"A large black cloud appeared to be coming our way": the deadly 1933 Tryon Tornado

Headline from the Tryon Graphic, three days after the deadly May 22, 1933 tornado (the death toll would later grow to at least 10)
May 21, 2018 - 3:53pm

One of the deadliest tornadoes in Nebraska history roared through a sparsely populated Sandhills area, 85-years-ago today.

1933 was a bad year for McPherson County, Nebraska. In March a blizzard killed 5,000 head of cattle. Then came May 22.

"Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska" is our documentary on the deadliest tornado outbreak in Nebraska history, the 1913 Easter Sunday tornadoes that struck Omaha, Ralston, Yutan and Berlin. Watch it here: netNebraska.org/devilclouds

A Tryon Graphic story a few days later started with this: “There is no grim tale in all the history of McPherson County of the whole sand hill country, that compares to that of the death and desperation of the cyclone that struck our county Monday evening a few minutes past six thirty o’clock.”

At least 10 people died that day or later from injuries, making it one of the 10 deadliest tornadoes in Nebraska history. Six people, including three children, were killed when the storm struck the Pyzer farm where the Tryon Graphic reported that "all the buildings were torn into splinters and scattered over a wide area."

In some accounts the tornado is described as a rare, powerful F-5 that “traversed the length of the county from south to north, moving in a very odd, winding path, passing just a few miles from Tryon.”

Alice Mae Larsen was a 25-year-old local schoolteacher at the time. After the tornado she wrote an account, shared with NET by her son, Bob Gray. Here’s some of her story:

“May 22 was a windy day. All the day it was disagreeable, and in the afternoon it was such a strong wind and so dusty, we had to close all the windows, and then it was so warm we could hardly stand it. A red dust filled the air, as the wind came from the south. Our south field was a cloud of dust.”

“Our windmill got shaky and Dad went out to see about it, Momma and I watching anxiously. Then he went over to brace the barn. At the same time some of the chickens were trying to get to their place of abode, but could scarcely stand as the fury of the wind increased. We watched one old hen especially, as she got up to walk, but not able to stand, sat close to the ground. After some time she made it safely.”

"A large black cloud appeared to be coming our way"

“Dad had said more than once that something was coming. It soon grew almost as dark as night, the wind howling fiercely. Dad kept watch of the clouds, and perhaps about 6:00 or 6:30, he stood at the south front room window and said excitedly, ‘If you want to see a cyclone, come quick.’ We hurried into the room and there a large black cloud appeared to be coming our way.”

“We took the lantern with us to the partial basement and stood breathless, waiting for it to strike. Dad finally, after perhaps two or three minutes, ascended the stairs, we following and going to the door, or rather, windows. A light streak seemed to be on either side the black cloud, or otherwise, we could never have seen it. We saw it moving on north of us, and disappearing in the darkness. I got on my bed and looked out the window. As I saw the cloud passing by, I felt that my room was going, as a hard gust of wind hit that corner of the house. I said, ‘Oh, it’s coming’ and ran for the basement, the folks following.”

“After we again came out of the basement, we decided it must not have been a cyclone after all. It looked as though the cloud may have gone up again, and we went at our work, while it continued to blow and rain.”

"We were horror-stricken"

“Then, some time, a car drove into our yard. Mr. Cal Hill and Mr. Largent’s son, Emery, were in it, and finding Momma in the yard, excitedly asked her if we were all right, and, of course, she answered that we were. He told us that several had been killed and hurt, east of town, and also Alvy Waits was hurt. That was the first we knew a cyclone had struck. Even then, we didn’t know but what it was just a straight wind that blew something against Mr. Waits. After changing some of our clothes, we made our way up to Waits‘, thinking that perhaps he was at home or maybe taken to town. On our way up we noticed small lakes in the road and decided they must have had a lot more rain than we. Soon we noticed fences were down, and weeds strung across the road. As we drove into the driveway and our lights flashed onto the site where the buildings had been, we were horror-stricken! There was not a sign of the car, no garage, and no two-story house, or windmill. We got out the car, but when we saw that it was really so, decided to go to town to see if they were there.”

“When we got up town, everyone was so excited about the storm, and some of the reports weren’t complete as yet. They said that Alvy was hurt in the head, Mrs. Waits was hurt, and Oly, but they didn’t know how bad. They were at Elmer Waits.”

“Marie and Laurence Callender were there, all excited, and telling how their mother had been hit in the head, etc.”

“We went to Largents and I got out and went in to see the patients. Jimmie McIntyre was on a cot in the front room, groaning and saying, ‘Oh, where are they? I know they’re (his sisters) dead. The Lord bless them.’ He seemed to be semi-conscious. Dorothy Binder was suffering so, and asking for her baby, but they kept putting her off. Mrs. Callander was resting quite easily. Mrs. Bassett and Eva Krouse were helping Mrs. Largent.”

“We went on out to Elmer Waits, Dr. McGraw arriving at about the same time before us. As soon as we entered the kitchen door, Florence Jones came up to me and said in a low and hurried tone, ‘Alice, go in and tell Eddie (my boyfriend) you’re all right. He’s about worried sick about you folks for fear you were hurt, too.’”

"With every move she groaned and seemed to suffer so"

“Dad went into the front room, Momma and I following. There was Mr. Waits with a chunk of flesh hanging almost from his eye, blood dripping onto a handkerchief. Some of the men took turns washing his head. Eddie smiled, as he held the lamp for them to see. Dad took the lamp and told him to go sit down. He sat in the rocker, and told us how it all happened as best he could. Oly lay on a cot in the same room, suffering and groaning some. Malcolm lay in the northeast bedroom, with a gash in his head, and a sick stomach. Mrs. Waits lay in the east bedroom, looking almost wild with her hair streaming around her face and such a bewildered look in her eye. With every move she groaned and seemed to suffer so.”

“Dr. took care of her first, finding some fractured ribs and bruises. Oly was next, with a broken left arm and gash across his abdomen. He was so patient all the time she worked with him. Then Mr. Waits had his head sewed up, and hair cut off of the cuts on his head. He certainly was brave. Florence and I were kept busy threading small sewing needles with common thread for her (Doctor) to make stitches. As she was finishing with him, Dr. Wisner came. He discovered that Eddie had a bone broken in his left leg.”

“Momma stayed all night, and Dad and I came home at about three, but that I could never sleep that night. It was all so terrible. The wind came up stronger later, and it made one wonder if another storm was coming.”

“The tornado came toward us, then about 1/4 mile away, turned and went to the Waits’ home about a mile north. Oly Waits died in a few months from his injuries. A few turkeys survived. We took them to our home and cared for them. Waits built a small home on another spot - on lower ground.”

"He was going through the death struggle"

“One of our neighbor’s boys was hurt in the tornado that missed us. When he was in the hospital, his family was getting tired out staying with him, so I volunteered to help. He was going through the death struggle. His dad and I had all we could do to hold him and keep him in bed. He tossed and turned, never still a minute. Much of the time he was out of his head, moaning and mumbling something we couldn’t understand. I think it lasted about three hours, and it was over. The family never seemed to think about God, so they didn’t call a preacher. It was a frightening experience.”

The Tryon Graphic of May 25, 1933, went on to note that “at most places the storm struck so quickly that no one had time to seek a place of safety. The storm will go down in history as one of the state’s greatest tragedies for there have been few such storms that caused so much loss of life.”



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