Skip to Content

Pryor, OK Tornado Destruction, Apr 1942



Relief Workers Seek Through Countryside For More Dead and Injured; Relief Rushed In By Many Agencies; Twister Swept Down Main Street of War Boom Community.

Pryor, Okla., April 28 -- (AP) -- This war boom town today dug out of the ruins of an angry tornado that ripped down Main street, leaving $2,000,000 in property damage, 70 known dead and an estimate by the state highway patrol that the toll would reach 100 in this area.
An unofficial check of mortuaries in the storm area showed 70 known dead, and the highway patrol reported searchers still were digging through the rubble that once was Main street. Relief workers also hunted through farming areas devastated by the tornado.
The list of hospitalized injured ran between 150 and 300, the patrol said, and scores more were given only first aid treatment.
Mayor THOMAS J. HARRISON estimated the property damage would be at least $2,000,000 here.
"We are going to start rebuilding right now," he said. "We believe we can get priorities for the materials because we are in a defense area."
Martial Law Prevails.
This town of 5,000 to 6,000, next door to the multi-million dollar Oklahoma Ordnance Works, was ordered under martial law, and Governor LEON C. PHILLIPS placed Safety Commissioner WALTER R. JOHNSON in command of state relief agencies.
The martial law was announced by and is being enforced by the state highway patrol under JOHNSON, the state's national guard having been mustered into the army. The booming town has no sheriff or city marshall force sufficient to cope with such an emergency.
Workers Rush To Aid.
Hundreds of workers and machinery from the ordnance works, which escaped serious damage, were rushed to the scene. Giant bulldozers and cranes shoveled through the wreckage in search of victims.
The tornado struck yesterday at 4:45 p.m. (Central War Time).
Most of the six block business district on Main street was reduced to rubble.
Early this morning, a central relief agency was established in the Community house under the direction of Col. R. H. CAMERON of the ordnance works. Street patrols were organized to prevent looting, but three arrests were reported.
Area Hospitals Crowded.
The more seriously injured were hospitalized in nearby towns. The community house, two churches and the Whitaker state orphanage were being used for first aid and emergency stations. Pryor's two hospitals were damaged and evacuated.
Wounded overflowed hospitals at Vinita, Claremore, Tulsa and other towns.
The Red Cross sent eight disaster workers from St. Louis with medical and other supplies.
Main Street Wrecked.
Practically every brick building along the main street and on the principal business side streets was flattened or heavily damaged.
About one third of the thomes were damaged or destroyed. Entire blocks of houses were smashed in some instances.
Sheriff DON McELROY estimated that hundreds of parked cars were buried under the crashing buildings.
In one trailer camp west of town, eight persons were trapped and killed. The collapse of a grocery killed another. Five persons eating in a cafe died in the smashed structure. Three bodies were recovered from a rubble heap that had been a garage.
"All Went Black"
FAYE MITCHELL, employe of the county agent's office, said "everything went black as the storm struck."
"It made my ears hurt," she said. "There was a high whistling sound. It was like swimming deep under water."
All telephone communications were cut. The electric power was off. Ambulances from nearby towns carried out wounded.
F. C. (DICK) DICKINSON, employe of the Grand River dam at Lagley, Okla., had just driven into town as the purplish-black storm cloud descended.
He said he counted 11 bodies in five blocks.
The ordnance plant workers cleared the streets of rubble, then attacked the tottering walls of business houses to lay the danger of further crumbling and injury to rescue workers.
Rush In Supplies.
Portable power units from the ordnance works were set up at strategic centers in the downtown area. Emergency water supplies and food were brought in.
The storm was freakish in its savagery. About 15 to 20 chickens cowered down the street, picked clean by the wind.
One side of the First National Bank was blown out. Loose money from the tills -- the amount undetermined -- littered the street. Nobody stopped to pick it up. They were too busy.
Claremore residents reported seeing the storm east of there. It dipped down on highway 20 about 12 miles west of here and apparently followed the highway into Pryor.
Automobiles Crushed.
Its path along the highway was littered by twisted automobiles, some of which it tossed 200 yards into fields. One giant gasoline transport truck was twisted like a pretzel.
Standing on a hilltop on the highway, GEORGE WOLFE, Tulsa truck driver, told of seeing the purplish-black cone -- "from all sides were spitting big cows, calves, whole trees, telephone poles, roof tops." After waiting until he thought the storm had passed, he and his helper, LEONARD WALLACE, 18, along with 10 persons huddled on the hill, got into their machines and started out again. But those that had gone ahead apparently, plunged into the storm's center.
Saw Truck Vanish.
WALLACE said a light bakery truck with the driver in it just disappeared.
"I saw that truck a good 15 feet off the road and twisting in a continuous circle," said WALLACE. "Afterward I looked all over for it and never found a trace of the driver or the truck."
The storm also was reported to have taken one life at Tiawah, about 15 miles southwest of Pryor, and to have killed three east of Talala.
MRS. ELIZABETH ROGERS, club woman, had stopped in at a store on her way home from a Red Cross course.
"The store was wrecked, and I was hit on the head with something," she said, "but as soon as I could I got a bunch of Boy Scouts and come over here and went to work." She is running an emergency station at the First Christian church.
County Judge Killed.
County Judge W. E. NICKLIN, veteran Mayes county public official, was among those killed in the storm. Walking home from the courthouse a friend called him into her home as the storm approached. The house was destroyed and both perished.
The Baptist church, the largest in town, was cut in two and gutted by the tornado.
Information was lacking on the number of dead and injured at farms between here and Claremore. This morning eight airplanes circled over a 40-mile area between here and Tulale, directing ground crews to damaged isolated farm houses that had been in the tornado's path.
Sedatives and opiates were at a premium in the first rush of injured into the receiving stations. Many injured endured their torment in silence, quickly lapsing into unconsciousness.
Baggage trucks from the depot were used, along with doors, to handle the wounded. The trucks were used as ambulances for short distances.
DAISY ABBOTT, a laundry worker, was buried under rubble as the laundry was blown in. Other employes dug her out.
She said she felt fine and got up and walked around.
She collapsed suddenly and died a short time later. Physicians said she apparently suffered internal injuries and was unaware of them.

