Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Eyewitness View of the Crystal Lake Tornado

The roof of the Neisner's Department Store at the Crystal Lake Plaza caved in during the April 11, 1965, Palm Sunday Tornado in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

The 50th anniversary of the Crystal Lake tornado is upon us, and those of us who lived through this devastating storm sit in wonder that 50 years have passed.

A couple of weeks back, I volunteered to speak to the Northwest Herald reporter about being a witness to the tornado, but I never heard back from her.

A story written by local historians Craig Pfannkuche and Kurt Begalka that appeared in the Herald on Friday, April 3rd, spelled Rae Goss's name wrong.

Mr. Goss, who was killed in the tornado, had converted the upper level of a barn on his property at Cut-Off Road and Rt. 14 into a basketball court, and he allowed local boys to play there.  It was sweet!

On Palm Sunday, Mr. Goss shooed kids who were playing ball out of the barn just before the tornado struck.  He was a hero!

Some of the people quoted in Pfannkuche and Begalka's story in the Herald weren't even living in Crystal Lake at the time of this disaster.

It's like Martians came in and rewrote the history of my home town.

Time to set the record straight!

Palm Sunday of 1965 was sunny, hot, and humid in the morning.  My buddy Ace (Curt Esser) picked me up for Mass in his 1965 Chevrolet Impala SS convertible.   The top was down on the Chevy!

The weather was warm and windy one moment and cool the next.  The cold air and the warm air were battling each other for supremacy that morning.

Ace and I ditched Mass (me for the very first time!) and just rode around Crystal Lake enjoying the warm, humid air.  It had been a long winter!

Ace later picked me up again at two in the afternoon.  We were eventually headed for the New Place, the teen night club on Route 31 east of Crystal Lake.

We first stopped at Bob Roese's house in Coventry subdivision, and hail began falling.  Time for a hail stone fight!  The three of us began throwing hail stones at one another as the skies darkened and the wind began to blow.  Coventry was later touched by the tornado, but not as bad as Colby's subdivision to the northeast.

Because the New Place didn't open until 4:00 p.m., we went to "The Del," which was a delicatessen hang-out on Route 14 right across from Blanche Moan's grill at the corner of Washington St. and Virginia Street (Rt. 14).

All of a sudden around 3:30 p.m., "The Del" lights started flickering, and the wind started blowing.  As we ran to "The Del's" large window, a giantic limb from an oak tree at Blanche's Grill crashed into the middle of Virginia Street.  Sheets of rain fell.  There was thunder and lightning.

About five minutes later we heard the sirens--lots of sirens.  

"Let's go," Ace said.  And we hopped into the Impala and headed east on Route 14 to see what all the noise was.

We were on the scene at Colby's before the police had cordoned off the area.  Craig Knaack was a friend of mine, and I watched as rescue workers frantically tried to remove the caved in garage that had collapsed on his parents in their Harold St. home.  I was standing at the intersection of Harold and Keith Avenue at the time.  Craig's dad, Louie Knaack, was killed in the tornado.

Jim Holter was a year behind me in school, and both his mom and dad were killed in the tornado.  We couldn't get back to Holters' house on the north side of Colby's subdivision because there were so many power lines down.

It was a wild scene, with the power lines down and people running around screaming.  The Piggly Wiggly, where Bob Roese worked, was completely destroyed as was much of the Crystal Lake Plaza Shopping Center, including the Neisner's Department Store, which is pictured above.

By this time, the weather had turned cool, and the skies had cleared.  

The cops finally kicked us out of Colby's so we decided to follow the path of the tornado and see if it had hit the high school.  We were on spring break at the time.  

There was no damage to the high school, and I remember sitting in front of the school on Franklin Street and listening to ABC News at five minutes before the hour on WLS and hearing "Crystal Lake" mentioned in the lead story.  This was the first time I ever heard my hometown mentioned on a national news broadcast on radio or television.

We picked up Zak (Jim Pietrzak) on John Street, just off of East Crystal Lake Ave., and he said that there was damage further east on Crystal Lake Ave.  George Dopke's house had been devastated, and his dad severely injured.

We then went to Orchard Acres, near the intersection of Routes 31 and 176, and saw lots of damage to the relatively new homes there.

The tornado path continued on Rt. 176 to Island Lake, and we followed the path; however the devastation was not as severe as it had been in Crystal Lake.

I was going to work for the City of Crystal Lake's Street Department that summer, and they called me in the next week and had me work on Saturdays till school was out cleaning up the rubble from the tornado.  I then worked full-time for the city during the summer of 1965.

As Shakespeare would say, "It was a strange-disposed time."  The lives of the residents of Crystal Lake were changed on that Sunday afternoon, April 11, 1965.

Now you have an eye-witness account from someone who was actually there!  And I spelled Rae Goss's name right!