was on fire, it seemed. There was no light except the flare of flames. There was no water. We were black from head to foot.” The skin of both living and dead who were exposed to the force of the wind was black from dirt and sand driven into it.
“The fire came closer, and at last we were driven from the hotel and went over to the depot to wait for a relief train. Every place that stood was turned into a hospital. We visited the high school where the doctors were sewing up wounds, giving emergency treatment, and where other helpers were hauling out the dead. We saw numberless torn and bleeding bodies.
“They were dynamiting the city now in their effort to stop the flames, and the roar of the explosions added to the horror of the fires’ glare. Everything was ghastly. We had to pick our way to the station by the light of the flames. Then the relief train came. Dead and injured were put on first. We followed.”
One of the injured bound for St. Louis hospitals was my father, unconscious, suffering a massive head wound.
Continuing its deadly, unvarying course, the tornado killed 69 people in De Soto (33 were schoolchildren) and another 31 in rural areas before reaching the largest city in its path, West Frankfort (population 18,500). There it destroyed one-fifth of the city, killing 148 and seriously injuring 410, a toll second only to that in Murphysboro.
The last Illinois town in its path was Parrish (population 270). Arriving at 3:07 P.M. , the tornado destroyed 90 percent of the town, killing 22 and injuring 60. There were many heroes during and after that great catastrophe, but none received more gratitude than the principal of the Parrish School, Delmar Perryman. Worried about the stormy weather, he refused to dismiss the 50 or 60 children at the usual time. His decision saved many lives the school was one of only three buildings left standing.
Shortly before 4:00 P.M. the tornado crossed the Wabash River into Indiana and accelerated to an astounding seventy-three miles per hour. As if guided by some malevolent pilot, for the first time it changed course and headed directly for Princeton (population 9,850), its third-largest and final urban victim. Here it demolished 25 percent of the city, killing 45. Finally, at 4:30 P.M. , the tri-state tornado lifted and dissipated, its great reservoir of energy spent.
The humanitarian response to the tragedy was immediate, thanks to railroad crews that relayed the news along their route and by telegraph. Medical teams rushed in from near and far, and neighboring fire departments dispatched equipment. Trains carried the wounded to hospitals as far away as Chicago and returned laden with emergency supplies and relief personnel. Throughout the night the medical teams struggled to operate under battlefield conditions, with candles, kerosene lamps, and lanterns providing the only illumination. Supplies of anesthetics, morphine, and antitetanus serum soon ran out. Fortunately, the feared typhoid epidemic did not develop warnings had gone out to boil all drinking water. Meanwhile, trainloads of coffins arrived from St. Louis and Chicago, along with flowers to adorn them.
Why was the death toll so high? Most significant was the lack of any tornado forecast or warning system. The storm moved so fast that people had little time to seek shelter. Few witnesses reported seeing a funnel they assumed what was approaching was just a thunderstorm.
An average tornado follows a path a few hundred yards wide and 16 miles long, causing damage across 3 square miles. The tri-state tornado covered 164 square miles. Its intensity, wide path, rapid movement, and long life suggest that it was located near the center of a deep low-pressure system and beneath the core of a strong polar jet stream the jet kept the storm going by removing air from the top, making way for air to enter at ground level. Also, because of the jet, it maintained its rapid forward motion.
Reading old newspaper accounts, I was startled to discover my father’s name on a St. Louis Post-Dispatch death list. He was indeed comatose for many weeks and not expected to survive, but he completely recovered and lived to old age. I was a two-year-old when the colossus struck, and as it lifted our house, I went sailing through the air like Dorothy on her way to Oz. Miraculously, I suffered only a minor wound from a piece of glass between my eyes. Like my father, I survived the great tri-state tornado, and I grew up in that town where forever after events were labeled “before” or “after” the storm.
AFTERTHOUGHTS • Remembering 1925 Tri-State Tornado
On March 18, 1925&ndashjust over 95 years ago&ndashthe deadliest tornado in U.S. history moved across Southern Illinois.
Beginning in Ellington, MO, and wreaking three and a half hours of havoc for 219 miles through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, the F5 Tri-State Tornado traveled at an average of 62 miles an hour according to the National Weather Service, with winds speeds exceeding 300 miles per hour.
The tornado killed 695 people in its path&ndasha record for a single tornado&ndashincluding 234 in the Southern Illinois community of Murphysboro&ndashalso a record for tornado deaths in a single community.
