Survivors remember deadly 1953 Beecher tornado

At age 18, Leonard Brush was at his girlfriend's house 15 minutes before they heard the wind pick up, saw the hail come down, watched trees be uprooted and felt the windows shatter.
AP Wire
Jun 9, 2013

That's when they hit the ground and the last time Brush, now 78, saw his girlfriend, Pat Fender, alive.

It's been 60 years since the Beecher community's lives were turned upside down, but Brush said the memories are vivid and always in the forefront of his mind.

On the evening of June 8, 1953, a F5 tornado ripped through the Beecher community, killing 116 people and destroying nearly 350 houses. The tornado remains one of the nation's most deadly.

Brush, a 1952 Beecher High School graduate, had been dating Fender, a 1953 Beecher High school graduate, for more than a year and a half. In his mind, she will forever be 17.

"When the windows blew out, we just hit the floor. We didn't know what was going on. We could see the wind. We could see a few trees blown over. That was last conscious moment, laying next to her on the living room floor," said Brush, who now lives in Pennsylvania. "We were there together and then I got knocked out and she got cast away somewhere."

Brush woke up roughly 30 minutes later, lying on a mattress about 100 feet from where the house once stood.

By then it was about 9:15 p.m. June 8. His right leg was broken and it was very dark, he said.

The victims of the Beecher tornado ranged from 5 months in age to 80.

Until that day, no one knew what a tornado was, Brush said. And no one knew how to prepare. But years after that, with every storm Brush was an emotional wreck, he said.

"The force of the wind was so strong that it just blew things into your body. I had a sensation of glass under my chin for months and months. The wind had blown sand right into my skin," Brush said. "That thing came down and stayed down so long that there were people all over the place that were affected by it. ... It was real devastation. What you see on the TV about the Oklahoma tornado (that raged through the city of Moore May 20 killing 24 people and leveling blocks). The Beecher tornado was that and then some."

And with every storm, survivors talked about how memories coming flooding back. With four tornadoes touching down in Genesee County the night of May 28, their eyes were on the sky.

Diane Bayeh, 70, of Mount Morris Township said her first thought when the storms rolled into the Beecher area last week was "Hey, don't let this happen again."

Bayeh was 500 feet from the destruction in 1953 when she was 10 years old. She and her family sprung into action 60 years ago, and she did the same thing when another tornado hit Tuesday, May 28.

"Oh absolutely (memories come back). The first thing you think of is 'Dear heavenly father don't let this happen. Keep people safe,'" she said.

Virginia Timm, 85 , of Burton said she thinks about the Beecher tornado every time there's a bad storm. When it gets windy, she immediately goes to the basement.

"It kind of scares ya," said Timm, who saw the destruction of the 1953 Beecher tornado after it went through.

Doug Morris will never forget the freight train-like sounds followed by a deathly silence.

Morris, 86, will never forget the destruction, the families trapped under roofs or the residents who didn't survive the deadly 1953 Beecher tornado.

Even though it's been 60 years, Morris remembers it like it was yesterday. He remembers lifting up collapsed roofs and sides of houses to rescue families hiding in their basements. He remembers carrying residents who didn't make it to his pickup truck.

"We did find straws and shovels and handles embedded right down in telephone poles, so the wind was terrific going down there," said Morris, who was a volunteer Mount Morris Township firefighter in 1953. "It's something I'll never forget."

Many people still talk about it today. Some say it's something they will never forget.

Maria Anderson, now 77, and her family experienced the destruction first hand. Days after the storm, gravel pieces would be falling out of her scalp in the shower, she said.

After the tornado hit, Anderson and her sister rode in the back of truck to the hospital, along the way taking in more and more passengers. She remembers a classmate being handed to her sister, dying in her arms.

She was 17 at the time the tornado hit, freshly graduated from Beecher High School. Sixty years later and the memories are still fresh.

"I remember it as if it was yesterday. It's like it was burned into my memory," Anderson said. "A tragedy of a tornado, you never forget. I'm 77 and I never forget."

