OMAHA’S TERRIBLE NIGHT
DESCRIPTION OF A GREAT CITY IN THE PATH OF THE AWFUL FORCES OF DESTRUCTION—HUMANITY RETURNED TO LIFE OF DESTITUTION IN A TWINKLING OF AN EYE—RICH AND POOR ON EQUALITY IN BITTER COLD OF WIND-SWEPT HILLS
Omaha was struck by the tornado the afternoon and evening of Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913.
Buildings were blown down or picked up and hurled with terrific force many yards, trees were leveled, and smaller structures were completely wrecked by the wind, which swept a path for itself directly through the most aristocratic, as well as the most lowly parts of the city. Some of the finest homes, those recently erected by Omaha’s wealthiest men, were left a mass of ruins.
Hundreds of families saw their homes swept away or damaged so badly that they were uninhabitable, and the occupants were forced to bear the torrential rain that followed the twister.
Following the tornado and the rain came an even greater menace in the fires that broke out in a score of places. At least 25 houses were destroyed by flames. To add to the horror of the night, the electric lights were extinguished, leaving only the fitful flare from hundreds of lanterns to light up the scenes of sorrow, while the rescue parties were at work.
Those sections of the city which paid the heaviest toll were the districts surrounding the county hospital and the Child institute, and the territory near Twenty-fourth and Lake streets, and from there east. But from every point in the path of the storm persons were killed, injured or buried in the ruins of their homes.
Southwest of Omaha, coming toward the city with the speed of an express train, the roar of the whirling, twisting wind could be heard long before the storm struck. People in the southern portion of the city asserted that they could hear the angry rumble of the storm when it struck the village of Ralston. The vanguard of the storm was a huge fan-shaped cloud which gradually narrowed into a funnel-shaped cloud that dipped earthward and wherever it struck left a wake of death, injuries, and wrecked homes. Almost all over the city people stood and watched the storm approach, even when in its very path, some seemingly without the power to move, or not knowing which way to go.
The streets in the storm’s path were filled with debris.
Although dazed for a time by the suddenness of the storm and the damage done, the people living in the wrecked portions of the city who were unhurt and those residing nearby hastened to the task of rescuing the injured.
With a motor wagon pressed into service, physicians and nurses hastily summoned and hospitals and other public buildings turned into relief stations for the injured and morgues for the dead, every undertaker’s establishment in the city, and even in South Omaha, was taxed to the limit in caring for the dead.
As the night wore on the devastation wrought by the storm became more and more evident, and the city commissioners, headed by Mayor Dahlman, took personal charge of the relief work. Headquarters were established in the telephone exchange building at 23d and Webster streets.
Every policeman and fireman in Omaha, South Omaha and Council Bluffs was used in an effort to prevent looting of buildings and to aid in the rescue of the injured and putting out fires. Before morning a call for the local companies of state troops had been issued, and the state troops will aid the regulars and the city officers in guarding the wrecked buildings and in searching the ruins for the dead and injured.
As soon as daylight appeared Mayor Dahlman and Major Hartman made a tour along the storm’s path and planned the work of caring for those rendered homeless by the storm, and for the policing of the entire district.
The Diamond moving picture theater, between 24th and 25th, on Lake street, was totally destroyed by the storm.
A soldier who stood guard all night at the corner of 24th and Lake streets saw seven bodies taken from the place and 10 or 15 more were removed later.
Two babies were blown out of the building, and the others piled in a heap on the floor when the storm struck the Child Saving institute, 42d and Jackson streets. The babies were in their nursery on the second floor of the west wing of the building, which was partly blown away. One of the babies blown away was found nearly a block distant, dead. Her name was Thelma. All of the little orphans were injured.
The Commercial club threw its luxurious clubrooms open as a place of refuge for members who suffered in the cyclone.
The morgues were places of horror. Friends and relatives of the people who lived in the path of the storm flocked to view the bodies. Weeping, hysterical women stood in front of the undertaking rooms in small knots, begging officials for information regarding those they believed met death. Hospitals were besieged by frantic people, all demanding information regarding the injured.
All hospitals in Omaha, South Omaha and Council Bluffs were filled to capacity, in many cases the ones who were least injured being placed on cots in the hallways and corridors.
Shortly after 9 o’clock the United States troops, militia and police threw a line entirely around the path of the storm.
Looting was going on all during the night, according to police, although no arrest of the ghouls has been made. Sightseers and victims all tell of robberies perpetrated while the panic reigned after the storm subsided.
Not a single telephone girl left her switchboard when the storm struck the city. The exchange buildings escaped serious injury, and the girls remained on duty as if nothing had happened. Every telegraph official in the city reported for duty, and the lines were repaired and put in operation as fast as possible. Most of the city could be reached by telephone three hours after the storm.
The Webster telephone exchange at 22d and Lake streets became a center for rescue work as soon as the cyclone had passed. Physicians and nurses were summoned to the building, and army officers’ headquarters were established there. One hundred and seventy-six young women were working at the switchboard when the cyclone struck. Every window in the building was broken out, and considerable damage was done to the building, but the switchboards remained intact. All night the force of operators continued to work at the board.
