This weekend marks the anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest tornado disaster in U.S. history. On March 18, 1925, an F5 twister formed near Ellington, Missouri in the early afternoon. The storm packed 300 MPH winds and stayed on the ground a nigh-unthinkable 3.5 hours. Moving northeast, it crossed the Mississippi River. On its way across southern Illinois it wiped out almost half of Murphysboro, where 234 people died either in the storm or in the fires that broke out shortly afterward. In Gorham, the winds ripped railroad tracks out of the ground. Virtually every building was destroyed. It soon leveled De Soto, where the partial collapse of the local school killed 33.
“I was happy that day of the tornado and, just in a flash, I was desolate,” survivor Betty Moroni told a newspaper in 2015. “I didn’t have a home, didn’t know the way home. It was all blown away.”
Bush, West Frankfurt, and the Orient Mine suffered enormous damage. The storm demolished the entire town of Parrish. Still moving northeast, it smashed into three Indiana towns and destroyed an estimated 85 farms before dissipating near Petersburg at 4:30 p.m.
The total death toll across the tornado’s path was a still-record 695 people, with approximately 600 of the deaths in Illinois.
Scientists today generally believe the Tri-State Tornado was in fact a family of tornadoes, though there’s not enough data to be certain. Strong downburst winds from the storm clouds added to the damage. It seems that in some places rain or dust hid the tornado from sight and allowed it to approach with little or no warning. Meteorologists group the Tri-State Tornado into a massive March 18 tornado outbreak that affected at least six states. The storm that spawned the Tri-State twister spun off more tornadoes in central Indiana.