Newspaper friend Harold Douglas shared a book about the tornado, &ldquoDeath Rides The Sky,&rdquo written by Angela Mason. The book tells the story of the tornado through the eyes of those who remember it. One of those people was Joe Martel, who was born in Italy and came to settle in Hillsboro in 1920 when Joe was a little boy. He learned English as a second language in a one-room rural Hillsboro school before the family moved to Bush, IL, to work in the mines.
Bush&ndashpopulation 250&ndashis one of the Illinois towns hit by the Tri-State Tornado. The village sits next door to Hurst&ndashpopulation 800&ndashin coal central Williamson County, northeast of Carbondale along the Big Muddy River.
Picking up the story from Mason&rsquos book, &ldquoJoe Martel was seated in the Bush schoolhouse on the afternoon of March 18, 1925.
&ldquo&lsquoIt was an okay day,&rsquo Joe remembered with a rather unremarkable tone. &lsquoIt was later in the day, but we were still in class, and I do remember my row was along the windows on the east side of the school.&rsquo&rdquo
Just four miles east of Bush, the tornado had just killed 33 children in a school building in DeSoto.
&ldquoGazing out the east, it was difficult for the children to tell exactly what was happening to the afternoon sky, as the change approached from the west.
&ldquo&lsquoWe didn&rsquot know what it was. It just got really dark and the wind was blowing, and then it was over.&rsquo&rdquo
School was dismissed just as the storm hit, according to Mason&rsquos book.
&ldquo&lsquoWhen I got home, both rows of houses were all torn up. We lived in the second house on the south side,&rsquo&rdquo Martel said of the of mine house in which the family lived.
&ldquo&lsquoThere were five people living next door, a couple of older people, and a mom and dad and I think one of their kids. One of them had tried to call Mom and my little sister to come over and stay there with them when they saw the storm coming,&rsquo Joe said, &lsquobut Mom wouldn&rsquot go on account of the rain.&rsquo
&ldquoHis mother&rsquos reluctance to get drenched in the approaching storm undoubtedly saved her life.
&ldquo&lsquoAll five of them were killed. It blew their house away,&rsquo Joe said of his neighbors.&rsquo&rdquo
Mason then records Martel&rsquos words about what happened to his family.
&ldquo&lsquoMy sister got blown up in the air&ndashmother too&ndashand it let them down near the house. Sis found the house and crawled under the floor, and she just stayed there for awhile,&rsquo Joe said.
&ldquo&lsquoBut my mom&ndashit blown her into Bush proper, and it took all her clothes off her but her panties, and a two-by-four hit Mom so hard in the leg that her leg broke. And she about lost the leg later, it was so bad.&rsquo&rdquo
The narrative continues, &ldquo&lsquoIf you saw what it really did do, you wouldn&rsquot believe it,&rsquo he insisted. &lsquoRailroad axles&ndashthe heaviest thing there is&ndashwere scattered around the rail yard. Two-by-fours were driven through the water tower in Bush. There was galvanized tin wrapped around trees.
&lsquoI was kinda young, and was just lost when I went over there and saw the floor of our house and nothing else,&rsquo Joe said.&rdquo
The worst tornado in U.S. history travelled over 350 km, killing 695 people
This Day In Weather History is a daily podcast by The Weather Network that features stories about people, communities, and events and how weather impacted them.
On Wednesday, Mar. 18, 1925, three states in the U.S. were hit with the largest tornado ever. Not just in the States, largest on Earth. The Tri-State Tornado, as it's called, lasted three and a half hours, travelled 352 km, and spent a significant time moving at 117 km/h.
This is the States' deadliest tornado, killing 695 people.
The tornado was first spotted in Moore Township, Shannon County, Missouri, at about 1:00 PM. In Missouri, the tornado killed 12 people and injured at least 200. Thirty-two children were injured when the tornado hit two schools. The cyclone picked up and carried sheets of iron across the state for about 80 km.
The tornado travelled across the Mississippi River into Illinois. It reached the town of Gorham at 2:30 PM, essentially destroying it. Thirty-six people in Gorham died. The tornado killed a significant portion of the Karnes family, including Mr. Karnes' wife, daughter, son-in-law, and seven grandchildren. The relentless tornado destroyed Illinois, killing at least 500 people.
"Ruins of the Longfellow School, Murphysboro, Illinois, where 17 children were killed. The storm hit the school at about 2:30 PM local time." Courtesy of Wikipedia
The tornado then garnered tri-state status as it crossed the Wabash River into Indiana. The tornado first flattened the town of Griffin, killing 46 people and injuring 197. It then headed to the large factory town of Princeton, killing 44 people and injuring 146. It demolished most of the town, including a Heinz factory.
