INCIDENTS OF THE TORNADO
Charles Horn, a contractor living at the corner of Forty-second street and Dewey avenue, Omaha, occupied a cottage with a southeast exposure. On the Sunday afternoon of the tornado, upon returning from a drive with his family his automobile was left standing on the north side of the home. When the tornado appeared, Horn, his wife and their infant child took refuge in the little cellar under the house. The home was blown away from over their heads and a heavy grading wagon from a construction camp nearly a block away was hurled through the air, landing in the cellar within a few feet of the corner in which Mr. Horn and his family had crouched for protection. The following day a search revealed the fact that Mr. Horn’s automobile was comfortably lodged in the cellar of the house next door, and, with the exception of one wheel, apparently none the worse for the move.
Miss Freda Hulting, stenographer in a newspaper office, had gone to the home of Mrs. Ida Newman, near the corner of Forty-fourth street and Dewey avenue, to spend the afternoon. Miss Hulting was preparing to start home when the storm struck the house. An hour later she died on an improvised stretcher while being carried to the Child-Saving station, where first aid was given the injured.
Mrs. Newman, the mother of nine children, was killed in the same house, while a son, 18 years old, who was ill with typhoid fever, died a few days later at the hospital.
With the ruins of a dozen homes burning within a hundred feet of the ruins under which she was imprisoned, Mrs. Mary Sullivan screamed in agony for two hours while tons of timber and cement and brick were hauled and wrenched away in the frantic efforts of half-crazed men and women who toiled with what tools they could find in their vain effort to save the life of the woman. Shortly after 10 o’clock she was removed from the ruins of her former home, unconscious, and welcome death came within a few hours. Two other victims lost their lives within a few feet of the Sullivan home, at 4211 Harney street. Fire finished the work of devastation on the west end of the block, while the residences on both the north and south sides were mowed down like blades of grass.
Some conception of the force of the tornado which visited Omaha may be gained from the fact that a postal savings deposit slip issued to S. L. Bush, a fireman living on Howard street, Omaha, was found by one of the carriers of the postoflice at Pomeroy, Ia., 112 miles from Omaha, in a direct line. The certificate was returned to Postmaster John C. Wharton by Malcolm Peterson, postmaster at Pomeroy.
Crazed by the loss of his wife and two sons, John Rathke, a farmer, who claimed Sixtieth and Grover streets as his home before the tornado annihilated it, completely disappeared. Searching parties from the county and city headquarters scoured the countryside for him for two days, but no trace of the bereaved husband and father was found.
When his home, which was situated on Sixtieth street on the hill directly in the path of the storm, between Ralston and Omaha, was sucked into the skies and scattered to the four winds, the horribly crushed bodies of his wife and sons were carried nearly half a mile and were later found in a group on the farm of Henry Olsen, directly northeast. There was not an unbroken bone in any of the bodies. That of Clarence, the oldest boy, was pinned to the earth by a seven-foot length of two-by-four timber, which passed through his chest and out his back.
Neighbors coming to comfort Mr. Rathke found him prodding about in the ruins with a stick.
"Yes, they’re gone," he muttered, with no change of countenance when consoling words were spoken to him, "but I’ll find them—I’ll find them—they’re around here somewhere—they must be!"
At that time the three bodies were in an undertaking establishment.
Rathke was last seen wandering aimlessly away across the fields in the snow storm.
Miss Bella Robinson was dressing at her home in the fashionable Hanscom Park district when the tornado struck the house. Her home was wrecked, but she escaped uninjured by running out of the door of the house just as the building collapsed. Miss Robinson was dressed only in a bathrobe and a pair of bedroom slippers. In her wild flight through the dark, muddy streets she lost both slippers before she reached the edge of the storm belt and was taken into the house of some friends. With her feet cut and bleeding, Miss Robinson would not submit to medical attention until her mother, who was caught in the debris, was rescued. She was cut in the face with flying glass, and her hands and arms were severely bruised in the numerous falls which she suffered in her wild flight over the wreck of buildings through the rain and mud.
When a North Twenty-fourth street car was caught in the cyclone at Twenty-fourth and Lake, the lives of a number of the passengers were undoubtedly saved by the coolness of Conductor Ord Hensley and a passenger, Charles H. Williams.
