200 Years of Illinois: Dark Skies

April 21, 1967, dawned cool and foggy in northern Illinois. It had been a tough winter and the cold had yet to fully retreat. In fact, it would snow again three days later in some parts. Not the kind of day you expected warm temperatures, let alone one of the deadliest swarms of tornadoes to ever strike the state.

school busTemperatures warmed as the day continued. The various meteorological factors involved in the development of super-cells steadily gathered. The situation generated a long list of tornadoes that day. Meteorologists later ranked three of them as super-destructive F4 storms. One hit Belvidere shortly after 3:50 p.m., another Oak Lawn and Chicago’s South Side at rush hour, and a third the Barrington-Lake Zurich area. At least seventeen tornadoes touched down in Illinois that day, as did almost thirty others in surrounding states.

The Belvidere tornado became that town’s defining event. The details make one wonder about divine providence. When the tornado hit, school was just letting out at the high school. A fairly small town, Belvidere mixed high school riders with children from middle- and elementary school. Buses full of those kids were lined up when the tornado struck. The storm had already blasted past the local Chrysler plant where my uncle worked, destroying hundreds of cars.

Later on, I met people who had hunkered in the basement while the tornado ripped their houses to pieces, and others who carried in bodies to the school gymnasium. It was one of those events that people remembered like it had happened yesterday. Seemingly everyone knew somebody injured or killed, or who had lost a child. This guy had been in a car rolled across a field. That woman was in a bus that landed on someone’s porch. My grandmother lived in Belvidere then and for the rest of her life she only needed to see a dark cloud to bring up that day. The summers there, the sirens went off three or four or five times, and though I didn’t get it then I can see why the town might play it safe and press the button.