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.