The Tri-State Tornado was a lethal and devastating tornado that affected three whole states in the center of the US on March 18, 1925. It traveled 235 miles across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 695 people. That gives it the unfortunate designation as the deadliest tornado ever recorded in the United States, and the second deadliest across the globe.
It is certainly the worst tornado in US history. Retrospective meteorological analysis concluded the destruction resulted from independent tornadoes acting together, instead of a single tornado.
In this article, we’ll go over a detailed history of this horrific storm and why it’s the worst tornado in US history. We’ll cover when it occurred, as well as an outline of its destruction.
Where did the Tornado Occur?
The tornado emerged around 1pm local time in Ellington, MO. Meteorological reports that day had been normal. and the town’s residents were caught off-guard.
In the 1920s, tornadoes were not forecast so as not to frighten the public. Broadcasts and publications weren’t even allowed to use the word “tornado.”
The storm rapidly moved up to the north east, progressing with calamitous momentum through the Missouri towns of Annapolis, Biehle and Frohna. It killed 11 people before reaching the Mississippi River.
After crossing the river into Illinois, it practically demolished the towns of Gorham, De Soto, and Murphysboro among others.
Murphysboro was the worst hit town along its trajectory. It suffered 234 fatal casualties, including 17 children at Longfield elementary school. The town never fully recovered. By 1930, after 5 years, its population was still 30% less than before the tornado struck.
After killing over 600 people in the state of Illinois, the tornado crossed the Wabash River into Indiana.
It destroyed the towns of Griffin, Owensville, and Princeton. It wreaked havoc throughout the area’s acres of farmland. 71 people in Indiana were killed
The tornado retreated at around 4:30pm, just 3 miles southwest of Petersburg.
Death Total by State for the Worst Tornado in US History
The Tri State Tornado of 1925 touched down in Missouri at 1pm and finished its destruction around 4:30pm near Petersburg, Indiana.
During those three and a half hours of destruction and terror nearly 700 people lost their lives:
Additionally, more than 2,000 people were injured during this extreme weather event.
About The Tri State Tornado
The storm’s winds traveled at around 300 miles per hour. That massive speed classifies it as an EF5 tornado, according to the Enhanced Fujita scale.
The tornado lasted for three and a half hours and covered 219 miles of land. That was a new record for both time span and distance covered. Estimates indicate it was about 1 mile wide with an average speed of 62 miles per hour. It’s one of the widest, fastest, and worst tornadoes in U.S. history.
While 695 people were killed, 2000 more were injured, and many more lost their homes and livelihoods.
In the aftermath of the tornado, fires and looting occurred, which only increased the overall destruction.
Tri-State Tornado by the Numbers
|Tri State Tornado Statistics||Actual Measurement|
|Path Length (how far it travelled)||219 miles|
|Duration on the Ground||3.5 hours|
|Total Number of Fatalities||695 people|
|Total Number of Injuries||2,027 people|
|Deaths in a Single Community (Murphysboro, IL)||234 people|
|Deaths in a Single School (De Soto, IL)||33 people|
Why was this Tornado so Catastrophic?
While there are obvious reasons why the Tri-State Tornado was the worst in US history. The main reasons were:
- How long it lasted
- The distance it traveled
- How strong the winds were
- Where it occurred (a populated area vs a less populated area)
There are also a number of other factors that made it particularly catastrophic.
1.The Tornado Occurred in Winter
Tornado season typically occurs in spring and early summer, particularly May and June. The Tri-State Tornado occurred in March.
Citizens were unprepared and unsuspecting. As a result, they were caught flat-footed, and they were unable to take all the necessary safety precautions to protect themselves. Ultimately this meant more people died or were injured.
In addition, experts claim that winter tornadoes, while relatively rare, can be significantly more dangerous. The colder weather conditions allow them to travel quicker than storms in spring.
2. It was Illegal to Publish or Broadcast a Tornado Prediction
Tornadoes have been reported on for over a thousand years. However, it is only within very recent history that we have been able to photograph or record tornadoes and the destruction they cause. With that technology, the study of tornadoes is now easier and more advanced.
With early cameras and film apparatuses in the late 19th century, some meteorologists attempted to study tornado activity. They wanted to determine the weather conditions that cause tornadoes, as well as and the direction and path they’ll take. Early predictions were often wrong. False predictions put people in an unnecessary state of alarm and panic. Eventually, people stopped paying attention because they were wrong so often.
Subsequently, the government decided these predictions were doing more harm than good. They then made it illegal to forecast a potential tornado.
This meant that on the day of the Tri-State Tornado, the weather reports had been normal and unalarming. When the tornado hit, it caught people completely off guard.
In 1948, over two decades after the Tri-State Tornado, meteorologists Erneth Fawbush and Robert Miller, finally created a reasonably accurate system of prediction for tornadoes. The government permitted public tornado forecasting with this new discovery.
3. The Tri-State Tornado may have been Invisible
When we picture a tornado, we likely picture a kind of whirlpool or funnel, however this is not always the case. Some tornadoes’ only indicated by their destrution. That makes invisible tornadoes often the most dangerous because they are undetectable until very close.
Conflicting reports from Tri-State Tornado witnesses argue both points. Some claimed had a visible funnel when first seen in the hills of north-west Ellington, Missouri. Other reports claim there was no funnel. Instead, they reported the whole tornado was hidden behind a cloud screen that looked like boiling water.
None of the photographs taken of the Tri-State Tornado show a visible funnel. Photographs of other tornadoes in the same era do. The Tri-State tornado was at least not clearly visible. That only served to further catch people off guard and helped it become one of the worst tornadoes in US history
4. The Tornado Took a Peculiar Path
In addition to traveling such a long distance, the tornado also changed course and took peculiar twists and turns.
That led it to damage towns and cities it would have otherwise completely missed.
For example, after destroying Murphysboro, it traveled east rather than northeast, as expected. This meant it destroyed Bush and West Frankfort, among other municipalities, before reaching Illinois.
Tornadoes are notoriously unpredictable, but this unusual path resulted in an additional 152 deaths.
5. There may have been Multiple Tornadoes
It’s debated whether the Tri-State Tornado was really one single, devastating tornado or several tornadoes that combined.
Modern meteorological reports claim that the specific dynamics of supercells and tornadoes make it unlikely that such continuity of destruction could have been caused by one single tornado. They suggest it was several separate tornadoes that morphed and formed a tornado family.
Such a ferocious and unparalleled catastrophe rarely comes from one tornado alone.
6. Emergency Services were not as Efficient as They are Today
While the tornado itself killed some people, many died due to the dangerous hours that followed the storm. The most common causes of death after the tri state tornado included:
- Being trapped under rubble
- Suffering severe injuries
- Fires that occurred as a direct result of the tornado
It took months to fully survey the area and find all the survivors. Some people died from dehydration and hunger as it took so long to reach people.
Today, we have a more sophisticated rescue system, as well as more advanced healthcare and fire fighting techniques.
The systems at the time couldn’t respond well to the catastrophe. Modern technology would have reduced the number of deaths significantly. Building regulations have also reacted to the threat of tornadoes. Newer buildings are much safer from tornadoes.
Amazing Survival Stories
While the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was undoubtedly catastrophic and the worst tornado in US history, it is not without some miraculous survival stories.
Here are two of my favorites:
- In Annapolis, MO, a schoolhouse with a teacher and her 25 students all saw a vivid green cloud approaching from the window. They sheltered below their desks. The tornado tore the building around them to pieces, shattered windows, but everyone survived.
- A young Illinois girl home sick from school was lying in bed when the tornado tore the roof off her home. She felt herself lifted from the bed and pulled into the tornado’s funnel. She went unconscious. When she woke up later, she was beneath a pile of rubble about a mile away with no injuries other than a few cuts and bruises.
Final Thoughts About the Worst Tornado in US History
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was a devastating natural disaster and the worst tornado in US history. In the time since, people have invested in better technology to improve meteorological predictions.
Furthermore, infrastructure enhancements have increased building safety so that if such an event does occur again, it will not be so devastating, and while we do still have horrible and deadly tornadoes (the Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes come to mind), none have rivaled the 1925 Tri State Tornado.
If you live in a region where tornadoes are a threat, stay safe by keeping up to date with the weather forecasts. Make sure your home is fully equipped with all necessary precautionary measures, and have a plan for where to go and what to do in the event of a storm.
Featured Image Source Material Credit: Created Using photos from the Jackson County, IL Historical Society and a map originally published by Wilson, John W., and Stanley A. Changnon, Jr. (1971). Illinois Tornadoes. Circular 103. Illinois State Water Survey: Urbana-Champaign, IL.