This is the first in a series of three posts about the worst tornadoes to strike the Chicago-area in modern times. Two of the three happened on the same day in 1967, with one being just a few miles from where my family lived at the time (I was not yet born).
“I was walking home from school. I was 13 years old. Every day I walked from the old high school, then the city’s junior high, to my home on East Lincoln Avenue.
Each day I’d stop at the Hub Cigar Store to check out the newest magazines. That day I bought only a bag of peanuts. It seems an insignificant detail, but to this day there has always seemed to be something transgressive about those peanuts. Perhaps I didn’t really need or want them, or maybe it was the last of my allowance frivolously spent.
As I walked up State Street nearing the corner of State and Lincoln, as the sky went black and the air around me took on a greenish tinge and the wind kicked up, I felt a sense of enormous guilt, as if loitering along munching peanuts was the blackest of sin – sin of waste, of purposelessness, of inattention.
That moment of guilt marked the end of my childhood.
Suddenly, without know why, I dropped those peanuts on the sidewalk and began to run. As I rounded the corner and passed Epp’s Barber Shop, a man in overalls standing in the back of a red pickup truck pointed to the south and shouted, “It’s a twister!”
I did not stop nor turn to look, but only ran faster. To this day I believe I ran the last four blocks home as fast as any thirteen year old ever ran.
I saw my mother standing in the front door as I ran across the lawn. The moment I reached the porch, hail the size of baseballs began to fall. (One would strike and break the arm of a good friend trying to reach home on his bicycle.)
The wind made the trees dance. A large limb falling from the great oak beside the house was my last immediate experience of the storm.
In seconds, my mother, my younger brother Mark and sister Laura and I were huddled in the southeast corner of the basement with a transistor radio, listening.”
-Christopher D. Guerin
The 1966-67 winter had been a rough one in Chicago. On Thursday, January 26, 1967 a massive blizzard left a record 23 inches in the Chicago area. The storm wreaked havoc with commuters and left hundreds stranded – as an estimated 50,000 vehicles were abandoned as were some 800 Chicago Transit Authority busses. 26 people were killed – some by heart attacks brought on by snow shoveling. Both Midway and O’Hare airports were closed, stranding thousands more. In the days that followed additional storms hit, and there was continuous snow cover from January 26 to March 9, a period of 42 days.
By mid-April temperatures were finally warming. Chicago saw five straight days in the 70s the previous weekend (April 13-17). Friday, April 21st began with a morning fog that cleared as temperatures rose into the mid 70s. A warm front was passing thru the state from south to north in advance of an approaching low pressure. Dew points rose into the 60s and an upper-level jet was reaching 120 knots and increasing low-level vertical shear – conditions favorable for producing tornadoes.
A tornado watch was issued at 1:50pm CDT covering the northern half of Illinois plus southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa and western Indiana. At 2pm an F4 tornado touched down in Linn County Missouri and stayed on the ground for an hour, traveling 59 miles, but fortunately hitting very little. By 3pm a dozen tornadoes had already been reported. At 3:50pm a violent, multiple vortex tornado touched down west of Belvidere and began moving into the city at roughly 60mph. There is just one known photo of the tornado (below) as it approaches the city.
The tornado first struck two miles southeast of Cherry Valley, passing the Chrysler plant near I-90, destroying 300 new cars as well as employee cars. Continuing east northeast through the southeast side of Belvidere 127 homes were destroyed and hundreds more damaged.
“My grandfather was working at the Chrysler plant when it hit. He and some co-workers were watching it through a large glass window. He said “I think it’s gonna hit!” and when he turned around, his co-workers were nowhere to be found, having run off already.” – Sarah Maske
“I will never forget that day: My mother was preoccupied and didn’t realize that anything was amiss until it was too late to get into the basement. We huddled together in her bedroom beneath a window in case the glass shattered. I remember that I had to scream at the top of my lungs to be heard above the roar. When the tornado passed, we arose to find that our house was one of the few on our street to remain almost completely intact. As neighbors ascended from their basements to find themselves homeless, many came to our house until they could decide what to do next. The man across the street knocked on our door and shoved his infant into my mother’s arms, saying that his wife had a piece of lumber stuck in her neck and he needed to get her medical attention immediately.” – Sheila Uscier (Axelson)
Just before 4pm the tornado approached Belvidere High School. Buses had already picked up elementary school children and were now loading high school students when the tornado struck. Buses were rolled into nearby fields, with students flung into the ground, thirteen of which were killed, and 300 more injured.
