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Belleville's deadliest tornado struck in 1938

The twister damaged more than 200 homes in a five-block path through west Belleville and touched down again in the small community of Glenview, now a part of O'Fallon.
The twister damaged more than 200 homes in a five-block path through west Belleville and touched down again in the small community of Glenview, now a part of O'Fallon.

Joe Roesch Jr. was driving home from baseball practice at Cathedral High School when Belleville's deadliest tornado struck on Tuesday, March 15, 1938.

The 16-year-old saw an overturned car, which had been picked up by the twister and hurled against Western Oil Co.'s service station at 2709 W. Main St. He didn't realize it was his father's Ford coupe.

Roesch continued two more blocks and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his family's home intact, but the storm had left its calling card.

"We had a two-car (detached) brick garage, and there wasn't a brick left of it," said Roesch, now 87, of Swansea. "The tornado picked up all the bricks. We never did find them."

Later that evening, Joe, his mother, Eleanore, and sister, Dolores, learned their beloved husband and father, Joseph P. Roesch, 55, was dead.

The prominent businessman was a board member for Roesch Enamel Range Co. Rescuers had to dig his body out of debris. His neck was broken.

Roesch was one of 10 people killed by the black funnel cloud, which cut a five-block path through west Belleville at 4:53 p.m. and touched down again in Glenview, north of O'Fallon. A second tornado hit southeastern St. Clair and Washington counties about an hour later.

The Belleville News-Democrat published a rare extra edition that night, following up with more details the next day.

"Property damage in the city alone was estimated at $500,000 by Fire Chief Walter A. Finklein," the newspaper reported. "(He) said 24 brick houses and 61 frame houses were leveled or badly damaged by the twister, which struck with all its fury in the region lying between 28th and 32nd streets."

Officials later updated figures to include more than 200 homes damaged and $1 million in property loss.

The tornado uprooted trees, shattered windows, tore off porches and injured more than 50 people. It wrecked G.S. Suppiger's canning plant and destroyed Hargrave's Tavern and Castelli-Born's service station. It skirted Belleville Township High School, but demolished the second story of Union School, where 225 pupils had been dismissed for the day.

"There is a mite of consolation in the thought that it might have been worse," a News-Democrat editorial stated on March 16, 1938.

"Far more terrible would have been the havoc had the path of the tornado been laid a mile or so to the east, where the area is more densely populated. Horrifying is the thought that had the blow come an hour or so earlier, what a grim tragedy would have occurred at Union School."

Josephine Bunn remembers taking cover in her basement on 37th Street with her husband, Walter, mother-in-law, Henrietta, and baby daughter, also named Henrietta.

Bunn was pregnant with her second child. She tried to protect baby Henrietta by putting her in a clothes basket with a pillow.

"It was scary," said Bunn, now 96, of Belleville. "You could hear the roar and feel the vibration and see things flying in the air through a little window (in the basement)."

The family had no electricity or phone service when they went upstairs, but their home wasn't damaged. Tree branches, straw and other debris littered the yard.

Bill DeMestri was a 16-year-old carrier for the Belleville Advocate in 1938. He found refuge at his sister's house on Reiss Avenue, off 30th Street, when the storm hit.

DeMestri remembers seeing the sky get very dark and hearing a sound like a freight train that lasted about 45 seconds.

"We all got under the kitchen table," said DeMestri, now 86, who later worked more than 50 years as a News-Democrat photographer. "(My sister) had a basement, but we didn't have time to get down there."

In the days following the tornado, Belleville residents joined together to clean up the wreckage, treat the injured and comfort those who had lost loved ones or possessions.

One of the most tragic stories involved Charles and Lillian Johnson, whose 14-month-old daughter, Sharon Lee, was killed in the storm. Lillian had given birth to a baby boy just the day before.

Sharon Lee was staying with her grandparents. The wind tore her out of her grandmother's arms and threw her onto the floor.

The other dead were George Hassall, 58; Leda Koch, 43; C. Jane Smith, 76; Oscar J. Krug, 71; Catherine Malacarne, 23; Frank Matysik, 54; Albert Weaver Sr., 68; and his wife, Lucy Weaver, 59. All were of Belleville, except the Weavers, who lived in Glenview.

The News-Democrat reflected the community's devastation in a lengthy headline on its editorial page March 16:

"Nature, infuriated and enraged, showed neither sympathy nor mercy for those in its path. Visitation of tornado must be viewed as an unavoidable calamity. Physical scars will be removed, but other losses cannot be replaced or compensated."

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