GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — April 21 marks 56 years since an outbreak of ten tornadoes ravaged West Michigan. The outbreak included an F3 tornado that traveled from Grandville through the south side of Grand Rapids and then east to Ada. This was the strongest tornado ever recorded in the city limits of Grand Rapids. The top pic. is a helicopter view of the damage.

On April 21, 1967 this F3 twister, carved a path 13.6 miles long through Kent County. The National Weather Service said the F3 tornado destroyed 65 structures and significantly damaged more than 400 others. Hundreds of trees were uprooted.

Damage to a home in Grandville from a tornado on April 21, 1967

The twister began southwest of Grandville and moved east northeast through the area where the Rivertown Crossings Mall is located.

Tornado damage at the Darling Freight Co. just north of 28th St. at US 131

The tornado continued through Wyoming, crossing US 131, then pushed through the south end of the city of Grand Rapids and into East Grand Rapids. The twister finally dissipated northeast of Ada.

Tornado damage at the South Congregational Church
Homes damaged in Grand Rapids
Damage to a gas station – note the price of a gallon of gas was 27.9 cents – and back then sometimes you got a free something with a fill-up, like a glass

A second smaller tornado touched down in Cascade. It was on the ground for 1/3rd of a mile and damaged some outbuildings.

Paths of six of the ten tornadoes that occurred in West Michigan on April 21, 1967

A total of ten tornadoes hit Michigan that day, including one F4, one F3, six F2s one F1 and one F0. Tornadoes touched down in Kent, Allegan, Barry, Muskegon, Ionia, Ingham, Cass, Clinton and Eaton counties.

This is a helicopter view of dozens of trees knocked down by the tornado that moved through Barry and Ionia Counties

The damage in Michigan was overshadowed by the devastation in Illinois. There were 10 tornadoes in Northern Illinois, including three F4 twisters. There were 58 fatalities and 1,118 injuries.

Thirty-three of the fatalities occurred at Oak Lawn, a suburb of Chicago. Many of the fatalities in Oak Lawn were people in vehicles.

The Belvidere, Illinois Tornado:

School Bus Destroyed by the Belvidere Tornado of April 21, 1967

The tornado first struck at 3:50 PM two miles southeast of the town of Cherry Valley. The twister slammed the Chrysler auto plant near I-90 where 300 new cars and 100 employee cars were destroyed. The tornado continued east-northeast through the southeast side of Belvidere. One hundred twenty seven homes were destroyed, and hundreds more were damaged. The most notable and horrific part of this tornado was the mayhem at the Belvidere High School. Buses had already picked up the elementary school children and were loading the high school students when the tornado struck. Twelve buses were rolled over. Students were flung like leaves into the muddy field. Thirteen of the 24 fatalities and 300 of the 500 injuries in this tornado occurred at the high school. According to Tom Grazulis of The Tornado Project, this was the nation’s sixth worst school death toll from a tornado. (Numbers one and two were also in Illinois – from the great Tri-State Tornado of 1925.) The tornado ended in McHenry County, about two miles north of Woodstock. Woodstock is the town where the movie “Groundhog Day” was filmed.

Path of the Belvidere Tornado – April 21, 1967

The Belvidere Tornado was rated F4 and was 26.6 miles long and nearly 1/3 mile wide. Here’s eyewitness accounts of the tornado.

The Lake Zurich Tornado:

Path of the Lake Zurich Tornado – April 21, 1967

The Lake Zurich Tornado

At 5:03 PM another tornado struck Fox River Grove, North Barrington, and Lake Zurich. Lake Zurich Manor, a subdivision 1 1/2 miles northwest of the center of town was hardest hit. Around 75 homes were completely destroyed. Another 200 homes had extensive damage. Seth Paine School was destroyed. Acorn Acres, a new subdivision of luxury homes northeast of Lake Zurich Manor had spotty damage and debris. About a dozen homes had extensive damage. More homes had extensive damage in Hawthorne. At Gilmer and Route 63, four homes, a brewery and a plastic factory were destroyed. Much of this area was rolling wooded hills where there were large trees uprooted.