Sorrow, Pain Prevail In Emergency Aid Station.
Pryor, April 28 -- (AP) --The scene is a dormitory at the Whitaker Orphanage that has been converted into an emergency receiving station.
By the light of huge outside floodlights shining through the windows a surgeon performs a brain operation on one of the victims of this war boom town's disastrous tornado ... nurses stand by to help.
Relatives of the injured man, and just plain curious, troop in and out of the room.
In one corner, a middle aged man sat Indian fashion beside a cot on which his wife lay.
"Doctor, come here, feel her pulse," he called.
The doctor left his operation and went to the woman.
"Sorry," he told the man softly, "she's gone."
The husband nodded and stood up to leave. His right leg collapsed. Physicians said it had been broken at least five hours before.
Upstairs a woman screamed in pain as nurses attempted to lower to lower her onto a cot. A 3-year-old girl roused from a coma, cried in fright:
"Daddy, daddy. I want daddy."
Nurses said the father was dead, the mother seriously injured.
Outside the boys and girls of the orphanage soberly directed traffic of ambulances and trucks which mashed the well tended lawns and flower beds into quagmires.

The Ada Evening News Oklahoma 1942-04-28


My family

My entire family survived this tornado. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. Her and my dad left their apartment moments before it blew away. My grandmother was hit on the head by a brick but not seriously injured. My dad told me years later that there was only one bill he didn't pay in his life. He had a new pickup that he had taken to be serviced and it was there without a scratch but the garage and the people in it were gone.

My family

My entire family survived this tornado. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. Her and my dad left their apartment moments before it blew away. My grandmother was hit on the head by a brick but not seriously injured. My dad told me years later that there was only one bill he didn't pay in his life. He had a new pickup that he had taken to be serviced and it was there without a scratch but the garage and the people in it were gone.

article | by Dr. Radut