Fifty years ago, a rare event in the Washington area: A tornado struck, leaving hundreds of persons dazed, hurt and homeless as the twister cut a 17-mile swath of destruction.
It began at 2:15 p.m. on Nov. 17, 1927. Gales as high as 125 mph ripped off roofs, exploded walls, smashed 372 structures. Vehicles were overturned, heavy rains flooded homes and businesses, trees were uprooted or stripped. Less than 25 minutes later at 2:38 p.m., the tornado was gone.
Property damage zoomed to several million dollars in 1977 values. Yet there was only one fatality. A woman struck by lightning.
After the tornado as hospitals filled with people, injured by falling and flying debris, as sirens shrieked through out the area, a waterspout formed in the Potomac River, west of Anacostia. At 3:54 p.m. the spout rose 300 feet to a squall cloud. The aquatic twister swept across the Potomac, lifting river water 100 feet into the air. Two minutes later it dashed itself to pieces on shore, drenching Naval Air Station personnel watching the phenomenon.
Total property damage reached only $690,000 in 1924 values. But the devastation and the experiences of those who lived through the storm were reflected in screaming newspaper headlines and numerous photographs of the havoc.
Consider some experiences, serious and not-so, of the tornado victims:
Houses in Alexandria suddenly roofless, wall-less, basements flooding, streets swept clean of trees, but debris-littered. Occupants searching wreckage for injured relatives and friends.
One woman found her fur coat draped over a fireplug, several blocks from the attic closet where the coat had been stored.
Tremendous metal hangars at the Naval Air Station disintegrated, one crushing seven aircraft.
A seaman, attempting to escape the storm, ran to his car, but saw it lifted 15 feet into the air and smashed to the ground, inches from him.
The day the tornado struck. I was working as a messenger in the Gunners Work Shop at the Washington Navy Yard and was watching Frank Cisler, the shop clerk, pound away on his beat-up Underwood No. 5 typewriter. Frank used six fingers and two thumbs, having lost two fingers of his right hand while helping Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing chase Pancho Villa and his bandits in the Mexican Expedition of 1916.
While typing, Frank kept cussing the commandant who annually rejected Frank's request for a new typewritter.
It had been raining heavily all day. As I looked out our 12-foot high window, I could see the sky swiftly blackening, with scudding clouds outlining the slate-roofed officers' quarters across the street.
Suddenly we heard what sounded like the rumble-roar of the yard locomotive chugging past our window. But the locomotive belonged on tracks down by the waterfront. I ran past the watercooler and pulled on the doorknob. I couldn't get out. (The door was locked - I learned later - by the storm's vacuum effect.) I could see treetops outside a window being swished about like giant feather dusters. The clouds boiled, streaked by lightning. The roar became defeaning; we heard explosions and breaking glass.
Frank and I dived under his long oak table, which was loaded with his typewriter, records, reports and correspondence.
Upstairs, in the great Sail Loft, Lt. Charles Benter, the bandleader, was rehearsing the Navy Band for a Victor recording of "Anchors Aweigh."
Another ear-shuttering explosion and out tall window came crashing down, glass splattering all around our protective table. Frank and I were dazed by the noise and air concussion.
Moments later we crawled out and stood gazing dumbly at our office. It looked blendorized. Pieces of razor-sharp slate shingles from the officers' roofs covered Frank's table. The floor was littered with glass, wood, and a mish-mash of papers. It was awash with the contents of the smashed watercooler.
Frank spotted his typewritter standing unharmed, shielded under the debirs. But the machine's many-tongued keys were sticking up in a Bronx cheer. Oh! how Frank cussed. Eloquently! Then he lunged at the typewriter, raised it high overhead and flung it onto the concrete floor.
When the commandant's emergency damage report was typed days later on my machine, the first item on the long list read: "One (1) Underwood typewriter, No. 5, Serial No. 75628; totally destroyed."