50 years since the biggest tragedy hit Belvidere

A group of people walk out of the high school after the tornado hit.

A group of people walk out of the high school after the tornado hit.

Gracie Thies, News Editor

     On April 21, 1967 at about 4 PM, a EF3-4 tornado hit the town of Belvidere, Illinois. A storm that killed 24 people, injured 500, and left more than 100 homes and 12 businesses dismayed. This year will be the 50th anniversary of the tragic event.

     The stories have been told numerous, but the memories will be in hearts forever. The tornado hit a high school, hospital, the Chrysler Plant, a grocery store and many homes along the way.

     One of the questions many continue to ask is, how many tornadoes were there? Some say one and others say seven. The question has never been answered and will remain that way.

     At the Chrysler Plant, workers didn’t stop until the air pressure has popped the overhead lights and took out all the lights. The assembly line eventually shut down and workers watched has their cars flew by. The storm was over in a couple minutes, then workers left to find their cars missing, demolished, or stacked two or three high.

     “Had it hit 40 minutes earlier, it would have been a disaster,” said Russ Wheeler, a second shift worker at the Chrysler Plant at the time.

     The Pacemaker was one place that was literally held together by its roof. Customers began to leave the store when Carl Bangert, a store employee, saw the tornado approaching. He told the store manager and they gathered everyone where the bread rack was.

     “I saw a woman run toward the front door,” said Gerry DalPra, the Pacemaker store manager. “I ran and tackled her and made her stay on the floor.”

     As people began to move away from the wall, there was blood and dirt on their faces. Two died as a result of the storm at the store.

     One unique story was told by a couple named Orin and Anita Thies. Orin was away working his job at RC Cola when the storm hit. Anita had taken her mother and two sons Kevin, 4 and Kerry, 1 to the Kroger Store downtown. No one was at their home when the tornado hit on 1323 East Avenue.  When they tried to return home, they were told they didn’t have anything left.

     “The good lord told me to get out of that house,” said Anita.

     Anita walked the rest of the way home with her mother, two sons and then her father. Orin and Anita eventually found each other and their home, then realized their 6-year old beagle, Princess, was nowhere to be found.

     On May 9, a woman called the family and told them she saw a stray beagle by the high school. An ad was placed in the newspaper in hopes of finding their beloved princess.  Exactly three weeks after the storm had hit, the family received a phone call from the repairman cleaning out the furnace ducts at the house. The Thieses were going to live in the basement while house was being rebuilt above their heads.

     “The guy calls us and said there’s a beagle here, who’s whining and crying,” said Orin.

     Sure enough, it was the dog they’d been searching for all along. Princess lived until she was 15 and the family began to call her Princess number two because of the unbelievable experience that had occurred.

     “If that dog could have talked, I’d never have to work for the rest of my life,” said Orin.

     Many students were affected when the tornado hit Belvidere High School.

     “My brother Timothy Smith was on his way home in Caledonia on a bus,” said Eloise Stevens. “The bus driver asked the kids to get off when the tornado hit. Tim was badly injured and died a week later. My sister was also on a bus that flipped over and she broke both her legs ,in three places.

     Students were getting out of school and starting to drive off in their cars when they heard a tornado was bearing down on them. Some chose to stay in their cars and ride out the storm instead of making a run for it.

     “I saw five funnel clouds comin straight at us,” said Dave Englund as he got into his friend’s car. “In a split second, we had to decide if we were better off in the car or running. But we didn’t have time because, suddenly, we were pelted with debris.”

     Englund’s car landed 25 feet from its original location. The car flipped multiple times and landed upside down, protecting them from debris.

     Others made a run for the high school when officers were alerting students of the the potential storm approaching.

     “Linda and I starting running toward the high school, toward the gym,” said Alice Pond.

     “We found there was no outside handle. The door frame, however, did have a window. We pounded on the door and a friend of my son’s came running down the hall, saw us, and opened the door.

     They got in just in time before the tornado struck the high school. Wrestling mats were brought into the gym for the injured. Parents returned to the school to find their missing children.

  The people that lost their lives will never be forgotten in a time a tragedy and despair in the most unfortunate storm in Belvidere’s history.