“I remember a friend calling down the hall saying a tornado was coming. As I walked out, the glass doors blew in and the lights went out. Then I heard the sound of a train.” – Bonnie Pierce
“The sky was black but I don’t think the word tornado even entered my mind until I heard glass breaking.” – Pam DiBenedetto
“My bus (#30) was moved 100 yards by the tornado. I was wedged under a seat, my shirt soaked red with blood. I saw one little body half buried in the mud. That memory, an 11 year old should never witness. The rear of our bus had landed on a white car. There seemed to be kids inside, girls I think, and they were screaming. The bus had ended up in the adjoining field of the school and in all the debris. I also remember clearly seeing the gravel from the parking lot drifted like snow against cars. I thought this is what a battlefield must look like.” – Ken Anderson
“I was 12 years old at the time and in 7th grade. I don’t remember my bus number but I do have a similar recollection of how my bus rolled over many times. It stopped once and I was trapped under a seat. The next thing I remember I was being blown across the athletic field like a tumbleweed. I tried to lay flat on the ground and cover my head to protect myself from the debris. When the tornado finally passed I got up dazed, not a clue as to what had just happened. I must have been one of the first persons who walked back to the school because a girl from inside saw me and screamed. I guess I must have looked pretty scary, covered with mud and blood coming from my head.” – Thosmoyer (web alias)
“They tell me I was lucky. I only had both legs and pelvis broken. Our bus was just on the north side of the school. I think there were five people killed on my bus.” – Dale Marks
After the tornado passed the school, older and stronger kids used doors of the high school as stretchers to carry the injured to the cafeteria, the severely injured to the library and the dead to the gymnasium.
“We received warning of another storm coming and were asked to seek shelter under tables. My sister and friends took cover under chairs. I remember asking my best friend what had happened. We thought maybe an atom bomb had hit Belvidere. Our 60s Cold War thoughts never considered it was a tornado. The warning happened to be false and the all clear was given.” – Ken Anderson
“After the storm my mom waited for the school bus to come. After about an hour she saw a bus finally coming down the road. She watched in horror as it raced past with its windows busted out and stretchers with the wounded laying across it’s seats.” – Terri Pearse
“My mom remembers being in a police car with these good samaratins as they attempted to navigate a way to St. Joseph’s Hospital through the debris-covered streets. They were unable to use Highland Hospital, which was severly damaged. Her other sister and older brother were later taken to Rockford Hospital.” – Sarah Maske
“We received word somehow that adult members of our families were coming to get us. I don’t remember much and how all this happened because shock set in. The next thing I remember is standing in the intersection of Glenwood Drive and East Avenue waiting with others from our bus. It was now night time and dark. I remember a cameraman taking my picture as I waited. I remember the view was total destruction as far as you could see. Powerlines in the street, houses blown apart, fire trucks from Rockford, people crying, police cars roaring by with lights and sirens blasting. It was like hell came to Belvidere that night.” – Ken Anderson
“The weeks after were horrible. National Guard on horseback, multiple funerals, strict curfew.” – Brenda Larson
“I was a young reporter for the Daily Republican and my dad was mayor. Our house was destroyed. Life was chaotic. What impressed me was the unity and the help we received.” – Bill Hetland
“My dad was in the Guard and helped. My mom (a nurse) treated peopole at St. Joseph’s. We knew Larry Decker and bus driver Mr. Julin who were both killed.” – Kirk Ritzman
The tornado had a path of 25.5 miles (ending around 4:15pm north of Woodstock), grew to a half mile wide, killed 24 people and injured over 400. The Fujita Scale, used to rate the strength of a tornado, did not exist in 1967 and all tornadoes prior to its creation were rated posthumously. The Belvidere tornado was rated F4, the second highest rating possible.
The Belvidere tornado remains the sixth deadliest tornado strike of a school, and none since have surpassed it. Interestingly the top two school tornado disasters both happened in Illinois – and on the same day – March 18, 1925. The famous Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest in United States history, killed 33 at schools in DeSoto, IL and 25 more in Murphysboro, IL – and a staggering 695 people in all, most of which were in Illinois.
*** Sources include the Facebook “Remembering the 1967 Belvidere Tornado” page, Wikipedia, 40th Anniversary of Northern Illinois’ Worst Tornado Disaster page, Christopher Guerin’s page, Tom McMahon’s page, Ken Anderson and the WREX “A Survivor’s Perspective” page.