A family of seven died in the ruins of their bakery home. Two abandoned babies at the Child Saving Institute were blown to their deaths. A third was sucked out a broken window, but a sash splinter caught her dress and held the 3-month-old for rescue.
At least 20 died in the rubble and fire at a pool hall.
One hundred years ago this week, death and devastation unlike any in Nebraska before or since roared through Omaha when a monster tornado ripped a bloody scar across the heart of the city.
An estimated 103 people were killed and 350 injured in the Omaha area. Five other tornadoes in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa killed about 65 others, injuring 240 more.
The March 23, 1913, twisters hit with no warning on a warm Sunday evening. Christians were celebrating Easter. Jews were commemorating Purim. Celebrations of resurrection and deliverance were rattled by destruction and doom.
“The Omaha tornado of 1913 endures as one of the worst calamities in Nebraska history,'' said Dennis Mihelich, a retired Creighton University historian.
About 750 of Omaha's more than 2,000 damaged houses were destroyed. Ten churches, five schools, three convents and a hospital were damaged or destroyed. Electrical, telephone and telegraph lines, streetcars and railcars were toppled. Fires from broken natural gas lines or upturned wood-burning stoves threatened widespread conflagration.
Damage was estimated at $8.7 million, the equivalent in 2013 of $206 million.
The Omaha tornado — now categorized by the National Weather Service as an F4 storm with 166- to 200-mph winds — was part of the most catastrophic outbreak of tornadoes in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa history.
Six decades after its founding, Omaha in 1913 hugged tight to the Missouri River.
Unlike the westward-sprawling metropolis of today, Omaha stretched from the suburban towns of Florence on the north to South Omaha. Its irregular western edge jutted to 60th Street, but most people lived east of 48th Street.
The population was about 124,000. Adding South Omaha and Council Bluffs created a metropolitan population of about 180,000, all connected by the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway's trolley system.
Omaha was a city of European immigrants.
“If you were on a downtown sidewalk, 54 percent of the people you'd encounter were either born in another country or had at least one parent who was foreign born,'' said Harl Dalstrom, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor emeritus of history. “It was a city of ... Germans, Czechs, Italians, Poles, many Scandinavians and Irish.''
Mayor James Dahlman was in the seventh year of a nearly uninterrupted reign until 1930.
A landmark county courthouse at 17th and Farnam Streets was less than a year old.
The city's business boosters dominated the Commercial Club of Omaha, a forerunner of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The 1,800-member club occupied the top two floors of the newly completed Woodmen of the World Building at 14th and Farnam Streets. The 18-story tower of pink granite, brick and terra cotta was the tallest building between Chicago and the Pacific Ocean.
Jobbers Canyon, east of what now is the Old Market, was a booming wholesale and warehouse district.
Omaha's future was bright. Growth and opportunity were on the horizon.
So was a thunderstorm.
Ralston took the first blow.
Shortly before 6 p.m., a tornado demolished the newly incorporated village a few miles southwest of Omaha. Falling and flying timbers, brick, lumber and debris killed eight people in and around the community. A stove factory and ice works were leveled.
No warning sirens existed in 1913; radio arrived in the 1920s. Omahans were unaware of the big blow bearing down.
Mihelich described the twister's northeasterly path after crossing farmland to Omaha:
It swept over West Lawn and Bohemian Cemeteries and collided with the southwest corner of the city near 56th and Center Streets.
Damaging or destroying virtually everything in its path, it crossed Leavenworth Street east of Saddle Creek Road and swept up the hill to wreak havoc in the fashionable Farnam Street area between 38th and 44th Streets.
A 50-pound iron tombstone from the 1890 grave of Mamie Donahue at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at 48th and Leavenworth Streets was found more than four miles away, at a site now under the North Freeway. The Child Saving Institute at 42nd and Jackson Streets — where two babies were killed — lost windows and sustained roof damage. Nurses had time to carry only a few of the 35 children from south-facing sun parlors to safety before the tornado hit.
The twister harmlessly passed between the University of Nebraska medical college and Douglas County Hospital. It moved downhill through the Gold Coast neighborhood near 38th Street, missing St. Cecilia Cathedral, under construction near 40th and Cuming Streets.
The tornado crossed Cuming Street and tore into the tony Bemis Park neighborhood between 33rd and 36th Streets.
Under an umbrella, teacher Beulah Adams was walking in the rain home from a trolley stop after visiting a friend. She had no idea a tornado was approaching. She described her experience in a letter to her mother.
“The noise kept getting louder and louder and coming right at me. It was very bewildering,” she wrote.
Adams told of feeling “helpless terror” as she lay facedown in the park.
“One might think I could hear the crash of timber and falling houses all around, but the terrible roar of the storm drowned everything else,'' she wrote.
The storm reduced densely populated, ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhoods of north Omaha to rubble from 30th Street and Lincoln Boulevard, to 24th and Lake Streets, to 16th and Maple Streets, across Carter Lake and what now is Eppley Airfield and across the river into Iowa.
The tornado was a quarter-mile wide and carved a seven-mile path.
No area suffered more than the North 24th Street neighborhood, home to many African-Americans and European Jews. Half of the Omahans killed by the tornado died there. Children died in parents' arms.
Among the victims were baker Nathan Krinsky and his wife, Hincke. They and their five children — Amy, Isaac, Rose, Oscar and Sally — lived in the rear of the bakery at 2308 N. 24th St. They died when the building collapsed.
No place suffered more deaths than the two-story Idlewild Building at 2307 N. 24th St., across the street from the Krinsky bakery. The building had a pool hall on the ground floor. A.C. Boyd, an owner of the pool hall, was one of at least 20 killed there.
Hospitals overflowed with the injured. Morgues and mortuaries overflowed with the bodies of the dead. Morticians locked their doors to keep out people seeking information about friends and relatives, Mihelich said.
Hours passed before Omahans realized the tornado had torn a hole not through just their neighborhood but through the city.
Incredibly, it was over in four minutes.
Click on the images above to read The World-Herald's March 24, 1913, coverage of the tornado.
Rescue, relief and recovery campaigns started immediately.
Army Maj. Carl Hartman at Fort Omaha — a veteran of rescues after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — sent Signal Corps troops. Gov. John Morehead activated five companies of the National Guard and traveled to Omaha by train after midnight.
“This is enough like my conception of hell to suit me!'' the governor said during his tour. “It's awful. Awful.''
Martial law was invoked to stem looting. Soldiers exchanged gunfire with suspected burglars three days after the storm near 38th and Cass Streets.
President Woodrow Wilson sent Mayor Dahlman a telegram offering federal aid. The Commercial Club advised Dahlman against accepting, saying it would tarnish the city's self-reliant image.
Dahlman wired Wilson: “We all deeply appreciate your offer of aid, but I believe we can handle the situation.''
Boosters wanted to emphasize to the nation it was business as usual in the city, that Omahans were great people and would quickly have the damage repaired, said Catherine Biba, a Cornell University doctoral student from Geneva, Neb. Her dissertation focuses on the Omaha business community's response to the tornado.
Once the severity of the situation became clear, however, Dahlman and the club came under a withering criticism from storm victims and others.
“They danced around and carefully said they were not refusing any aid that is 'given,'” Biba said. “They didn't want to solicit aid, but if it was sent, fine.''
A year after the storm, a World-Herald story said many who rebuilt constructed more substantial dwellings: “Beautiful stucco, cement and brick homes have succeeded frame structures; attractive bungalows have replaced old cottages, two-story houses have taken the place of one-story dwellings.”
Omaha rebuilt, but the night after the storm, it snowed.
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