Fifty one years ago: The horrific Illinois tornadoes

For me, it was in the late afternoon after school and I was playing outside at a friends. We were planning our weekend and the weather had been beautiful for April with high temperatures in the 70’s.

It was a time of no cell phones or computers on April 21st, 1967. But Father called from the front porch after getting home from work early, that I needed to get home. Strange, it was not dinner time when the usual call from Mom went out.  My own home was about a half a block west from where I had been playing and I was shocked as I glanced at the western sky.

I suddenly noticed that the trees, the birds were quiet for April and the sky was a heavy gray, tinged with a smudge of green.  Like the massive snowstorm months before, Chicago’s weather was about to change.  Something in my heart told me that the call to home was not a good one and I raced to the front porch, my Dad sat in his chair.

He loved storms and that was his spot regardless of the severity but this time he told me and Mother, who was standing inside the front door, that we needed to be in the basement immediately. At no other time in my short life, do I remember that command. Mom and I headed for the basement, me first but Mom kept trying to get him to come in as she stood on the basement stairs, scared.

The first tornado, better known as the Belvidere tornado, struck approximately at a little before 4 pm where the Chrysler plant near 1-90 witnessed the destruction of over 400 cars. Then, the destruction continued to the town of Belvidere where hundreds of homes were damaged but it was just at the time that school was getting out and buses were being loaded at the high school.

Elementary students were already on the buses but over 1,200 high students were dismissed and tried to get back into the building. According to sources, twelve buses were rolled over and students were flung like leaves into the field. Thirteen of the 24 fatalities and 300 of the 500 injuries in this tornado occurred at the high school.

At 5:03, Lake Zurich and surrounding suburbs felt the effects of their own tornado where over 75 homes were completely destroyed. Moving rapidly with no warning as had been described by many residents that there was no noticeable roar until upon them. It ripped through Seth Paine Elementary School, tearing down thick brick walls but leaving clocks showing 5:05 pm.  Many people were caught in their autos as they were returning home from work.

But it was the Oaklawn tornado that was on its way to my neighborhood in Calumet Park and according to meteorologists, the worst storm of the day. According to sources, at 5:15 an off duty Weather Bureau employee saw a rotating cloud mass over his house in Romeoville. Windows were blow out at a restaurant at at McCarthy Road and 127th and an observer at the Little Red School House at 99th and Willow Springs Road saw a funnel.

The tornado touched down just east of 88th Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets at 5:24 pM, 24 minutes after the tornado warning was issued for Cook County.  But it continued hitting homes and crossed the Tri-State Tollway, hitting a drive-in movie near Chicago Ridge finally moving to the heart of Oak Lawn. It was here that many homes were leveled. It was here that one of my parents best friend was paralyzed.

As we later learned, Tony was sitting in traffic at the intersection of 95th Street and Southwest Highway where a light pole smashed into the top of his car crushing him as he was heading to pick up his daughter at the Oaklawn Roller Rink. The greatest total of life took place there. Between 25 and 40 automobiles, halted at this intersection for a traffic light, were thrown in all directions, some carried northeast at least a block and set down on the Oak Lawn athletic field.

The Oak Lawn Roller Rink was completely destroyed but his daughter had left early and was safe from the destruction. Four were killed at the rink.  Fortunately, as the tornado passed over the Dan Ryan Expressway and headed our way, it began to dissipate causing lighter damage to vegetation, roofs and garages. According to sources, it finally moved offshore as a waterspout at Rainbow Beach, where we swam as kids.

My father summoned us out of the basement as he had watched the storm pass over from the front porch. Though the clouds were high then, he knew the damage west had been serious. It was the next morning he received the call about one of his closest friends in critical condition.

At least 10 tornadoes raked northeast Illinois, three of which were violent, F4 tornadoes. In the wake of the twisters, 58 were dead, more than 1000 were injured, and there was nearly half a billion in damage costs.

 

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