Within five minutes after the storm struck every girl was at her place at the switchboards, and many continued to "plug in" while broken glass was showering about them. One of the rest rooms, the furniture soaked with water and stained with blood, was converted into a temporary morgue, and bodies from the surrounding afflicted district were held there awaiting ambulances. Nurses and physicians occupied another room, where injured persons were stretched upon the floor.
F. E. Russell lay upon the floor, his body covered with blood and his face disfigured almost beyond recognition. Russell had been buried under a brick wall in one of the 24th street buildings that were demolished. Fire surrounded him on all sides, and he was nearly dead when dragged from the burning ruins. Russell was delirious while lying on the floor of the temporary hospital in the telephone exchange and constantly talked about the fire, which he thought was still about him.
The Rev. Father P. J. Judge, pastor of the Sacred Heart church, a little north of 24th and Lake streets, was in the telephone building, speaking comforting words to the suffering, and praying for the dying. Many members of the priest’s congregation were injured, though service was not going on at the time.
Telephone poles, trees and wrecked houses filled all the streets around the telephone building, making it impossible for any vehicles to get near the place.
Automobiles passing were all urged to stop, either to get a doctor or to take the injured and dying to hospitals.
Two men in an automobile refused to heed the call to take a dying man to a hospital. The crowd reviled them and they only escaped violence by speeding ahead.
The Sacred Heart convent, one of the finest Catholic schools in the country, was directly in the path of the storm and was totally demolished. It is considered a miracle that every person in the enormous building escaped without injury. They were all saved and became aids in rescue work.
A street car on a North-side line was demolished by the cyclone and ten of the passengers injured. Conductor Caldwell said: "I was on the back platform when I saw the cyclone coming. I gave the signal to stop, shouted to the passengers that a cyclone was coming, and ran for a basement of an unfinished building. I jumped into the basement, and three or four passengers were beside me. Wreckage flew over us and a lot of boards were piled on top of us. A scantling was driven through the car and wedged between the seats and the side of the car. I didn’t quite have time to make out accident reports, as required by the rules of the company.
"It seemed to me that the horror lasted about two minutes," he said. "Then I crawled out and picked up two passengers, a man and a woman, who were lying unconscious in the street."
How anybody could live in the car is a mystery. Every window was broken, bricks and debris of all kinds are piled inside the car and every seat is torn loose.
Decatur and Franklin streets were filled with debris and lined with blazing homes for three-quarters of a mile immediately after the cyclone. As the fires spread the destitute families wrapped their wet and ragged garments about them and hurried toward the central part of the city. The high hill overlooking the scene of desolation in the Decatur district was soon crowded with the destitute and injured victims of the storm, scores of men and women weeping silently as they watched the wrecks of their homes lighting up the towering sky.
Many victims, exhausted and almost hysterical, gathered together in family groups and sat on the sidewalks through the cold rain that followed the cyclone.
For three hours the fires lit up the sky. As the light died down the refugees from the stricken district wandered aimlessly on, unable to command the services of any vehicle unless there was a very badly injured one in the family.
Mrs. G. E. Medlock was about to give birth to a baby when her home at 29th and Decatur streets was blown to atoms. Her husband was badly cut about the head and two little daughters were injured. Most of the clothing was torn from the bodies of all members of the family.
Mrs. Medlock, attended only by her husband, lay on a roofless house for four hours, drenched with rain.
A motor hearse was stopped by the injured man, and took Mrs. Medlock to the home of a friend.
Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Planteen, 2710 Decatur street, rushed to the basement when they saw the storm coming. With their arms locked about each other they waited, while their home crashed about their ears. When they had been rescued, Mrs. Planteen, standing amid the wreckage of her home, wept bitterly because two dogs worth $500 each were killed.
Mrs. Mary Eldridge, sixty-five, was buried in the ruins of the home of her grandson, Ray Davenport, 27th and Franklin streets, for two hours while members of the Council Bluffs fire department chopped their way to her. Mrs. Eldridge suffered severe bruises and from exposure. Mrs. Ray Davenport was injured by the debris of the Davenport home.
The path of the storm was six blocks wide, and along the way houses were smashed to bits, torn to shreds, heaped in queer piles, as if the demon of the air had spitefully tossed them with all his might.
All bodies that were picked up hundreds of yards from the point where the wind had first caught them were found horribly mangled, some of them entirely beyond recognition. Cries of the injured drew rescuing parties to hundreds of different points, and the victims were drawn out from under the wails of their homes, offering thanks to God that their lives had been spared.
Many are the freaks recorded in the path of the cyclone. Houses were left unscathed while their neighbors’ were literally torn to pieces, splinters were driven through trees, and in one place the lower story of a house was torn out while the upper story settled in its place. Shade trees were uprooted and driven entirely through brick buildings. Wires were torn down and wrapped about telegraph poles, as if wound by the hand of an artisan.
