On March 18, 1925–just over 95 years ago–the 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–a record for a single tornado–including 234 in the Southern Illinois community of Murphysboro–also a record for tornado deaths in a single community.
Newspaper friend Harold Douglas shared a book about the tornado, “Death Rides The Sky,” 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–population 250–is one of the Illinois towns hit by the Tri-State Tornado. The village sits next door to Hurst–population 800–in coal central Williamson County, northeast of Carbondale along the Big Muddy River.
Picking up the story from Mason’s book, “Joe Martel was seated in the Bush schoolhouse on the afternoon of March 18, 1925.
“‘It was an okay day,’ Joe remembered with a rather unremarkable tone. ‘It 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.’”
Just four miles east of Bush, the tornado had just killed 33 children in a school building in DeSoto.
“Gazing 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.
“‘We didn’t know what it was. It just got really dark and the wind was blowing, and then it was over.’”
School was dismissed just as the storm hit, according to Mason’s book.
“‘When I got home, both rows of houses were all torn up. We lived in the second house on the south side,’” Martel said of the of mine house in which the family lived.
“‘There 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,’ Joe said, ‘but Mom wouldn’t go on account of the rain.’
“His mother’s reluctance to get drenched in the approaching storm undoubtedly saved her life.
“‘All five of them were killed. It blew their house away,’ Joe said of his neighbors.’”
Mason then records Martel’s words about what happened to his family.
“‘My sister got blown up in the air–mother too–and it let them down near the house. Sis found the house and crawled under the floor, and she just stayed there for awhile,’ Joe said.
“‘But my mom–it 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.’”
The narrative continues, “‘If you saw what it really did do, you wouldn’t believe it,’ he insisted. ‘Railroad axles–the heaviest thing there is–were scattered around the rail yard. Two-by-fours were driven through the water tower in Bush. There was galvanized tin wrapped around trees.
‘I was kinda young, and was just lost when I went over there and saw the floor of our house and nothing else,’ Joe said.”