"Ruins of the town of Griffin, Indiana, where 44 people were killed." Courtesy of Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
The tornado finally dissipated at about 4:38 PM around 4.0 km south-southeast of Petersburg, Indiana.
To learn more about the Tri-State Tornado, listen to today's episode of "This Day In Weather History."
This Day In Weather History is a daily podcast by The Weather Network that features unique and informative stories from host Chris Mei.
Thumbnail: "Ruins of the Longfellow School, Murphysboro, Illinois, where 17 children were killed. The storm hit the school at about 2:30 PM local time." Courtesy of Wikipedia
EXCHANGE: Illinois survivors remember tristate tornado
CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) - Ninety years ago, the deadliest tornado in recorded U.S. history sliced a diagonal swath across Southern Illinois, practically obliterating the towns of Gorham, Murphysboro, De Soto, Bush, West Frankfort and Parrish.
The storm, which came to be known as the Tri-State tornado for its three-state path of destruction, changed forever the lives of thousands in Southern Illinois, including then 7-year-old Betty Moroni, of De Soto.
The 97-year-old De Soto resident remembers March 18, 1925, as an unusually warm and blustery spring day, recalling her 14-year-old brother Herschel and the other boys at the De Soto School throwing their caps in the air to see how far the wind could carry them.
Moroni, who was wearing her Easter dress because her other clothes became soaked while walking home in the rain for lunch, went outside with her class at 2:30 p.m. for recess.
She could barely stand against the strong winds that were already blowing ominously from the direction of Murphysboro.
As the skies surrounding the school turned black, her teacher led the students back to the classroom, where she instructed the girls to take their seats and the boys to shut the windows.
Moroni barely sat down in her front row desk next to her 10-year-old sister, Marie, when the tornado struck the school at 2:38 p.m., killing 19 students in her classroom, including Moroni’s sister.
With glass shattering around them, few of the boys shutting the windows survived the storm.
“There were only three boys left in my class,” Moroni said. “They were all killed in the tornado, all but three.”
A total of 33 students died in the tornado, which was reportedly more than a mile wide.
“I was happy that day of the tornado and, just in a flash, I was desolate,” Moroni said. “I didn’t have a home, didn’t know the way home. It was all blown away.”
Moroni stumbled through the bricks, wood and tree limbs the storm had strewn across the town, finding her parents with the help of a man she calls Mr. Tippy. He held her hand while carrying his son in his other arm as they walked through the rubble.
But when she met up with her parents, she knew the storm had injured her dad and her 6-year-old sister, Elsie, who had been at home with her mom and Moroni’s 6-month-old sister, Ruth, during the storm.
“Someone had tied what looked like a sheet around his (her dad) head, and it was bloody,” Moroni said. “Elsie had a cut in her head and it was bleeding, and they took us to Du Quoin Hospital. When we got there, they had to put us in the basement. The hospital was full.”
Moroni learned later the tornado had blown her mother, Minnie Barnett, against a tree moments after picking up Ruth, who suffered “just three little scratches on her head.”
But the storm had flattened their house on what is now Cherry Street and Moroni’s 12-year-old sister, Tina Mae, failed to return home from school after the storm.
“After the tornado was over, nobody knew where anybody was,” Moroni said. “You could be blown forever.”
Two days later, searchers found the bodies of three girls in an outhouse that had been blown across the railroad tracks that run today along Illinois 149 between De Soto and Hurst.
Moroni’s sister, Tina Mae, and two other girls, Ruth Taylor and Nellie Bell, sought refuge during the storm in the school’s outdoor toilet.
“My mother never talked about the tornado in our house, just never, but I overheard her talking to somebody about that incident and momma said, ‘You know it’s worrisome to think that maybe they weren’t killed, maybe they starved to death.’”
The week of tragedy continued two days later on March 22 when Elsie died at the hospital, becoming the third sister Moroni lost in a span of five days.
In the months following the tornado, Moroni’s family lived in a quickly-built, one-room shack-like structure, but Betty was sent to live with her aunt and uncle while finishing up the school year in Hurst.
Several months later, the family finished building a new home with help from the Red Cross, but shortly after moving in, more tragedy struck.
Her father survived the tornado, but suffered serious head injuries and wasn’t well after the storm. He died the next spring, leaving his wife, who was three months pregnant, to raise Betty, Herschel and Ruth by herself.
“That was 1925,” Moroni said. “We didn’t have Social Security we didn’t have any government handouts, and you just did it the hard way. My mother wasn’t the only one that lost family. Our family had the most that were killed, but there were people who lost two children and several that lost one.”
Moroni called the whole experience a “nightmare,” but said her mom never felt sorry for herself or said, “Poor me.”
