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November 19, 2009

An account of deadly 1926 La Plata tornado

Steve Zubrick, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., has sent me a link to an historic National Weather Service report on the Nov. 9, 1926 tornado that SUN PHOTO/Karl Merton Ferron/La Plata 2002swept across parts of Charles and Prince George's counties, leaving 16 dead (or 17, depending on your source) - including 13 school children.

The F-4 twister demolished homes and barns, carved a cross-country trail of splintered trees and carried debris as far as 50 miles before dropping it. A school teacher describes how she and her students were lifted into the air and swept away, along with parts of their demolished schoolhouse.

Sun reporter Fred Rasmussen interviewed one of the school's students, who survived because she was not in class that day; but her sister was among the dead. (No, Fred's not quite that old; the woman was in her 80s when they spoke.) Read his story, below.

Fred tracked the woman down after a similar tornado struck La Plata in April 2002. Only the third F-4 in the record books for Maryland, the 2002 tornado ravaged the town and cut a path all the way across Southern Maryland. It then spawned a waterspout on the bay, and touched down again on the Eastern Shore. Six people died. The photo above was taken four days later.  

By Frederick N. Rasmussen
   Irene B. Wood couldn't believe that it was happening again.

    A lifelong La Plata resident, Wood, 86, was watching TV in her home on Oak Avenue early Sunday evening when the sky began to grow dark.She got up from her chair to make her way to the basement after seeing a storm warning broadcast. 

    "I looked at the clock. It was six minutes after 7," she said. "I was on my way to the basement when it came, and I only got as far as the dining room. I sort of froze there." She never got downstairs. Instead, she witnessed the ferocity of the winds.

    "I kept hearing something hit the side of the house. As the widows cracked and broke, I just prayed. I lost electricity, phone, and my home was damaged," said Wood, who had been hospitalized in recent weeks for congestive heart failure. "But I thank God that I'm alive. I still get emotional when I think about it." 

    For Wood, Sunday's tornado was especially disturbing, rekindling memories of La Plata's other devastating storm -- that of Nov. 9, 1926, which killed 17, including her sister and 13 of her classmates.

    "Whenever I hear of tornado warnings in November, it comes to mind very quickly," said Wood in a telephone interview yesterday from her daughter's home in nearby Spring Hill.

    Wood was 9 years old when she attended the two-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of La Plata. She recalled that day more than 75 years ago as being unseasonably warm for November.

    "I was not in school that afternoon. I had left earlier to go to the dentist for an appointment. His office was in his home, and when we heard the wind roar, his wife took me to the window and said that the noise was that of a large airship passing overhead," she said.

    A little after 2 p.m., the savage storm raced up from the Potomac River and struck the community, creating a path of destruction 18 miles long and 140 yards wide.

    The schoolhouse that stood in its path held 56 students and two teachers. It was ripped from its foundation by the howling winds and dropped into a grove of trees about 50 feet away.

    Several children were carried 500 feet away by the swirling winds, and the naked body of a child was found in the top of a tree about 300 feet from where the school had stood.

    Beneath tons of splintered wood and debris came cries for help as residents feverishly tried to extricate those who were trapped.

    The storm zigzagged on to Prince George's and Calvert counties. A piece of the schoolhouse landed in Upper Marlboro, 25 miles away. A page ripped from a school ledger was found 36 miles away in Bowie.

    "It was horrible," said Wood. As injured children were taken to the porch of a nearby doctor where they waited for medical treatment, news came that her 7-year-old sister, Mary Ellen Bowie, was severely injured.

    "We didn't have fire or rescue squads in La Plata in those days, and someone put Mary Ellen in their car. She was so badly mangled and died on the way to Washington. It was a blessing," said Wood, who recalled that the entire town turned out for the funerals of the children.

    In Sunday's storm, Wood's brick home lost all its windows, several holes were torn in the roof and a porch column collapsed.

    "It's eerie. There is glass everywhere but not a thing out of place in the house," said Betty Carney, her daughter. She attributes the house's survival to sound construction by her father, Harry F. Wood, who built it in 1937.

    "Nothing moved or broke in the house, not one knickknack or piece of furniture moved during the storm," she said. "It's the way it's always been."    

All content herein is © 2009 The Baltimore Sun
Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: History

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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