"Looking up the street we saw the cyclone coming," said Mr. Williams. "It looked to me like a big, white balloon. Of course everybody was scared and a number of the women passengers screamed.
"Shouting, 'Everybody keep cool and lie in the center of the car,’ Conductor Hensley set the example and everybody did as he said. In an instant every bit of glass in the car was shattered and boards and other debris were hurled against the car’s side. Many heavy boards came through the windows. One heavy beam came in a window at one side and was left there, sticking through a window on the other side.
"In the brief glimpse I had of the approaching tornado, I could see houses tumbling and trees being torn up. After the tornado passed we left the car, being careful to avoid the live wires, which was another suggestion of the conductor’s, and helped in the rescue work."
Two members of the Falconer family at 2214 Maple street were hurled through a big front window when the tornado wrecked their home. The front side of the house was turned upside down and one of the two landed in a settee on top of the ruin. Neither was hurt beyond minor scratches.
Mr. Harry Greenstreet, whose wedding to Miss Lucile Race took place Saturday evening, narrowly escaped with his life. He and Mrs. Greenstreet were at the home of Mrs. Greenstreet's mother, Mrs. Cora Curtis, on Cuming street. They had just come down stairs when the roof of the house was carried off and the flying bricks hit Mrs. Curtis, making a bad scalp wound. Both Mr. and Mrs. Greenstreet were injured, but neither fatally.
Wedged between two fallen trees so tightly that firemen had to saw the trunks in two to liberate her, Miss Elsie Sweedler, after two hours of unconsciousness, went to the Harney telephone exchange and reported for duty. She worked all night. This is the story of one telephone operator's heroic sacrifice for the public good Sunday night. There were many others.
Devoted work by the operators enabled the company to maintain its service in districts undamaged by the storm through the two days of unprecedented traffic after Sunday night. Sixty girls were quartered at downtown hotels and rooming houses Sunday night, in order to save time and be ready for work again Monday morning. All worked many hours overtime.
Thirty girls whose homes were wrecked by the storm were provided with complete outfits of clothing by the company, and most of them remaind at work.
City Prosecutor Fred Anheuser, just recovering from a serious illness at his home, was in the tornado. In his room and in the basement of his home was the only furniture in the house that was not crushed into splinters. Every window was blown in and the house sprung awry.
The house was not as badly demolished as many about it and was immediately thrown open as a temporary hospital. Dozens of people were cared for during the night following the storm, being furnished with sandwiches and coffee.
"A peculiar incident at our home," said Anheuser, "was that a wooden box containing a delicate wax doll was broken to bits, but the doll, which would not survive the slightest bump, was uninjured. The box was under the bed in my little sister's room. The doll was found lying across the room and the box was still under the bed, a little heap of real fine kindling wood."
One of the pitiable cases of the storm was that of J. A. Allen, a night watchman, who lived on Walnut street. He had just gone to work when the house, in which were Mrs. Allen, Amasa Allen and a stepson, Ambrose Gregg, was struck. Mrs. Allen’s knee cap was broken, eye cut, face and head cut, bad bruises on body which resulted in hemorrhages, showing there was internal injury; Ambrose Gregg was so badly hurt that he was taken to a hospital, where his life was despaired of; Amasa Allen had an eye gouged out and was bruised about the face, head and body. The entire family lay on the prairie in the storm until midnight, when they were found by two men. The men had no conveyance, but managed to half carry and half lead the injured to a refuge fifteen blocks from where the accident happened.
Mrs. C. J. Roberts, president of the Frances Willard union of the
Someone telephoned to Coroner Crosby that a woman was dead in the ruins of an apartment hotel at Thirty-second and Charles streets. The woman’s husband, the informant said, was demented as a result of the storm and had disappeared.
A newspaper auto was commandeered by the police and hurried to the place. In the ruins of an apartment at 1409 North Thirty-second street the body was found. The head had been crushed into an unrecognizable mass of flesh and bone.
John Wright, a watchman employed by the Omaha & Northwestern railroad and stationed at Fourteenth and Locust streets, had a premonition Sunday afternoon that a disastrous storm would sweep Omaha. As a result he went to his work an hour earlier than usual.
"I believe I’ll go downtown and avoid the rain," Wright told his wife as he left the house.
