Malicious March

by Bill Monson

March can be malicious -- weatherwise. Even as the sun climbs higher in the southern sky and the frosty grip of February slackens, the month can bring nasty surprises.

Heavy, wet snow can follow tee-shirt days; and fans following their basketball teams to the State Finals can find themselves in blizzards. One day, the back yard is mud; the next, a skating rink.

The same Gulf winds which tease us with spring warmth can bring moisture to fuel terrible storms when they tangle with an Alberta Clipper not yet ready to relinquish its winter rule.

Mad March and cruel April bring us our most vicious storms -- wild, limb-shearing squalls, hail and tornadoes.

It was just such a March that delivered the worst tornado in American history.

Actually, there were eight tornadoes on March 18, 1925 -- but the grandmother of them all began at 1pm at Annapolis in Reynolds County, Missouri. It displayed none of the usual characteristics. No ominous funnel cloud, no skipping or skittering across the land. It stayed level -- a mass of boiling cloud. ''A rolling fog,'' one witness called it.

The tornado did $560,000 damage in Missouri; eleven people were killed, 141 injured. But the tornado was just getting started.

Smaller tornadoes can be stopped by large bodies of water, but even the mighty Mississippi was no barrier to this monster. It crossed into Illinois, moving steadily north-northeast at 60 miles an hour, all but obliterating Gorham and killing 34 people. It went through the heart of Murphysboro, killing 234 people and seriously injuring more than 800 others. It smashed 1,200 buildings in 152 blocks--over 60 percent of the community.

One Murphysboro survivor said, ''It was an incredible sight. The storm came right up the street, peeling up houses, cement, people, poles, anything and everything, peeling it all up like you would peel a potato. I don't know how I got out, how I lived at all.''

The storm moved on, leaving behind 8,000 homeless and $10 million in damage. Desoto was next; 72 more died.

The largest city struck was West Frankfort. The tornado killed 127, injured 450, and smashed 925 houses as it roared through the northwest part of town. This residential area saw 64 blocks hammered by the storm; 13 were obliterated.

The tornado steamrollered on. There was a Weather Bureau in 1925, but somehow it never got a warning out. Town after town was caught by surprise as the mile-wide storm barreled across Illinois. And somehow, none of the witnesses to the destruction managed to warn towns ahead of the tornado. No telephone calls went through; no railroad telegrapher flashed an alert.

Eventually, the tornado crossed into Indiana where it struck Griffin, killing 34, and Princeton, where another 20 died. Finally, at 4:15pm, it dissipated outside Princeton. It had traveled 219 miles, killed 689, and injured 1,890 with $16.6-million in damages (and those are 1925 dollars!)

Today, this killer storm would be rated at Force 5 -- the current high for tornadoes. Then, it was simply called ''The Tri-State Tornado''-- a malicious product of March weather never to be forgotten in Illinois.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 13, 2002

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