Tornado rips through Belleville in 1938, killing 10
This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Eighty years ago, at 4:53 p.m. March 15, 1938, Belleville experienced the deadliest tornado in its history. The storm tore through west Belleville and touched down again north of O'Fallon in Glenview.
Ten people, from ages 14-months to 76-years-old, died. Two different schools, a tavern, a canning plant, gas station and multiple homes were destroyed.
Trees were ripped apart. Cars were thrown against buildings like toys, left leaning or upside-down in the street in the wake of the disaster.
The surviving witnesses all described the terrifying noise, darkness, and destructive power of the storm.
The strongest feeling that accompanied the survivors' memories was fear.
The city of Belleville's response was to bury and mourn the dead, collect money for the victims of the tornado and rebuild.
In a recent interview, Caroline Silch, 85, of Belleville, shared her memories of the storm.
"I remember being so scared. I was 5 years old," Silch said.
During her childhood, Silch lived with her parents, John and Clara Keck, in Belleville's West End.
"My dad, John Keck, worked for Illinois Power Company," Silch said. "He didn’t get home — West Main Street was a mess. It totally destroyed Hargrave’s."
Her clearest memory of the tornado is of a phone call, warning about the storm. "My aunt lived on 5th Street and I remember her calling my mother, saying (the tornado) was coming through," Silch said.
The BND reported: "It appears to have reached its fury at Main Street and Southern Railway Crossing. In the area between the Western Illinois Oil Company's filling station and Tom Hargraves' tavern, bodies of four victims were found."
On North 29th Street, Vernier Avenue, North 30th Street, North 31st Street and North 32nd Street, the BND reported, "Sights included dishpans resting in trees and clothing draped over shrubbery. It was desolation at its worst."
It is estimated more than 200 homes were damaged and the city had approximately $1 million in property loss. That amount of property loss today would be valued around $17,119,722.
Eye-witnesses to destruction
The next day, on March 16, 1938, the Belleville News-Democrat devoted the majority of its pages to tornado coverage. Reporters collected eye-witness testimony of the killer storm.
After the storm, Rose Moelman accompanied her friends to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. She mistook the BND reporter, who was standing near the entrance, for a doctor and said, "The wind did not hurt me, but it got the dog excited and he bit me."
The wife of Joel Daniels, whose first name was not recorded, said, "I was working in my kitchen on South 29th Street, when I heard a loud roar. At once I recognized the cyclone and it was coming straight for our home."
Her son, Carl Daniels, was in the bathtub and her daughter, Christine, was in another room. She called her children and they rushed together into the basement.
"All three of us had no sooner crowded into a corner of the basement than the house started to crumple in on us," she told the BND. She believed the hot water pipes saved their lives by holding up the first floor of the demolished house.
Edgar A. Munie, of Caseyville Ave., was "driving in the cows" when the storm hit.
"At once it seemed as if I was in a vacuum and floated straight up in the air a foot or so," Munie said. When he hit the ground, a piece of timber flew through the air and broke his arm.
Munie said, "My new barn and house just fell to pieces like a house of cards."
Schools and G.S. Suppiger plant
August Hausam, who worked as a clerk, recalled seeing the tornado destroy Union Grade School at 2634 W. Main Street.
"It tore off the upper front part of the building and, I found out later, part of the ceiling and second floor dropped to the ground floor," Hausam said.
The 225 students had been released from school about 90 minutes before the storm struck.
Hausam also witnessed the destruction of the G.S. Suppiger canning plant at 2628 W. Main St. He described it like "a huge brick had been dropped on a paper house."
Belleville Township High School, which adjoined the Suppiger plant, was untouched except for "a few panes of glass, the poles supporting lights for the athletic field, a small portion of the fence at the tennis court and the awnings at the cafeteria building."
Risdon School, south of New Athens, had its roof blown off. Like Union School, the students and teacher had gone home before the storm.
Memories of the 1938 storm
In 2008, BND reporter Teri Maddox interviewed surviving eye-witnesses to the 1938 disaster in an archival story she wrote for the paper's 150th anniversary special edition.
Joe Roesch Jr., who died in 2009, told the BND, "The tornado picked up all the bricks (of the two-car garage). We never did find them."