“She just always tried to make us feel good,” Moroni said.
The storm wreaked havoc within the small community, with many families living for months in tents and others searching for loved ones and friends missing in the aftermath of the storm.
Moroni’s friend, James Morrison, who was 5-years-old at the time, went missing for two days after the tornado. His father had been working out of town during the storm and didn’t know his son was staying at a home in Du Quoin.
“Now, imagine having a little boy, 5-years old, and you couldn’t find him,” Moroni said.
John Parrish, then 5-years old, was with his dad on the back porch of their home on what is now Walnut Street in De Soto, cutting off the power to prevent a fire, when Parrish heard what he describes as a “freight train” coming from the southwest.
They went inside and, along with John’s mother, were only able to reach the basement door before the tornado hit. Parrish said his father purposely fell on his mom and him to shield them from the debris.
“He was hurt pretty bad, but we didn’t get hurt because of him,” Parrish said.
His grandfather didn’t fare as well, with the violent winds burying nails and pieces of wood in his head that doctors weren’t able to “work out” until a month later, Parrish said.
Pictures document how the indiscriminate storm left the Jackson County town a wasteland, with dirt roads stripped empty of the houses that hours before had lined the village’s streets.
“All I remember was seeing all the houses torn down,” Parrish said. “It tore 90 percent or more, I’m sure, of the houses down.”
Parrish’s 9-year-old sister, Lucy, was able to escape the De Soto School by crawling through the shattered windows and piles of fallen bricks, but seeing many of her classmates die left a permanent mark on her life.
“She was scared,” Parrish said. “I can remember every time a dark cloud would come up if she was out playing, she would run into the house and get under the bed. She couldn’t stand it. I always felt so sorry for her. All the rest of her life she was upset whenever they had a storm.”
Gorham was the first Illinois community impacted by the storm, which began in Annapolis, Missouri, and ended near Princeton, Indiana, with 34 in the community of 500 meeting their death at the hands of the tornado.
Six minutes after passing through Gorham and four minutes before the storm killed 69 people in De Soto, the tornado passed through Murphysboro, killing 234 and injuring more than 600 as it sped through the west end of the town at more than 60 miles per hour.
Eileen Jones, who now lives in De Soto, was 6 and playing with her classmates on the Washington School playground in Murphysboro when “the cloud started coming up,” she said.
As teachers rushed students toward their classrooms, the school principal told them to instead head immediately to the basement.
“We had just started down the basement steps when the thing hit,” Jones said. “There were chunks of stuff falling in all around us. I wasn’t hurt. It was a miracle that somebody wasn’t hurt.”
But the schools on the west end of town bore the brunt of the storm, with 17 students killed at Longfellow School, five students failing to escape the Logan School, which was almost completely leveled, and another three dying at the high school.
Reports estimated about 100 blocks of homes and buildings were destroyed in Murphysboro, with resulting fires ruining another 70 blocks of the town.
Jones’ home on the east end of town wasn’t damaged, but she was told to get a change of clothes and be prepared to leave in case the fires that could be seen on the west side of town continued to spread.
“The west end of Murphysboro was all afire,” Jones said. “We had to get a change of clothes, and be ready to cross the river because the fires were coming. We could hear them dynamiting, trying to stop them.”
Parrish, who spent the night after the tornado at his uncle’s farm on New Era Road, remembers looking to the southwest and seeing the light from the fire.
“The whole sky was lit up,” Parrish said. “Everything was on fire in Murphysboro.”
The fires were eventually contained and Jones and her family didn’t have to cross the river, but 90 years later storms still rattle the 95-year-old who now lives in De Soto.
“Every time it would get a little dark, I’d get hysterical,” Jones said. “Still, if it gets a little black, I get to worry. They used to have to threaten me to settle down. I just thank the Lord every day that I made it through that.”
Five minutes after sweeping through De Soto, the storm killed seven in the mining community of Bush before continuing on to West Frankfort, where coal miners coming to the surface to figure out why they lost electricity were shocked to see the carnage the storm left behind.
With many of the men underground during the storm, most of the 148 who died and 410 injured in the Franklin County community of 8,000 were women and children.
After leaving West Frankfort, the tornado killed 46 in Parrish and another 65 in rural areas of Hamilton and White counties before moving on to cause more destruction in southern Indiana where the powerful storm mercifully sputtered just east of Princeton.
The F5 tornado’s three-and-a-half-hour trek cut a 219-mile line of destruction that left 695 dead in its wake, including almost 600 Southern Illinoisans in what is probably the deadliest 90 minutes in the region’s history.