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Killer Tornado of 1928

  • By Thomas Grazulis
  • Posted 03.30.04
  • NOVA

It had been a busy Tuesday in Thurston County, Nebraska, for young Dale Larson. It was obvious to all farmers and their children that the day would be stormy. The harvest was under way, and prewinter projects were still competing with daily chores on the Larson farm three miles east of Pender. A mile from the Larson farm sat the James School. Miss Dorothy Smith was only slightly uneasy about the threat of bad weather. The storm cave was only a few feet from the school, and September was not tornado season.

Dale Larson and the schoolchildren standing in a row

Dale Larson (far left in photo) and the schoolchildren he saved pose before the storm-shelter door that he held down with a jump rope. Enlarge Photo credit: © Heritage Museum of Thurston County

Seven miles to the north-northeast was the Lamere School, where 22-year-old Phyliss Stewart was conducting class for her pupils. She also was not especially concerned about the weather. Another 10 miles to the northeast, 19-year-old Helen Rooney, teacher at the O'Connor School, was nervous in the stormy weather, as she always was. Her school was situated on an exposed hilltop, and she frequently dispersed the children to their homes on neighboring farms on those occasions when the weather turned severe.

Thunderstorms grew in the southwest and passed over the county on that balmy fall afternoon. After a heavy rain, the storm seemed to be over. The students at the James School were about to be dismissed. At the O'Connor School, heeding the advice of a neighboring farmer, Miss Rooney had already dismissed her students early, but she stayed to work on the lessons for the next day.

Just in time

At 3:50 p.m., 17-year-old Dale Larson and his father looked out from their hilltop farm and saw the rain drifting off to the northeast. They also glanced to the southwest and noticed a black low-hanging cloud near the ground. They knew in an instant what it could be and what had to be done. The James School was on the northeast side of a hill, and the approaching tornado would not be seen by either the students or the teacher. The massive funnel was moving steadily and directly toward the little building.

He arrived seconds before the school began to disintegrate.

Without hesitation, Dale leaped into the family Ford and began racing toward the school, heading directly into the path of the oncoming twister. Losing a tire as he spun out of the driveway, the race to the school seemed endless, although it lasted only two minutes. He arrived seconds before the school began to disintegrate. Until the moment that Dale burst into the classroom, Dorothy Smith and her 29 students were unaware that they were in any danger. Dale hurled himself into the building and shouted "Get into the cave! Cyclone!" In just a few seconds, the 31 people, ages six to 24, packed themselves into the tiny storm cave.

A grainy, black and white photo of a tornado

The tornado that struck the James School may have looked something like this—a twister photographed about 1930 near Gothenberg, Nebraska. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettman/Corbis

As the children were passing through the cloakroom, Dale almost instinctively grabbed a skipping rope. He tied it to the storm cave door and, with the help of two older boys, was able to keep the door closed while a deafening noise rose and fell outside. Ten minutes after the noise subsided they emerged into sunshine and found nothing left but fragments of a foundation, the posts from the swing, and the pump at the well, set in concrete. Pieces of the Larson family car, Miss Smith's car, and the teacher's hand bell were found more than two miles away. No one at the James School was even scratched. Fragments of schoolbooks were found in Iowa, 50 miles away. Whether they were from this or other schools in the tornado's path is not known.

Not in time

Seven miles to the north-northeast, a curious-looking sky drew Eugene Keyser away from his chores. Concerned, he headed for the Lamere School to get his nine-year-old son. As he began walking, he saw the tornado approaching and watched in amazement as the adjoining farm was obliterated. Continuing to the school, but now running, he arrived a minute before the tornado. From the school the view to the southwest was blocked by a grove of trees, and the teacher was unaware and unprepared.

We can only imagine the horror of Miss Rooney's last moments at the O'Connor School.

Unlike the James School, there was no storm cave. Keyser, Miss Stewart, and 23 children joined hands and huddled in the center of the one-room school. One of the many newspaper stories written about this extraordinary event had the teacher playing the piano, hoping to ease the children's fears by singing as the building was swept entirely away as if it were a paper box.

A black and white photo of a demolished schoolroom

This is likely the kind of damage that the Lamere School suffered. Here, a schoolroom in Murphysboro, IL, in which 60 children were caught during the Great Tri-State Tornado of March 25, 1925. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettman/Corbis

Animals from the adjoining farm were seen overhead. Two of the children were killed, including a 10-year-old girl found crushed by the piano, 50 feet away from the empty foundation. All others were injured, including Miss Stewart, who was found more than 300 feet away. Mr. Keyser reportedly helped direct the rescue work, then collapsed and was taken to the hospital delirious and semiconscious. Students recovering in the hospital argued whether it was the white or gray horse that passed overhead. A photograph of Gail Dean, the eldest of the four Dean children injured at the school, was carried 110 miles to a golf course in Sheldon, Iowa. It was returned to her parents, whose home was leveled by the tornado.

We can only imagine the horror of Miss Rooney's last moments at the O'Connor School. Her lifeless body was found against a tree, 100 feet from the empty foundation, the knob of the school door still clutched tightly in one hand.

Over the next few weeks 50,000 people visited the area and $27,000 in tolls were collected at the Sioux City, Iowa, bridge. Most of it went to a relief fund. Laws requiring schools to have storm cellars would soon be written. The seven other families whose children were saved bought the Larson family a new Ford later in the fall of 1928. In 1978, 50 years after the tornado, the students presented Dale Larson, a Pender businessman, with a commemorative plaque at their reunion.

Then and now

Tornado forecasting did not exist on September 13, 1928, and the only warning systems people had were the informal ones that have always been present in small farming communities. There were no severe weather outlooks, tornado watches, amateur radio or spotter networks, community sirens, commercial television or radio alerts, or awareness programs in northeastern Nebraska in 1928. There were only people who watched the skies and were ready to risk their own lives to help a neighbor. The heroism displayed by Dale Larson and Eugene Keyser is similar to that shown by countless people during the past century across the Great Plains.

Thousands of eyes would be focused on the southwest horizon.

If identical weather conditions were to occur today, Thurston County probably would have been alerted to the possibility of thunderstorms several days in advance of the tornado. Anyone keeping track of the weather certainly would have been warned of the imminent danger of severe thunderstorms for several hours beforehand. Thurston County would have been warned of the tornado's approach because spotter groups in Cuming County, southwest of Pender, might have seen the tornado almost immediately. Even before that, the mesocyclone rotations inside the thunderstorm would have been seen on National Weather Service Doppler radar. A warning would be broadcast on National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio while the storm was still 30 miles away, and thousands of eyes would be focused on the southwest horizon.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program "Hunt for the Supertwister". See the original site for more related features.

Thomas GrazulisThomas Grazulis is a tornado research meteorologist and director of the Tornado Project, a company based in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, that compiles information on tornadoes for the meteorological community and the general public (see www.tornadoproject.com). He is author of The Tornado: Nature's Ultimate Windstorm (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), from which this article was excerpted with kind permission of the publisher.

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