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Local Column

Schrader: Survivors recall fatal tornado of 50 years ago

Man was passenger on school bus that twister toppled, causing deaths

Vi Tewksbury of Genoa shows the headlines from local newspapers printed after the April 22, 1967 tornado.
Vi Tewksbury of Genoa shows the headlines from local newspapers printed after the April 22, 1967 tornado.

The April 2015 tornado that devastated Fairdale and the surrounding countryside is fresh in people’s memories, but the most deadly EF4 twister to ever hit this area was April 21, 1967.

That storm killed 24 people, 13 of them students in 12 buses in front of Belvidere High School. The buses were loaded with children from elementary and junior high school whom they had picked up first.

Vi Tewksbury of Genoa found the newspapers from the day after that tragedy and recently shared them with me. Her late husband, Roy, was part of the G-K Rescue Squad, which responded to the disaster. She was among the employees at Automatic Electric in Genoa who collected canned goods and other needed items to deliver to the Red Cross.

Other Genoa-area residents were affected by the storm, and some worked at the Belvidere Chrysler plant, where 300 new cars and about 100 employee vehicles were totaled. In DeKalb, the Glidden Grade School had to be closed because of heavy wind damage to the roof.

Looking for a first-person account, I got help from former Genoa classmate George Quigley, who put me in touch with Dan Potter. He was 13 years old and a sixth-grade student at Washington Grade School at the time. Potter was in one of the 12 school buses that were near the front of the high school at 3:50 p.m. when it happened.

He said the bus was picked up, turned on its side, then slammed back down to the ground. When rescue workers came to get them out, Potter was the only one still in his seat; he was so scared he gripped the seating so hard his hands had torn through the covering.

A police officer had to shake him loose from the seating to get him out. His best friend was killed, Potter recalled.

Just before the tragedy, a police officer had pulled up to the bus and warned them the funnel cloud was coming, but nothing could be done in the seconds that followed. Dan said the bus windows shattered and glass was strewn all over. He was lucky, as were five of his siblings at the scene, all of whom were able to go home that day instead of the hospital.

The survivors were rushed inside the heavily damaged school, first to the library, then, when its ceiling started to come down, into the cafeteria. There they stayed until the “all clear” was given.

Potter’s father had driven to the area but could not get through the blocked-off streets, so he walked the rest of the way to get him and his brothers and sisters and take them home to Garden Prairie.

Potter and others who lived through the storm still talk about it today. He plans to go to the 50th anniversary remembrance April 21 at the high school. A large stainless steel sculpture of a twister stands there, with 24 names of those lost that day engraved on it.

• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at barry815@sbcglobal.net or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns are posted on his website at www.dekalbcountylife.com.

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