It probably was fifteen or twenty minutes after he reached his little switch shanty when the storm broke. Wright declared afterward that he could hear the roar of the twister many minutes before it reached the vicinity of Fourteenth and Locust.
While Wright’s little shanty was not harmed, houses and business buildings only a few short blocks away were razed. Freight cars near where he was stationed were blown away, and others were whirled away down the tracks by the wind.
The storm was the third of like character through which Wright had passed. Sixteen years ago in Norfolk, Neb., his home was partially demolished by a tornado, and forty-two years ago in Panora, Ia., when the town was wiped out, he barely escaped with his life.
Starting out from their home immediately after the storm to aid in the rescue work Sunday night, County Commissioner Frank Best and Mrs. Best within a block from their home found a woman clad only in a thin nightgown walking the street distractedly in the driving rain, with a three-weeks-old babe clasped to her breast. Mr. and Mrs. Best took the pitiful pair to the nearest house, where they were cared for. Mr. and Mrs. Best then went to the Douglass County hospital where they assisted in caring for the host of injured brought there up to midnight.
A nurse at the T. B. Norris home escaped with her life, but was taken from the wreck with a leg so badly crushed that amputation was thought necessary. She was on her way downstairs when the storm struck. Her leg was pinned between a heavy timber and the foundation stones. Rescuers had to saw away timbers and knock out brick and stone of the foundation before they could release her.
The grading camp of G. W. Condon, at Forty-second and Harney streets, was blown entirely away. Grading machinery and wagons were lifted up and scattered about adjacent territory. Most of it was little injured.
One man was killed, one fatally injured and two more were seriously injured. There were about twenty men at the camp at the time. Five mules were killed. The seventy horses in the camp were unhurt.
Streets in the wrecked district were wholly impassable in many places. At some points practically whole houses had been dumped in a tangled heap on the pavement, while great trees lay across the streets, and wreckage of all sorts made a barrier that prevented the passage of any vehicle and made progress of pedestrians very difficult. In the darkness and the mass of fallen wires it frequently was demonstrated that the shortest way was by going several blocks around.
On Thirty-fourth and Hawthorne avenue, in the Bemis Park district, where half a dozen homes were utterly destroyed, the ruin was so complete and the debris so heterogeneously mixed that it was actually impossible to determine in the darkness just where some of the structures had stood.
An automobile was blown over on its side on the sidewalk on California street and lay jammed against the stone wall surrounding the Joslyn grounds.
Five public school buildings lay in the track of the twister, and all of them were badly damaged. The Beals school had the entire upper part cut off, and will have to be rebuilt; the Columbian was very badly battered; the Saunders had a part of the roof blown in; the Long had all the glass blown out and the roof of the new annex carried away, and the Lake was almost completely wrecked.
Superintendent of School Buildings Duncan Findlayson was out of the city. His home was completely destroyed, and the house lay as flat as a postage stamp. All the family were away.
The home of Principal Rusmisel of the High School of Commerce, in the Bemis Park district at Thirty-third and Nicholas, was wrecked.
Immediately following the tornado Sunday night fire added its horrors and deaths to the already large list of catastrophes. A total of over thirty fire cals were received during the night, with many heavy losses of property. The fires originated from broken gas pipes and hot ranges, although in many cases the exact cause will never be known.
Broken telephone wires stopped communication with the fire companies and the distant companies had to be notified by horseback riders, which delayed and complicated the alarms. The fire chief’s office was unable to give out an exact report as to the losses.
A long strip of cottages from Leavenworth to Center street on Forty-eighth street was totally lost. This was probably the longest fire to burn because of its extreme length. The houses were in ruins when the fires broke out and made the work of the firemen extremely difficult. About twenty houses or more were burned in this fire.
Another bad fire caused the destruction of eight houses on Farnam street between Forty-second and Forty-third streets. Several others in this neighborhood were slightly burned, but not total losses.
Following the collapse of the Idlewild pool hall at Twenty-fourth and Willis avenue, fire broke out, which penned in the negroes then in the building and many perished there.
W. C. McLean’s home at 2705 Hamilton street was among those to suffer heavily from tornado and fire. A storehouse owned by Miss Nettle Yerga, at 2301 South Twenty-ninth street, was struck by lightning and totally destroyed.
