At about 1:01 PM on March 18, 1925, trees began to snap north-northwest of Ellington, Missouri, and for the next three and a half hours more people would die, more schools would be destroyed, more students and farm owners would be killed, and more deaths would occur in a single city than from any other tornado in U.S. history.
It began when a small tornado touched down near Ellington, Missouri gained momentum over the course of the afternoon. In the three-and-a-half hours that followed, it ballooned to record widths and speed. At one point, observers calculated that it was a full mile wide, and it maintained an average speed of 62 miles per hour and a top speed of 73 miles per hour.
In 2013, a group of weather experts reevaluated the tornado in search of reasons why it was so huge and so destructive. Though they did find an unusual combination of a warm front, the tornado’s supercell and a favorable storm environment, they concluded that there wasn’t a single reason why the storm was so huge.
For people on the ground, the reasons didn’t matter. This tornado was the biggest one they’d ever seen, and people scrambled for shelter as it attacked town after town. From the start, the storm was a killer. Within minutes of materializing, it killed a farmer.
Then it headed to Annapolis, Missouri, a mining town. Tragically, the mountains in the town kept people from spotting it. Ninety percent of the town’s buildings were destroyed, four people were killed, and 1,000 people became homeless. Miraculously, a group of children who had huddled around their teacher’s desk after coming in from recess survived.
That was just the beginning. Soon the tornado had marched through Murphysboro, Illinois, where 243 people were killed, 623 injured and the city’s industries decimated. In nearby De Soto, 7-year-old Betty Moroni was in her classroom when the storm hit. Thirty-three students died at the school, including Moroni’s sister and 19 of the children in the classroom where she cowered during the storm. She lost three sisters and her father eventually died of head injuries he sustained during the tornado.
“After the tornado was over, nobody knew where anybody was,” she told The Southern Illinoisian in 2015. “You could be blown forever.” The tornado killed 33 schoolchildren, and 36 others, in De Soto. The death toll was even higher in West Frankfort, and only three buildings were left standing in nearby Parrish.
Then the tornado jumped state lines again. This time, its target was Indiana. Owensville was first. “The body of an unidentified infant was found in a creek, where it had been hurled by the fury,” wrote a local reporter. After laying waste to much of Princeton, the storm finally petered out.
Today, those spotters—and a weather prediction network that is unafraid of the word tornado—have contributed to a massive decline in tornado deaths. Massive tornadoes still strike the Midwest, but forecasters and residents hope they’ll never see the likes of the 1925 tornado again.