Palm Sunday tornado outbreak: 50 years later

Timeline of the 1965 tornado outbreak

COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. (WZZM) -- April 11, 1965 is remembered as one of the worst tornado outbreaks in Michigan history. 53 people were killed and hundreds hurt when a dozen tornadoes touched down across the state, including Kent County.

Like so many early April days in West Michigan, the morning of Sunday, April 11, 1965 was cool and quiet; the morning observations taken by the Grand Rapids office of the U.S. Weather Bureau reported several hours of fog. Only the day before, a strengthening low-pressure system in the Plains was heading towards the Great Lakes region.

Early on that Palm Sunday morning, a squall line of thunderstorms was forming across Wisconsin and Iowa, ahead of a cold front. The storms began intensifying and racing eastward by the early afternoon. Back in the 1960s, severe weather bulletins were only sent to the local Weather Bureau offices and the word tornado was not used until tornadoes were actually reported. This severe weather forecast was issued 15 minutes after the first tornadoes touched down in Iowa.

The U.S. Weather Bureau in Dubuque issued the first statement confirming a tornado at 1:10 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:10 p.m. in Grand Rapids.

By late-afternoon, two storms were now showing up: one over south-central Wisconsin, the other over southwest Michigan. Another severe weather forecast was issued warning of the possibility of "severe thunderstorms with a tornado or two, large hail, and locally damaging wind storms."

By 5 p.m. the Michigan Weather Bureau offices, including Grand Rapids, were already aware of the destruction that occurred further west and began issuing weather bulletins describing the progress of the thunderstorms on radar:

"A squall line with several severe thunderstorms was near Milwaukee and Chicago moving eastward about 50 mph. This squall line will reach the eastern shore of Lake Michigan at New Buffalo about 6 p.m. and the Muskegon, Holland, Benton Harbor area by 6:30 p.m. and the Grand Rapids, kalamazoo area by about 7 p.m. today. There will likely be some severe thunderstorms with large hail and damaging winds over west central and southwestern lower Michigan as this squall line passes. This is for immediate broadcast!"

The squall line intensified further by 6 p.m. The Grand Rapids office expressed how the threat has evolved.

"(The area) will have several severe thunderstorms particularly in Berrien, Van Buren, and Cass Counties where there could be a tornado or two within the next 45 minutes... Radio stations and TV in the Grand Rapids-Ionia areas are authorized to use their emergency action notification signal as a preface to the above warning statement."

The storms then slammed into West Michigan. One EF-3 tornado northeast of Kalamazoo injured 17 people. In Allegan County, an EF-1 tornado killed one person in Burnips.

In Ottawa County, a severe storm intensified as it moved towards Allendale, where an EF-4 tornado began its 35-mile path of death and destruction. It started south of Marne then inflicted heavy damage in Kent County to Alpine Township, Comstock Park, and Rockford and ended near Cedar Springs. Five people were killed and over 100 injured. One of the injured would die days later, raising the death toll to six.

Another EF-2 tornado, probably from the same storm, hit Montcalm and Gratiot Counties and heavily damaged several farms.

After the storms moved on, the Grand Rapids Weather Bureau issued a somber statement: "Many tornadoes reported. Most damage was in Comstock Park and other areas just to the northwest of Grand Rapids and at Burnips, 20 miles southwest of Grand Rapids. Present available information is that six to eight people were killed and approximately 200 hospitalized."

WZZM 13 Chief Meteorologist George Lessens says the Palm Sunday 1965 tornado outbreak is the reason he wanted to become a meteorologist.

"Growing up in Lowell at that time, I witnessed these storms first-hand, thankfully from a safe distance, but the impact of that day reminds me every day why I do what I do."

During the Palm Sunday outbreak, seconds of warning meant the difference between life and death. Sandee Crinion survived the tornado as it tore through her neighborhood at 6 Mile Road and Alpine Avenue in Alpine Township.

"It's like it was yesterday. We were having a party for my brother," she recalled. Family and friends had gathered to celebrate her brother's seventeenth birthday. But in an instant presents were replaced with panic as the oldest member of the Millis family shouted the only warning.

"Usually, we never listened to a word my brother said," recalled Linda Cardosa. "We were just a bunch of stair-step kids--kind of savages. And for some reason, the way he said it, we all listened."

"I looked up out of the back window and I saw the shed just blow up," recalled Crinion.

The Millis home at 711 6 Mile Road NW took a direct hit from the tornado with an estimated wind speed between 166 and 200 m.p.h. The wreckage left behind was consistent with an EF-4 tornado.

"I must have went in to shock and I just thought, 'this is death. I think I died,'" Crinion remembered. Miraculously, everyone inside the house survived. "The refrigerator was tipped over and there were 12 dozen eggs in it because it was Palm Sunday, for Easter--and they didn't break. Isn't that crazy?"

But not everyone was that lucky. Her brother Tom and his girlfriend Mary were in the shed.

"Something hit him and he broke his arm and only could hang on to her with one hand," Cardosa said. "She was hanging on to him and then a bowling ball hit her head and then she wasn't hanging on."

Mary was one of the five people killed by the tornado. But in spite of the tragedy, there were moments of relief and heartfelt joy.

"The next day we went to Comstock Park and we were at the side of the road. And out of the drug store across the street come my mom and dad," Crinion recalled as she teared up. "When they were running across the middle of the road, we're all just… oh!" she said as she trailed off with emotion.

"It was never the same again," Cardosa said.

For more historic photos from the tornado outbreak, visit the April 11, 1965: Comstock Park, MI Tornado 50th Anniversary Facebook page.


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