Oak Lawn, Illinois Tornado April 21 1967

The Oak Lawn Tornado:

The worst storm of the day was approaching the southwest suburbs of Chicago around 5:00 PM. At 5:15 an off duty Weather Bureau employee 10 miles north of Joliet saw a rotating cloud mass over his house near Route 53 and Naperville Road which is now Romeoville. Minutes later a restaurant at McCarthy Road and 127th Street in Lemont had its windows blown out. At 524 PM an observer at The Little Red School House at 99th and Willow Springs Road observed a lowering funnel just to his south. This was the first report of the funnel to the Weather Bureau. The Little Red School House observer said, “My ears popped, the building shook and cars in the parking lot bounced”. The funnel passed LaGrange Road and Kean Avenue just south of 107th Street.

Path of the Oak Lawn Tornado April 21 1967

The tornado touched down just east of 88th Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets at 524 PM (24 minutes after the tornado warning was issued for Cook County!) This is now the site of Morraine Valley Community College. The tornado destroyed trees, bent power poles and picked up mud for the first part of its journey.

The tornado hit its first homes around 83rd Avenue and 103rd Street. The tornado crossed the Tri-State Tollway and then hit an area of homes near Harlem Avenue and 98th-99th Streets. The tornado then hit a drive in movie theater near Chicago Ridge an hour before it was set to open. The screen’s steel supports were bent and speakers and speaker stands were pulled from the ground.

Image fro;m the Oak Lawn Public Library – Tornado damage April 21 1967

The tornado then moved into the heart of Oak Lawn where it did the most severe damage. The tornado was a block wide at this point. Many homes were leveled. The busy intersection of 95th Street and Southwest Highway was clogged with Friday evening traffic when the tornado struck. Twenty five to 40 cars were thrown in all directions. The greatest death toll occurred in this area. The high school was hit as well a bus garage. Buses were thrown like toys, one landing on a house. The tornado weakened slightly from here but intensified again near Cicero Avenue and 92nd Street where a mobile home park and roller skating rink were leveled. The tornado then ripped through Hometown.

It swept across St.Mary’s Cemetery, knocking down 200 monuments. It then moved on to Evergreen Park. It weakened slightly through this area. It moved through Beverly Hills Country Club and Dan Ryan Woods. It hit a more populated area again near 87th and Damen Ave. Damage was mostly to trees, roofs, windows, and garages. It crossed Halstead near Vincennes Ave where it damaged apartments and factories. The tornado crossed the Dan Ryan Expressway at 535 pm, flipping a semi. There was so much debris thrown on the highway that it had to be closed for hours. Damage was lighter beyond this point – mostly roofs, chimneys, and windows. The path widened and became more diffuse as the storm approached Lake Michigan. The final report was at the water filtration plant at 78th and the lakefront, where a 100 mph wind gust was recorded. The tornado made the 16.2 mile trek in 15 minutes, moving across the ground at over 60 mph! The tornado became a waterspout as it moved onto Lake Michigan.

In the aftermath, 800 National Guard troops were brought in to search for bodies and keep out sight-seers. One hundred thousand customers were without power. President Johnson declared tornado ravaged communities a Disaster Area. The Salvation Army and American Red Cross provided food and shelter to the homeless.

Damage in Oak Lawn, Illinois after the 4 21 67 tornado – from the Oak Lawn Library

Here’s a video from WGN on the Oak Lawn tornado (lots of film of the damage. Another tornado hit the high school at Belvidere IL just when school was letting out. There were 24 fatalities and 300 injured, most of them at the high school.

The winter of 1966-1967 had been very cold and snowy. In fact, it was a record-setting winter. The 23-inch snowstorm of January 26-27 led to Chicago’s snowiest winter, with a total of 68.4 inches. However, the weather pattern had changed by mid-April. Spring had arrived. Chicago saw five straight days in the 70s from April 13 through 17.

Surface Weather Map – April 21, 1967

Warm, humid air pushed into the Great Lakes on that Friday, with temperatures climbing into the 70s. Strong to severe thunderstorms formed ahead of a cold front. On the weather map above, the temperature is the number in the upper left on each station plot. The dewpoint is the number in the lower left of each station plot. The dew point climbed up into the low 60s.

This fatal combination of factors led to explosive development of rotating supercells along a line of storms that was moving across northern Illinois that afternoon. This line had already produced wind damage and tornadoes across Missouri, Iowa and northwest and north central Illinois. It would continue producing tornadoes across Lower Michigan into the evening.

The storms produced 1.71″ of rain in Grand Rapids.

Interview with survivors of the Kent County tornado.

The cold air that pushed into the Great Lakes after the storms turned rain showers to snow showers on the 23rd and 24th. More pictures here. Thanks to the National Weather Service – (which gave a 24-minute warning for Cook County before the Oak Lawn Tornado touched down).