John Sullivan experienced a harrowing night following the storm. He saved his two small children from injury by throwing them to the floor and lying over them. His face was cut open by flying glass and his head severely bruised. His wife, who fled to the basement, was badly injured about the back and lost two toes when a heavy range fell on her foot. Sullivan’s mother, Mrs. Julia Sullivan, living with her daughter next door, was killed. When he found his mother dying he at once sent his little daughter after a doctor. The child became lost. All night the father wandered about the wreckage, without shoes, looking for her. The little one was finally found and the family went to a hotel.
The beautiful home of Dr. D. C. Bryant on Sherman avenue was completely wrecked, but its occupants, Dr. Bryant, his wife and the latter’s mother, escaped without injury. However, the two latter suffered severe shocks. Mrs. Bryant, who has been ill for several months, was prostrated. Her mother, aged 92 years, was dug out of the ruins in the cellar. They found refuge with neighbors more fortunate than they.
The home of George W. Ketcham was totally destroyed by the storm. He was night foreman at the Vinton street car barn and was not at home at the time. Mrs. Ketcham was badly injured. Miss Ethel Ketcham was thrown in the furnace and her head and face badly injured. Earl Ketcham was in the yard; the house was demolished and part fell on him, inflicting serious injuries. Miss Jean Watson was visiting the family and was injured in the wreck. Misses Irene and Ruth Figge were also visiting and were seriously injured. The only thing that saved the family and visitors from death was that they reached the basement just as the house left the foundation, and the destruction was so complete that the checkers never found the house when making up the list of demolished houses.
The pathetic feature of the death of Mabel McBride, daughter of Will McBride, of Farnam street, was the fact that she was trying to save and protect her mother and small brother who were attempting to get out. She had got them together in a corner of one of the rooms, when the roof blew away, the floors fell, and a heavy board fell through, striking her on the head and killing her instantly.
A promising musical career was brought to a temporary close by the tornado. Miss Grace Slabaugh, the young daughter of Judge W. W. Slabaugh, was taken to the Nicholas Senn hospital with the tendons of her right wrist severed. She is an accomplished pianist.
Miss Slabaugh gave many recitals even as a girl. A course of foreign study had been planned for her, and a great career was believed to be in store for her. Visitors from the musical centers of Europe passing through Omaha have heard her play and pronounced her a marvel.
When taken from the wreck of her father’s home at Fortieth and Dodge streets into the house of Gus Renze, a block further west, the girl coolly watched Dr. Alexander sew the ligaments of her wrist together, taking no anaesthetic of any kind.
"Go ahead, doctor," was her only remark.
Miss Slabaugh was tennis champion of the Omaha High School two years ago.
Lying against the trunk of a tree in front of the ruined home of Charles A. Hofmann on North Twenty-eighth street, was found an old iron tombstone. It had evidently been blown over four miles, from the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery at Forty-eighth and Leavenworth streets, and was covered with wreckage. The slab weighed over 50 pounds and bore the following inscription: "Mamie Donahue, born December 6, 1887; died November 30, 1890. Gone from our home, but not from our heart."
The tornado passed through West Lawn Cemetery and the Bohemian National Cemetery, both on West Center street, where the storm entered Omaha, but this marker could scarcely have come from either of these graveyards. West Lawn has only been in existence three years and the Bohemian Cemetery is used for none but Bohemians.
A corner of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery was touched by the twister, and it is thought the tombstone must have been carried from that place.
Mr. Hofmann, a blacksmith, lost his home and household effects, but his family escaped uninjured.
D. H. Harris and Roy Perkins, market gardeners from the territory lying between Carter and Florence lakes, came into Omaha with the report that that section was swept and serious damage done by the tornado.
Either totally wrecked or partially damaged were Swift’s boarding house and the property of Emil Papke, D. H. Harris, Otto Hoot, Charles Junge, Peter Lush, Jack Wernbach and Roy Perkins.
The hotbeds and greenhouses of gardeners were destroyed and immense property damage was done in the total destruction of the crop of early hothouse vegetables.
This section furnished its storm freak story from the farm of Otto Hoot. The tornado hung Hoot’s horse and buggy in a tree, twenty feet from the ground. The struggles of the horse jerked the equipage free, the animal landed on his feet and then proceeded to run away.
