Ceremony Events

Survivor Stories

Introduction  |  Looking Back a Few Days  |  Looking Back 50 Years

Looking Back a Few Days

The following stories were originally printed in the Flint Journal on June 11th, 1953, three days after the Beecher Tornado.

Awful Tale

"That's all that's left," the man observed remorsefully as he picked up and dropped a sink lying half a block from the site of his former residence. He is Claudieus Hamm, who had lived at 1212 W. Kurtz Ave. with Mr. and Mrs. Winfred Vaughn and their three children. Hamm and Vaughn were working the second shift at Chevrolet Manufacturing Plant when the storm hit. How is the Vaughn family? "Three of them are at a funeral home," Hamm said. That was Mrs. Vaughn and two of the children, with the third child hospitalized. Hamm was looking over the site without expecting to find anything. Nearby a dead dog lay, unburied, and a roast chicken was on the ground. "That was in Muriel's (Mrs. Vaughn) icebox," Hamm said, when some one pointed out the chicken.

Dwelling Gone, Still Find Joy

A man and wife poked almost hopelessly through the shambles of their demolished home. "We might as well put a match to it," said Norman Smith, who lived at 1109 W. Kurtz Avenue before the tornado came. We could search for four days and not find $10 worth left. His wife, Beatrice, kept searching. Only scattered wreckage remained, but the Smiths didnt consider their lot entirely misfortune. For Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their four children, at home when the disaster struck, all survived. Six-year-old Michael is still hospitalized with a concussion, and Smith limps, while many near neighbors are dead. They have their lives spared when they dropped to the floor after hearing the storm approach. "Keep down on the floor, keep down," they had shouted to their children. They have their lives but nothing else. Their automobile was carried more than a block and dropped in a field north of Coldwater Rd. A 350-gallon oil tank hasn't been found. Married for 15 years, Mrs. Smith had just received a new sewing machine; three was no sign of it. It was almost a triumph when Mrs. Smith, expecting another child, found her sewing scissors. And this woman stepping through the wreckage was less pathetic as she picked up two garments, exclaiming these are Kathleens and Lindas new dresses. Then her face lit up. "Norman," she said happily, "here is Michael's picture." J.C. Smith, 301 E. Holbrook Ave., who had been salvaging cement blocks from nearby lots where he had houses under construction, came by to ask the Norman Smiths (they aren't related) to dinner. "I hope you don't mind seeing a messed-up house," he said. "No," they said, reflecting on what was left of theirs and thinking their namesake fortunate to have any.

Happy Break

It isn't very often you can be grateful because your six year old daughter broke her arm, but Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Weible surely are. It was this way: Ruth Ann, 6, broke her arm May 20. It didn't do quite so well as it should, so the doctor wanted to see her again. He made the date for Monday, June 8. That meant Mrs. Weible had to keep the car and drive her husband back to work on the late shift. She had the car, so she thought she'd go visiting and put Ruth Ann, Dale, 4, Michael. 2, and Jerry, 1, in the car and drive to the other side of town. The kids "got fussy" about 9:30, so she drove them back. "The first thing I knew about what happened was when I got to the area and tried to drive in," said Mrs. Weible. "You can see what happened here. The house isn't too bad compared to a lot of them, but I have baby chicks and ducks and when a storm comes up I usually go to the garage to be sure they are safe - the garage is just plain flat. I guess we can be glad Ruth Ann fell off that slide and broke her arm," she smiled.

Like Freights

Robert Blue, 715 Washington St., Lapeer, and his wife, Alice, picked Monday night to visit his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hilton Blue, 1352 E. Coldwater Rd., and Robert's sister, Mrs. Janet Dell, who lives with her parents. He and his dad went out to the garage. They heard the roar and saw the tornado coming. They ran into the house and told everybody to get into the basement. "They started to get into that corner," Blue said, pointing. (It was easy to point anywhere in the basement-the rest of the house was gone.) "You can see it's just covered with stuff. But I told them to get over here. My dad got hit on the back with this big beam, but wasn't hurt seriously. That's the only thing that landed there. "The noise sounded like two freight trains going over a trestle right over your head; it was an ugly roar. My wife said the noise when the house went was like a giant pencil sharpener working. Then Blue went on looking for the watch that had just disappeared from his wife's wrist.

