I can’t recall specifically the events that led up to the devastating tornado that ripped through Oak Lawn and portions of Evergreen Park and Hometown on April 21, 1967.
It was raining hard late that afternoon. I can recall hail and the branches on large trees bending back and forth. I imagine there were some large branches that were on the street that neighbors pushed to the front lawns of homes in the Washington Heights neighborhood where I lived in Chicago.
But I remember other large storms in the 1960s where the tree branches bent back and forth, followed by hail and thunder.
I did not live in Oak Lawn, Evergreen Park or Hometown at the time. It was earlier that evening that I learned that a tornado hit these communities, with Oak Lawn suffering the most damage. My father was a Chicago firefighter and he often worked side jobs on his days off. He was working on the city’s Southeast Side. He recalled seeing in the distance a small funnel touching up and down in the distance while he was waiting at a stoplight. Some debris was flying in the air.
He recalled that it seemed to vanish. The accounts I heard about the tornado was that the winds began to die down as the twister approached the lake. My father was not far from Lake Michigan and essentially saw the final phase of the tornado.
But the survivors of that tornado that ravaged through the southwest suburbs 50 years ago on Friday have a different story. The most repeated comments I’ve heard was that it sounded like a roaring train that grew louder and louder. Many mentioned that the sky had a green-blue look to it, followed quickly by black clouds and hail.
Oak Lawn resident Mary Lou Harker, who has been active in several organizations in the community and has served as a historian, recalls that it was strangely silent. She mentioned that the birds quit singing and seemingly disappeared. Like many other witnesses, she recalls the dark clouds rolling in and the hail.
Harker and her family survived the F4 tornado with winds estimated at about 200 miles per hour. But other residents were not so fortunate. Eighteen people died at the corner of 95th Street and Southwest Highway adjacent to Oak Lawn Community High School. Some of the vehicles that were waiting at the stoplight were tossed in the air, some of which slammed into the pedestrian overpass.
The end result was that 33 people were killed in Oak Lawn alone. The tornado also touched down in Belvidere, a town 65 miles northwest of Chicago, and some northwest suburbs. Over 500 people were injured in Oak Lawn and over 1,000 overall. The tornado touched down in the village at 5:24 p.m.
Students who were at Oak Lawn High School for after-school activities and sports programs came out after the tornado ripped through the area to assist the search for survivors and clean up debris. Buildings in that area that were either completely destroyed or sustained heavy damage were Oak Lawn Community High School’s south end, Shoot’s Lynwood Lounge, Fisher’s Motel, the Fairway Super Mart, Sherwood Forest Restaurant and two gas stations.
The one image that stands out in the minds of residents was the Suburban Transit Company at 95th and Menard. Buses were actually piled on other buses and vehicles.
The tornado damaged St. Gerald School and then raced to near 91st and Cicero and virtually destroyed the Airway Trailer Park and the Oak Lawn Roller Rink. I had heard about the roller rink because some kids I knew planned to go the popular location that day but didn’t.
The strange aspect of the tornado is that it snowed a couple of days later. Firefighters, public works employees and volunteers covered homes in which the roofs were torn off because of the tornado.
I recall going with my father several days later to view the carnage along 95th Street. Not being that familiar with the area at the time, I just looked at the piles of bricks and leveled buildings. Flattened vehicles were still a common sight several days later. The area near 95th Street and Southwest Highway resembled a war zone.
John Brodemus was 17 at the time and a senior at Oak Lawn High School. He was one of the survivors but was stunned looking at the destruction later. He saw the buses on top of other buses at the Suburban Transit Company, and that still stands out in his mind. A former science teacher at Oak Lawn High and Richards high schools, he is now retired and lives in Oswego.
But what happened on that day is still permanently etched in his memories.
“When you have days that can be sunny with high humidity, I become leery of days like that,” Brodemus said. “About 90 percent of tornadoes are preceded by hail. If you are hearing train-like sounds, you need to take immediate shelter.”