Invited speech given at the Tri-State Tornado 75th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony
Murphysboro, Illinois, March 18, 2000
(for details of the event, seehttp://www.crh.noaa.gov/pah/1925/75a_frame.html)
"It was almost like a war…"
Wars can be summed up in terms of their dead and injured, in terms of destroyed economies and ruined opportunity. And perhaps that is the easiest way to talk about war; statistics tell their own story. But statistics can only hint at what lies beneath. The story of a disaster is a story of a million impressions, individual fragments that combine to create images that can be almost too much for the human mind to process. And they are not comforting images. I’d like to share with you today some of the images that have stayed with me over the years from people who lived through the worst tornado in American history.
"It was almost like a war."
With those words, Eugene Porter of Marion summed up what he experienced 75 years ago today at the Logan School in Murphysboro. For Mr. Porter, as for so many other survivors, memory is marked by a certain sense of shock and astonishment; how could such a monster arise from a pleasant early spring afternoon promising nothing more than a rain shower? And out of this afternoon emerged, without warning, a tumultuous cloud that bore little resemblance to anything—including the tornadoes not at all uncommon in this part of the world. Olive Deffendall of Princeton, Indiana said, "I thought it was the most beautiful cloud I had ever seen. It was black and red and orange and purple, rolling over and over like a barrel. The underneath was a dusky yellow. I said, `Come here, Ella, and see this beautiful cloud.’ That’s when the two-burner stove came in through the dining room window and sat right down in the middle of the table."
Eugene Porter says: "March 18 was a muggy day, but not real stormy, because we went outside for recess. It was just before 2:30 when it started to get dark, and it got almost as dark as night. They called us all into the schoolhouse… after we got [back to] class, it seemed like there was sharp lightning to the north. We had high windows, and all of a sudden that glass sailed over our heads, just like it was floating, and hit the blackboard."
That was only the beginning of Eugene Porter’s nightmare. He recalls staggering through the streets in a daze: "I had gone home, and I turned around and went back to the schoolhouse… and it seemed like a dream, and you was hoping it would go away; you’d see all these people bleeding… I saw one woman with quite a bit of blood on her, and she asked me where her boy was, a boy by the name of Jerry Grofsen. I said, `Yeah, he was killed.’ You know, I just thought, well, I saw so many around… and I don’t know why I ever said it, but she, oh, she went down screaming. People was beside themselves. And I just passed it off, I just figured if he hadn’t got home, he was bound to have been dead…" [Young Jerry Grofsen later turned up alive, earning Eugene Porter a scolding from the boy’s badly injured but grateful mother.]
Garrett Crews was an eighth grader in De Soto [Illinois], one of the small towns wiped off the map by the tornado. Thirty-three children were killed in his schoolhouse, still the highest tornado death toll ever seen at a school building. Mr. Crews remembers being called in early from recess: "When we got upstairs it was real windy and we went to the west side of the room where the windows were. The windows were up, and we could see very well as the storm approached… I can remember vividly two things which I saw as I looked out the window. There was an outdoor basketball court with two wooden goalposts. I can distinctly remember seeing these swaying back and forth until they finally broke off. Also, down in the northwest corner of the schoolyard there was a girls’ toilet. And I recall seeing a girl come out of the toilet—the wind picked her up, just head-high or so, and blew her more or less straight north to the fence on the north side of our school building. She was found dead in the fence.
"At the last moment you could see the air full of debris, just houses and pieces of everything. Our teacher instructed us to put the windows down. And we did. [Then we were told to leave the room.] I remember putting my hands up to the very top of the door—the door casing—to hold on. And I remember praying, because by then we knew something was bad. That’s the last thing I remember…"
Like Eugene Porter, Garrett Crews later had a horrific look at what remained of his hometown. "I wanted to turn and go west the five blocks to our home. But I couldn’t get through, because Mr. Redd’s store was in flames; both he and his wife burned up in there. The heat prevented me from passing alongside that building in the street. I had to retrace my steps one block back north to a street where I could go west.
"I vividly remember [an incident] on my way from that corner to where my house was, or as it turned out, had been. I was about halfway home, in front of another house that had been blown away, and the people who had lived there were standing in the yard. And the father was holding a very young child in his arms, and as I recall it, the infant was either dead or died in his arms in my presence.
"Then I went on out to where we lived, the first house on the first street in the southwest corner of town, and oh, of course there wasn’t a house standing anywhere."
There was also a rueful humor that coursed through the survivors’ accounts: the stove crashing through the window and landing on the table, or the cow that continued to chew its cud while the barn was blown to pieces around it, or the bootleg still that were uncovered in many a cellar. This gave me a glimpse of how the victims were somehow able to become the victors—to reconstruct their towns and their lives, to find the strength to carry on through another day of misery and horror. And another. And another. I don’t understand where this kind of strength comes from.
I still think about it today. I remember my amazement at how my interviewees, without exception, seemed to be describing an event that had taken place the week before. Sixty years had done nothing to dull the edges of their memories. I look at the pictures of the tornado damage and try to put myself in the place of the dazed people in the photographs, but I can’t. The best I can do is to try to reconstruct an image.
Copyright 2000 / Peter S. Felknor
Other information on the Tri-State Tornado commemoration:http://www.earthchangestv.com/breaking/March2000/0317survivors.htm http://utvols.8m.com/1925.html http://www.will.uiuc.edu/WILL_Contents/AM_Contents/AM_Aftmag_Webcasts.htm
(radio broadcast clip, if you have a sound card… search for date March 15)