Lucky Ones

Pearl Chapman, 1189 E. Coldwater Rd., had this story: "I had just pulled into the driveway: I got out of the car and saw it coming. The boy was in the garage and I yelled to him. We all got in the basement. It's hard to describe it. It sounded like 10 freight trains coming down Coldwater Rd. None of us will ever forget it." His frame house was among the few not demolished. It was lifted from the basement wall and moved about five feet, every window broken. "The house was twisted so bad I'm pretty sure it will have to be torn down," he said. Couldn't very well move it back onto the foundation. Not in the shape it's in With him in the house were his son, Lawrence; a daughter, Phyllis, and a nephew, Morris Chapman. None was injured seriously.

Not So Bad Off

"I'm not so bad off - nobody was hurt, I have most of my walls, my lawn's in, and, after all, it was just farm land when I started," said Cecil Schaaf, 2126 E. Coldwater Rd., as he looked up at the welded steel trusses that were once his roof and were now rolled up like a ball. "We didn't have more than a minute warning, because we didn't see it - just heard it. I grabbed Linda, she's five, and Pamela my wife grabbed Carol, 6. I was in one bedroom on top of Linda and my wife was in another on Carol. It just rained plaster, big hunks, but it didn't hurt any of us." "The trees are gone and my garage, but my car still runs. You can replace a house, but not a family." Mr. Schaaf lost not only a good share of his house, but his business, the Schaaf Precast Concrete Co., G-5522 N. Dort Hwy., was almost levelled. Trucks were tossed over a hill, solid steel trucking carts scattered like cards, and most of the building is gone.

Nothing Like It

At what had been 1067 W. Coldwater Rd., Mrs. Geraldine Winderman, who is a visitor from Miami Beach, Fla., looked over the ruins of the home of her brother, Leon Hartley. Attesting to the honesty of rescue workers was Mrs. Winderman's statement that her brother had returned from work to his wrecked home and found all his money in a desk standing in the yard. A china piggy bank was found broken, but with the money intact. No one was home when the storm struck. Mrs. Winderman also had an aunt next door, and although that house also was levelled, none of her relatives was killed. "I've been in hurricanes in Florida," said Mrs. Winderman, "but I've never seen any devastation like this." Clarence Hartley, 502 W. Pulaski Ave., a brother of Leon and Mrs. Winderman, told how he had just moved out of the disaster area in February. He formerly occupied 1068 W. Kurtz Ave., where Mrs. Helen Kilgore, 31, and three small children were killed.

Over the Hill

Alex Disberry, 1210 Lodge St., heard of the tornado while at work. "They told me in the shop that it hit Coldwater Rd. That's right by my house, so I came home. I came up over the hill and looked. The house wasn't there. I started digging around and finally found everybody. They're all right." He looked over what was left of his small frame house. I can't save much here, but I'll get those joists out and I can salvage those cement blocks. That siding is splintered and broken so bad I won't get hardly anything out of it. I don't know if it's even worth tearing apart. "It wrecked my garage, too. Most of it is here, but I can't find the roof. It just disappeared."

Peculiar Sound

Earl Johnson, 2343 E. Coldwater Rd., climbed down from the roof of his handsome two-story house to answer the reporter's questions-he was busy I with a crew replacing the roof which had been sheared off as though by a giant razor. "We were all at home-my wife, Hazel; Craig, 2, and Alan, 5. It was stormy and I was watching the sky. Suddenly it was dead still and I could see that finger of black coming down from the sky. Then there was a loud whistle and we dashed to the basement. About two minutes later it struck. "It was a peculiar sound when the air in the pipes in the basement was sucked out. We lost all three of our barns, but my brother, who lives next door, and my dad, who lives the next house down, and their families all escaped unhurt. There were about 100 head of purebred cattle in those three barns which were blown down. Ten of the cows were trapped all night-but we just lost one heifer and a bull we had to shoot. Don't know how those cattle lived through it."