In portions of the wreck-strewn path, vast throngs of people stood with uncovered heads, tears streaming down their checks, as firemen and soldiers came out of the debris carrying in their arms the bodies of children, their mothers and fathers.
Over a score of fires broke out in the cyclone-swept section immediately the storm had passed. Fire stations received calls from a dozen places at once. Wrecked and partially wrecked houses at 42d and Farnum streets, 22d and Cummings, 28th and Indiana avenues, 80th and Hamilton, 33d and Cummings, 8th and Cummings, 47th, 48th and Leavenworth, 22d and Pierce, 14th and Emmet, 24th and Lake, and other places caught fire from stoves, electric wiring and furnaces, and were soon in flames. Some of the burning, wrecked houses contained people who were buried in the wreckage.
The heavy downpour of rain which followed the storm saved much other property from being destroyed by fire. The rain quenched the flames, and in many places put out the fires in stoves.
The Idlewild club building at 24th and Lake streets was wrecked by the storm and then destroyed by fire.
George L. Hammer, one of the best-known merchants in the middle west, and proprietor of the Byrne-Hammer dry goods company of Omaha, was taken out of the wreckage of his home the night of the storm, and died in St. Joseph’s hospital. Mrs. Hammer was seriously injured, while Mrs. Arthur Lavidge and her baby son, who were visiting at the Hammer home, were painfully injured.
The body of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Daniels and their two little daughters, all victims of the storm, were taken from their home on 19th-av and Locust street to the Webster exchange telephone building.
A sixteen-year-old son of the Daniels arrived at the home just as his parents and sisters were being removed.
"He was crying and wanted to fight when he saw us removing the bodies," one of the soldiers who helped remove the bodies said, "and we had to drive him away by force."
William Sell, 3465 California ave., rushed his wife, daughter and Miss Gilpin, nurse at the Omaha general hospital, who was visiting at the Sell home, into a cellar and followed after them as his house blew down.
After the fury of the storm was spent, Sell held up the floor of the house when the women crept forth. Then, just as all had practically reached safety, a part of the wall of their house caved in and all four were injured by falling bricks.
A dog held four men 15 minutes from recovering the body of a man killed in his home near Long school. The dog stationed himself upon the body of his master and would let none of the rescue workers come near it.
The man was mangled almost beyond recognition and pinned down under a number of gas pipes.
The Union Pacific railroad donated $5,000 for the relief work and several business men made up a purse of $5,000. Civic and social organizations called at once on their members for clothing, bedclothes, tents and practically anything that could be used to aid the stricken people.
Gov. Morehead issued a statement declaring that the state was willing to do anything to aid Omaha city in this hour of sorrow, either with money or with state supplies.
At 9 o’clock Monday morning Gov. Morehead, rushed to Omaha on a special train with Adjt. Gen. Hall and made a tour of inspection along the path of the cyclone.
Tears stood in the executive’s eyes as he viewed the ruins of what had once been Omaha’s most beautiful residence district.
The sight that presented itself is unequaled in the history of the state. Plans and maps of the path of the storm were platted on the ground by army engineers called from Ft. Crook. Calls were issued for three companies of militia from outside Omaha, while the companies in the city were mobilized to carry on the rescue work.
Three hundred regular army soldiers from Ft. Crook were the first to respond.
After a night of terror, in which women and children frantic with grief walked the streets cold and homeless, Omaha awoke to a scene of almost unbelieveable devastation. Entering the city from the southwest, after wiping Ralston entirely from the map, the tornado swept past the county hospital to the west and swept in a northeasterly direction taking everything in its path.
One hundred thousand grief-stricken, sobbing people assailed every source of information for some assurance that relatives or friends had not perished in the storm.
Guards at the scene of the wreck kept the crowd back by force, clearing the devastated region for a block on each side of the path.
Six relief stations were established in the vicinity of the ruined district, and every drug store gave liberally to aid volunteer nurses in caring for the injured persons.
At a meeting held by Mayor Dahlman and city commissioners on Monday morning the city of Omaha appropriated an emergency fund of $25,000 for the relief of the victims.
A regiment of militia was ordered to aid the government troops in going through the ruins in the grewsome search for bodies.
A PROCLAMATION BY THE MAYOR:
TO THE PEOPLE OF OMAHA: A great calamity has struck our city. Many lives and homes have been destroyed. The authorities, with the assistance of Major C. F. Hartmann of Fort Omaha, with two hundred troops, are doing all that can be done in guarding property and rescuing the dead and injured.
It will be necessary properly to patrol this district, which extends over several miles of territory, until matters can be adjusted so that property may be protected and men have an opportunity to clear the wreckage. No one will be allowed inside the lines unless properly authorized, so I call on the public generally to be patient.
Thousands of volunteers are doing all they can. I appeal to the people in this hour of distress to house and feed all that need help until other arrangements can be made.
(Signed) JAMES C. DAHLMAN,
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