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Thursday, March 31, 2016 12:16 am

Illinois has seen its share of disasters

 Like most states, Illinois has endured its share of disasters during its history. The catastrophes have ranged from natural to manmade, and from industrial to recreational.

Some of the worst disasters in state history have involved coal mining. On Nov. 13, 1909, an underground fire broke out in Mine No. 2 at Cherry, in Bureau County. A total of 259 men were lost, leaving 160 widows and 470 children. Thirty-three of those were born after the fire.    

On March 25, 1947, coal dust ignited an explosion at No. 5 Mine in Centralia, killing 111 workers. The disaster is credited with the establishment of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund, and folk artist Woody Guthrie later wrote a song on the accident.

Some 119 miners near West Frankfort died on Dec. 21, 1951, when an explosion tore apart the Orient No. 2 Mine. The news interrupted a high school basketball game in town, as the public-address announcer requested a local doctor to head for the mine.

The horrific specter ended the Christmas season early in the area, and many residents removed their decorations. Months later, Congress was inspired to pass the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952.

Decades earlier, surface water from thawing snow and heavy rains began pouring into the Diamond Mine near Braidwood on Feb. 16, 1883. Rescue attempts were described “as brief as they were futile,” and 74 men drowned in the deluge.    

Large fires have also claimed thousands of lives in Illinois. On Dec. 30, 1903, a fire erupted near the stage during a vaudeville matinee at the lavish Iroquois Theater in Chicago, which consumed most of the interior of the five-week-old, six-story building in a mere 15 minutes.

Some 602 of the overflow crowd of nearly 2,000 were killed in the inferno, the deadliest single-building fire in American history. The carnage induced better safety standards for theaters and similar public buildings, including clearly marked exits and doors that could be pushed outward from inside.

Safety regulations for schools were also enhanced after another deadly fire in Chicago, at Our Lady of the Angels parochial school on Dec. 1, 1958. Some 95 people, mainly children, were lost.

Other catastrophic fires in Illinois include a blaze at a hospital in Effingham on April 5, 1949, that claimed 77 lives, while a blast at a food plant in Pekin on Jan. 3, 1924, killed 42. Forty-nine others were killed in an explosion at an Elwood ordnance plant on June 5, 1942.

A brush fire that spread to a small trestle was the cause of the wreck of a Toledo, Peoria and Western passenger train east of Chatsworth on Aug. 10, 1887. At least 78 people lost their lives.

On the morning of July 24, 1915, Western Electric Company workers were crammed onto the steamer Eastland in the Chicago River on the way to a company picnic at Michigan City, Indiana. An obvious portside list worsened and caused the ship to capsize, throwing hundreds into the water. Some 844 passengers died – a higher passenger death total than the Titanic.

Elsewhere in Chicago, an American Airlines DC-10 had just taken off from O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, when its left engine fell off. The resulting crash killed 275 people, the highest death toll in American aviation history.

Floods have also been devastating, including the staggering 1937 Ohio River flood that swamped old Shawneetown and surrounding areas, and the 1973 Mississippi River flood that deluged Alton and other cities along the water. Those floods, however, paled in comparison to the Flood of 1993, which inundated millions of acres in western and southern Illinois, as well as many cities and towns along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

A landmark moment in St. Louis history was the destructive tornado of May 27, 1896, nicknamed “The Cyclone.” Overlooked, however, is how the tornado crossed the Mississippi and killed 118 people in East St. Louis. Some 27 were killed in separate tornadoes elsewhere in southern Illinois in the second-deadliest tornado event in Illinois history.

Ranking third was the May 26, 1917, outbreak that opened near Louisiana, Missouri, and continued across the state. The series killed 101 people, including 91 in Mattoon and Charleston, where a combined 717 homes were destroyed. Some 2,500 people in Mattoon were left homeless.

However, the deadliest tornado in both state and national history was the infamous Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, which ripped across southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, and southwest Indiana. Though researchers debate whether the phenomenon was a single funnel or a series of tornadoes, there is little question of its massive destruction.

In today’s dollars, the Tri-State tornado left $1.4 billion in damage and devastated the communities of Murphysboro, DeSoto and Gorham. Of the 695 total deaths, 613 were in Illinois – the highest death toll for a tornado in a single American state.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.


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