Pitifully Small

Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur Franklin, 2246 W. Coldwater, and their three children were fortunate enough to live through the storm except for minor cuts and bruises. "I don't know what it sounded like," Franklin said. "I don't know if I even heard anything. My wife saw it coming through the window, and we hurried down the basement. We laid down against the west wall, the kids beneath us, me and my wife, and it hit." It struck their home directly, wiping it off its foundation, carrying the main frame several feet away and smashing it to pieces. Other sections of the building are strewn hundreds of feet away. Wires hang like giant strings of spaghetti in the Franklin yard, the telephone pole awry. Jagged tree trunks stand as mute evidence of the cruel amputation methods of a twister. What is the value of Franklin's salvage? "I don't know. I don't know why I'm even pickin' it up." Spread before him was a large blanket into which he dropped from time to time a personal article. The pile was pitifully small...

Sees Ball of Fire

"I looked out the door to find out what the roaring noise was because the kids were so curious," said Mrs. Nora Cook, 3057 E. Coldwater Rd. "I saw a big ball of fire, real bright, about the size of a big washtub, coming down the middle of the road. It was surrounded by the most awful black cloud - it looked like black smoke. I yelled at the children. We have two boys, David, 11, and Bobbie, 3, and a girl, Ardis, she's 10. We dashed for the basement and just go down when it struck. It just shook the house and sounded like a hundred freight cars going over your head. I glanced out of the basement window on the other side ot the house and saw that same ballot fire rolling down Coldwater Rd. We sure were lucky. Broke a lot ot windows and spilled dirt and debris, but didn't really damage much. The people next door got it awful bad, and they're all in the hospital and some of the kids are real critical."

So Many Dead

"So many people are dead," she said. Madeline McAinsh, 15-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd McAinsh, 1183 W. Kurtz Ave., spoke very quietly. Her manner was shocked and unbelieving. She sat on the steps of their home, only a ruined shell, while her parents and sister probed wreckage across the street. Almost reluctantly, she revealed that she was home with her mother and sister when the tornado struck. Her father was working at Buick. They had rushed to the basement and were saved, Madeline said. "After the Sarnia tornado, my father preached 'basement' in case of a storm," she said.

Terrible Walk

"I had to walk home from Dort Hwy., almost a mile, and I saw all those houses smashed on the way home. My husband and four children were in the house. The suspense was terrible; I never expected to find the house with all of them alive inside. The house was moved off the foundation and the refrigerator was in the basement of the house next door." That's how Mrs. Alfred Bennett, 1039 E. Coldwater Rd., found her family. She was luckier than many. No member of the family was injured seriously.

There it is

B. c. (Bud) Myers, 1081 E. Kurtz Ave., was half a block away when his house was demolished. His father-in-law, James Ballentine, 54, who lived with him, was killed. Myers's relatives were helping him clean up Wednesday. A mud spattered electric clock lay on the ground, its hands stopped at 8:29 P. M. "Here's your razor, Bud." a woman said, lifting the case from the rubble. "Yes, there it is. I had to borrow one this morning to shave. Put it over there with those other things." There was a sma1l pile of possessions that had been salvaged. They look pathetic against the piled rubble that had been a home.

Won't Go Back

Robert Zink, 1492 W. Coldwater Rd., his wife, with three of their children, was in Owosso celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when the storm struck. It left their home standing, but took the roof off their garage and demolished the home of their next door neighbor. Across the street from the Zinks is the lot of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Lamb, Jr. The Lambs had only started to build their home so there was little to damage-except the trees on the property. "That was one of the reasons we bought here," Mrs. Lamb said, "because of the trees. They were beautiful-I'll bet that one there was a hundred years old," and she pointed to a giant uprooted oak. At one place along the highway, a car was smashed against four pines, its roof and sides impaled high in the trees. The home at the side was completely destroyed. The basement was a miscellaneous junk heap of coal, canned fruit and potatoes. An eight-foot piece of corrugated steel was bent hair-pin fashion around a giant pine which snapped off at the top. A lonely dog nosed through the debris. "I don't know," said Mrs. Lamb, "whether we'll stay here."


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