Tornado was state's worst in 20th century


November 03, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It was a little after 2 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1926, as students began fidgeting in their seats during a reading lesson, anxious for the school day to end at the little two-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of LaPlata. It was a day they would never forget.

Fog and sultry air had lingered over much of Charles County that day, unusual for early November, with the weather bureau predicting "freezing weather tomorrow night," and a chance of snow in the foothills of Western Maryland.

Suddenly, the wind began rising as a slight rain fell. It was the beginning of a terrifying two minutes as a tornado swept up from the Potomac River and roared through the community, creating a damage path 18 miles long and 140 yards wide.

The storm touched down about five miles southwest of LaPlata and barreled northeast on a course that took it through Cedarville in Prince George's County. By the time the storm reached Sunderland, in Calvert County, damage was confined to several shattered windows and a porch that was blown away.

It left in its wake 17 dead people, including 14 students, and injured 56 Charles County residents. It also entered the record books as Maryland's worst tornado of the 20th century.

The schoolhouse, its 56 students and two teachers, were suddenly lifted skyward by the howling winds which ripped the building from its foundation and smashed it into a grove of trees some 50 feet away, leaving nothing more than a pile of splintered lumber and mutilated human beings who cried for help.

"The only warning they had was a creaking of doors and windows. The building moved. The old-fashioned stove swayed and then a mighty throb shook the structure," reported The Sun.

Some of the children were pulled up into the swirling vortex of wind and carried 500 feet away. The body of one child was found in the top branches of a tree some 300 feet away from where the schoolhouse had stood.

So intense were the winds of the storm that a hunk of schoolhouse wreckage was found in a field north of Upper Marlboro, 25 miles away. A page from a school ledger landed in Bowie, 36 miles from the scene of the devastation.

One survivor, John Marshall Burr, an 11-year-old, with blood streaming from his injuries, ran from the scene to the home of the rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

"Please telephone everybody the school has blown away," he sobbed.

Telephone operators at Brandywine called for help as ambulances raced to the scene from Walter Reed Hospital, Bolling Field and Baltimore.

At the site of the former school, rescue workers found children pinned under heavy timbers with shoes, books and clothing scattered about.

Muriel Hardesty, a student at the school, told reporters, "The first time I knew what was happening was when the window panes began to chatter. There was a thunderclap and a roar. The stove began to wobble about the room and then the whole building went over. The next thing I knew I was in the Bolling Hotel."

Among the first at the scene of the demolished school was W.C. Bowling.

"As long as I live I shall never forget that scene," he told The Sun. "As we worked like fiends the shrieks of anguish of those babies pinned under iron rods, massive pieces of lumber, everything passed from [my] mind temporarily.

"Two of these little ones died in my arms. As I held one of them, feeling its little heart flitter out against mine, Miss Ethel Graves, one of the teachers, called to me: `For God's sake, take this one. Do something for it. It's dying.' What could we do?" he said.

Helen C. Hughes, another teacher, suffered a broken collarbone. Refusing medical treatment, she anxiously worked to extricate injured students from the remains of the school. "I'm all right. Get these children out. Don't bother about me," she told doctors.

"Everything in the path of the howling wind was struck to the ground. Ancient trees were uprooted, making large craters like shell holes at the French front. Cattle lay dead along the way. Barns, garages, every kind of structure that dotted the landscape and within the cyclone belt went headlong before it," reported the newspaper.

One man told reporters that several rabbits were in the path of the wind and one of them was decapitated. Another resident said he had seen birds with all of their feathers blown off.

R.F. Ward, a clerk who lived in Baden, Prince George's County, had an unusual experience during the storm.

"He ran to close the front door when he heard the storm coming. A moment later he was tumbling down the roof. When the wind dropped him he was uninjured but his trousers were whirling in the air, about fifty feet too high for Mr. Ward's modest proclivities," observed The Sun.

In addition to the schoolhouse, LaPlata suffered five destroyed homes and 14 tobacco barns. Automobiles, garages, a gas station, telephone poles and fences were also damaged or destroyed. Damage estimates were placed at $25,000.

In an editorial, The Sun said, "When there has been an occasional storm of unusual violence, it has been referred to as a freak outburst. ... For this reason the sympathy of the State for the people of LaPlata and Charles County who have suffered severely from a tornado or hurricane, and especially for the little children who were injured and the relatives of those who lost their lives, will be the more earnest and desire to aid the more sincere."

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