The home of Mr. and Mrs. R. A. Thompson, at Sixteenth street and Sherman avenue, was lifted from its foundations and deposited, a broken, desolate mass, in the middle of the street. Not a house on Binney street east to Sherman avenue escaped. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and their little daughter, Ruth, were fortunately away from home at the time the tornado struck.
Dr. Charles Needham, whose home at Thirty-sixth and Burt streets was first demolished by the tornado and then burned by fire, aided in the rescue work at the T. B. Norris home, on Burt street, where three were killed. The body of the little Norris girl was found in the ruins of the home at daybreak.
Automobiles picked up bodily from the street and hurled in all directions were to be seen in various stages of demolition in every section of the city. The automobile loss formed a large part of the property destruction. One machine, an electric coupe, was raised from the street at Thirty-seventh and Farnam and hurled, straight up, half a block and thrown across the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street and buried in mud above the wheels. Another was seen on Thirty-ninth avenue, crushed upside-down against a granite wall. Many drivers caught in the storm were badly injured.
One of the freaks of the tornado was found in connection with another automobile on North Thirty-eighth street, near Webster street. The machine had stood in a garage. The garage was torn from its foundations and hurled bottom-side up 100 yards away. The car stood unharmed on the ceiling of the structure, which was shorn of walls and floor in transit.
At daybreak scores of linemen and laborers employed by the electric light and telephone companies invaded the devastated areas with line equipments, pickaxes and shovels, and began the seemingly endless task of clearing away the tons of debris cluttering the streets. The street railway company had gangs of men at work all night in an effort to straighten out the tangle of its demoralized service.
The destruction of hundreds of homes meant a total loss to home owners, particularly those of limited means, as only a small percentage of them carried tornado insurance on their property.
Standing on the porch of his home at Fairview, William Jennings Bryan, secretary of state, watched the twisting twin funnels of destruction high above and to the south of Lincoln on Sunday night, March 23.
The ominous appearing clouds attracted his attention, and, with Mrs. Bryan and Robert Ross, his personal stenographer, Secretary Bryan calmly calculated where the destruction was to be, although the magnitude of the life and property loss far exceeded his fears. Upon his arrival in Chicago, three days later, his first inquiry was for the latest reports about the damage.
"From my house at Fairview," said the secretary, "I could see the two twirling, twisting funnel-shaped clouds. When we first discovered them they were high up, but gradually circling toward the ground, making the descent in wide sweeps.
"It was about 5:30 o’clock and the clouds, whirling arid twisting, made an ominous spectacle. Later we began to receive reports of the damage. It just seemed a miracle that the cyclone missed Lincoln. The people stood in the streets and on their doorsteps and watched that exhibition of certain death and destruction in the distance,.
"Coming east our train seemed to travel in the wake of the cyclone. Town after town was leveled to the ground. In some places not a single building even reared its roof to denote there was a shelter. We sort of followed the storm. Everywhere the people were digging in the debris, removing dangerous parts of demolished buildings and otherwise making matters safe for those who escaped the fury of the winds and rain.
"The sight of the damage was sufficient.to indicate what the immediate havoc of it all must have been. And, too, I learn that the West was not alone in the zone of destruction. Indiana and other states have reported a long list of dead and injured and great property loss.
"Omaha seems to have been the attraction for the storm. The great revolving wind cloud whirled away in several instances from cities and then when over Omaha dropped down onto it, enveloping the business district in its destructive maw.
"Around Omaha the towns and country practically are untouched, as far as any great damage is concerned. The storm ripped right through Omaha, tearing down buildings and tumbling them into piles of brick and mortar, but leaving unscathed great trees, which one surely would expect to have been caught by the wind and torn up by the roots."
Secretary Bryan was eager to learn of the destruction by floods in Ohio, and when told Dayton was reported to be flood-swept, expressed the deepest sympathy for those homeless.
"Apparently we in the West had best give sympathy at this time," he said, "in addition to receiving it. I think the levee in Dayton must have been near a thickly populated district. It is awful and I sincerely hope the reports we have received of the loss of life and destruction of property will be found to have been predicated more on the excitement of the moment rather than on subsequent disclosures."
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman