The tornadoes struck with wicked precision.
Forty-five years ago this weekend, five twisters — three of them F4 giants — descended on the Chicago area, striking so quickly that flight was all but impossible for the victims. It was the worst such storm in the area's history: 58 were killed, including many children, and more than 1,000 people were injured.
, some 70 miles northwest of Chicago, a tornado hit just as school was letting out. The 1,200 high school students tried to escape back into the building, but many younger children who were already waiting in buses were trapped. The winds flipped them in the air and tossed them into nearby fields. Six buses were demolished. One teenager told the Tribune: "I jumped off (the bus), and the wind was so strong that I was blown hundreds of feet into a field. Everything was coming at me, pieces of wood, metal, and other kids. Buses were being blown over and everybody was screaming." More than half of the 24 dead in Belvidere were children.
In south suburban Oak Lawn, where 33 perished, the twister rammed into the intersection of Southwest Highway and 95th Street at rush hour as motorists waited at a red light, flinging cars through the air. It destroyed a supermarket and badly damaged the high school. Eighteen died at that intersection alone. Then it roared up Southwest Highway, seemingly following the roadway before it ripped up a roller rink and destroyed 45 trailers at the Airway Trailer Park.
One woman described the terror: "All over the street were bodies. People started coming out of the stores to help them. A woman came flying thru the air and a man grabbed her, but he couldn't hang on. I don't know what happened to her. You wouldn't believe what I saw in that street."
While Oak Lawn and Belvidere were hardest hit, nearly the entire metro area felt the wrath of the twisters, from Evergreen Park and Palos Hills in the south, Stone Park and Geneva to the west, and Barrington and Lake Zurich to the north. More than 700 homes were demolished or left uninhabitable.
The lead of the front page story the next day captured the anguish of most Chicagoans. It read:
"O, God, why did this happen," the woman asked as she dug with her hands to help clear the rubble.
"I can't take it any longer. I'm going home," a man told a reporter after pulling a dead youth from the ruins of a motel in Oak Lawn. "This is something you would never believe if you didn't see it with your own eyes."