Long-time BND photographer Bill DeMestri was 16-years-old when the tornado hit. He died in 2017 at age 95.
DeMestri said the sky darkened and he heard "a sound like a freight train that lasted about 45 seconds."
"We all got under the kitchen table. (My sister) had a basement, but we didn't have time to get down there," he recalled.
During the killer tornado, Josephine Bunn was pregnant and had a baby daughter. She died in June 2014 at age 102.
Bunn said she tried to protect her baby by putting her in a clothes basket with a pillow. "It was scary," Bunn told the BND in 2008.
In 1938, the BND reported Marilyn Jane Emge, daughter of State Rep. Ben Emge, had gone to the basement of her home with her parents with the tornado struck. Outside, she saw a steel power tower fall onto the train tracks nearby.
She knew a train was scheduled to go across those tracks.
According to the BND, Marilyn rushed outside into the storm and ran down the tracks, waving her arms to warn the approaching train.
Though it was traveling slowly, the train stopped before it hit the tower.
Illinois Central Railroad officials said, "The girl's heroism made certain that the train stopped in time to prevent a wreck."
Marilyn's home took heavy damage but her parents only received minor injuries.
BND reporters later spotted Ben Emge at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, watching the injured arrive for treatment.
Ben Emge told the BND in 1938, "I'm looking for my son. I have not seen or heard of him since three o'clock this afternoon." Emge's son was later found uninjured.
Casualties of the storm
Leo Matysik told reporters he fainted when he found the body of his father, Frank J. Matysik, in the debris of the Western Oil Company's filling station at 2709 West Main St. Frank Matysik was buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery.
Unaware at the time, Joe Roesch Jr. had driven by his father's overturned car on the way back to his family's home after the storm. Joseph P. Roesch's neck had broken when the tornado flipped his car over with him inside. Joseph P. Roesch was buried at Green Mount Cemetery.
Robert Weaver, age 9, suffered only cuts and bruises when the tornado ravaged his grandparents' home. His grandparents, Albert and Lucy Weaver were seated in the kitchen, thrown 150 feet into the air by the storm and were killed. The Weavers were buried in College Hill Cemetery, Lebanon.
Robert Malacarne and his 2-year-old daughter, Anne Marie, were injured when the tornado hit their home at 31 N. 29th St. The BND reported Catherine Malacarne, Robert Malacarne's wife, died after she was crushed by an ice box. Catherine Malacarne's pallbearers were Frank Wesolic, Arthur Barttelbort, John Manar, Wilmer Busekrus, John Meynell and Frank Chouinard.
Leda Elizabeth Koch, 43, a native of Belleville, worked at Hargrave's tavern and died in the destruction there. She had five surviving brothers and three sisters, according to her obituary in the BND. Koch is buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery.
Sharon Lee Johnson, 14-months-old, was pulled out of her grandmother's arms by the storm and died. Her funeral was held at St. Peter's Cathedral. Her parents, Charles and Lillian Johnson, had just given birth to a son, Roger Johnson, at St. Elizabeth's Hospital on Monday. The tornado hit on Tuesday.
Oscar J. Krug, 71, of 3101 Roland Ave., was killed near Hargrave's tavern. The Rev. B.J. Koehler of St. Paul's Evangelical Church, officiated at his funeral. Krug was buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery.
George Hassal's body was discovered under wreckage between the Western Oil Company's filling station and Hargrave's tavern. He was buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery.
St. Clair County coroner, Leo L. Madden, said C. Jane Smith, 76, of 119 N. 30th St., died of "crushing injuries to the head and internal injuries." The Rev. J.W. Patterson of the First Baptist Church officiated at her funeral. She was buried at High Prairie Cemetery.
During the disaster, Melvin Price, who would eventually go on to serve as the metro-east congressman from 1944 to 1988, was secretary to Congressman Edwin M. Schaefer. He sent a telegram to Schaefer in Washington requesting an emergency order so local authorities could begin rebuilding Belleville as soon as possible.
Then Belleville Police Chief Thomas H. Lonie took one look at the extensive damage to the community and instructed a sergeant to radio Scott Field. He asked the base to "send all available men to the scene."
Col. Arthur G. Fisher, commanding officer at Scott Field at that time, came personally with 150 men within half an hour of the request. They worked, clearing the wreckage, alongside city officials and Illinois State Highway Police until the National Guard arrived.
Maj. George McClure was commanding officer of the guardsmen who were sent to Belleville in the emergency response. Battery E of East St. Louis and Battery F of Alton stayed for a week, working to put the city back to rights.
"I cannot think of any instance in which we were treated so courteously by citizens as we have been during our stay here," McClure told the BND in 1938. "Our quarters here in the high school gymnasium are better than any we have ever encountered."
Governor in Belleville
Then-Illinois Gov. Henry Horner drove to Belleville to inspect the damage himself the day after the storm.
According to the BND, he said, "The havoc is worse than I had anticipated." He went on to commend then Belleville Mayor George Remnsnider and city employees for the work that had been done so far.
Gov. Horner was shown around the disaster zone by then-Bishop of Belleville Henry Althoff and members of the National Guard.
He gave a short speech to the National Guards and complemented them on their efforts. "I want you to know your governor is proud of you," Gov. Horner said in 1938.
Later that day, after lunch, he addressed a group of about 20 boys who had gathered to take his picture.
"I guess you boys are sorry because your school (Union school) was destroyed," Horner said. The BND reported the boys laughed in response.
A reporter asked the governor if state funds would be provided for Belleville. He replied, "The Red Cross has never failed in an emergency of this kind. But if state funds are needed, we would have to take some of them from other departments."
The Red Cross did provide for the tornado victims, assisting more than 188 families with rebuilding, refurnishing, food and clothing costs.
Looting and donations for victims
In 1938, the BND received multiple reports of looting but Police Chief Thomas Lonie said Belleville police had only received a few. He asked "persons who find papers and other articles in the wreckage of the homes and buildings to turn them over to the police officers who are on duty constantly at the National Guards' headquarters."
Lonie told the BND that one suspect was arrested on suspicion of looting, but when police couldn't find enough evidence to convict the man, they "ran him out of the city."
Bishop Althoff, sent a letter to all of the Catholic churches in St. Clair County, requesting a special collection during Mass on March 20, 1938 for the tornado victims.
He noted all funds collected would be given to B.H. Portuondo, who was the chairmain of the American Red Cross in St. Clair County at that time. Twenty years earlier, Portuondo had been the head of the Belleville Board of Health during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
The BND reported Belleville residents were taking care of each other: "A check today showed there were no persons without lodging. There has been no shortage of food in any of the districts and no threat of an epidemic of disease."
Grateful in the aftermath
Belleville City Council and Mayor Remnsnider stood in silent prayer for the victims of the tornado at the city council meeting following the storm.
Remnsnider also read a letter of appreciation to those who came to the city's aid.
"We pray that none of you will ever be visited by a calamity of this kind, but if you should be so unfortunate, I am sure you will always find the city of Belleville ready to give a helping hand," Remnsnider said.
On the advice of the city building commissioner, the council waived all fees for building permits for the homes in the storm-damaged areas.
The BND's editorial the day after the storm spoke of strength and healing: "We, too, will show the world that we can take it on the chin without going down for the count. Let us bury our dead in silence and sorrow, clear away the debris in the wake of the storm and go about the task of rebuilding as quickly as possible."
Severe weather today
Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Center in St. Louis, said the midwest is the worldwide leader in tornado occurences.
"There is no place on the planet that gets more tornados than us," Kramper said.
He said thunderstorms, even without tornados, are dangerous in themselves and should be watched carefully.
Kramper said, "A lot of the emphasis is on tornados and maybe rightly so because they have the very high potential for damage, destruction, death and injuries, but don’t forget about the other stuff — the damaging wind gusts, the large hail, the lightning. Every single thunderstorm produces lightning. Every thunderstorm could kill you."
According to the national weather center numbers, peak tornado season is April, May and June. "But we can have severe thunderstorms any month of the year," Kramper said. "No month is a zero."
What's the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family in a severe thunderstorm or tornado?
"Understand you are living in a dangerous place for weather and it's important to pay attention and be informed," Kramper said.
He advises finding safe places at home, work and school. Know where to go before a potential disaster strikes.
Kramper said, "We want people to think about (safe places) now so they don’t have to guess. So they instinctively know where to go."
BND reporter Teri Maddox contributed to this story.