Morris, now living in Grand Blanc Township, said when he got to the Mount Morris Township Fire Department one of the walls was gone. At least a dozen firefighters stayed there for a week while helping with rescue and clean up.

He recalled stories of when a wagon was picked up by the tornado and thrown into one of the firefighter's basements, barely missing the family. Another firefighter was killed when the tornado picked up his vehicle and threw it, Morris said.

Beecher High School was damaged and the drive-in theater destroyed.

That night the firefighters drove down Coldwater Road, clearing the way and searching for survivors. They worked through the night, he said.

"I have never seen a storm like that before," Morris said. "By the time we got up there, there was nothing. It was perfectly silent."

At 8:30 p.m. June 8, 1953, the tornado touched down. It traveled east destroying nearly everything in its path.

The tornado was on the ground for 27 miles, traveling at approximately 35 mph, before finally breaking up in Lapeer County's Deerfield Township. It registered an F5 on the Fujita scale, which denotes wind speeds of 261 to 318 miles per hour.

Bayeh, 70, lived in a house next to Diane Mobile Home Manor in Mount Morris Township when the twister ripped through the Beecher area. The park and her home was about 500 to 600 feet away from the tornado's path.

Bayeh, who was 10 when the tornado hit, remembered her dad telling her to get inside the house when the storm started rolling in. That's when they heard it.

"Did it sound like a freight train? No. Crashes? No. It was just a roaring, roaring sounds you can't forget," Bayeh said. "People came screaming that people were killed, dead bodies were laying around. We had cars all over the place. We didn't even know what a tornado was."

But what she remembered most was how everyone pitched in to help in time of need. Her parents, Nick and Mary Nickola, managed the mobile home park in 1953 and they jumped into action to help the injured, Bayeh said.

Residents of the park ran into their homes to get sheets and other items to use as bandages. It became an emergency area, along with a nearby night club, the Nite-Hawk.

"People ran home, got blankets, got coats. They were afraid. They were scared. They were crying, but they were strong and they came together," Bayeh said. "It was amazing that everyone came to help."

In August, thousands of volunteers turned out for a weekend-long rebuilding effort. The group worked on 193 houses as temperatures soared in the 90s. The effort was so successful it earned Flint the designation "All-American City" in 1954.

Bob Newmann, 76, of Vienna Township, was in the Army National Guard on June 8, 1953. Living in Flint at the time the storm didn't come close to where he was, but after it hit he was stationed in Beecher for three days.

He was helping with rescue and cleanup. And it was unlike anything he had seen before, he said.

"Unless you were out there you would have no idea the kind of destruction that was out there," Newman said. "It was like a vast wasteland. For three blocks wide it was devastation."

Also burned into his memory was his time in the armory, which was used as a morgue.

At least 80 people were lined up on the floor inside of the morgue waiting for a priest to read their last rights, Newmann said. His job was to go around and assist the priest.

"You had bodies ordered in rows," he said. "You will never forget that."

It was after 5 p.m. that day 60 years ago when Timm saw the dark clouds rolling in. The sky then turned a shade of yellow and she heard sirens going off.

She was 25 years old then living in a house in Mundy Township with her husband, Virgil. Her mother-in-law had just gotten in town and said her bones ached so there must be a storm coming.

Even though the tragedy of the Beecher tornado took place 60 years ago, Timm, now 85, said she can never forget the destruction.

The same goes for Eloise Mraz, 92, of Grand Blanc. Five years before the tornado hit, Mraz lived in the Beecher tornado's path. Fortunately she was unaffected by the twister, but visiting the area the day after was still very emotional.

Her mother, who was a nurse, told of children who lost parents and the injuries to residents. Her brothers found an infant in a bath tub under two-by-fours in the shape of a cross.

Tears still came to her eyes when she talked about it.

"All where I had lived had been flattened," Mraz said. "You would think that it was a war zone."

Timm was also fortunate enough to have the storm miss her home, but her friends were not as lucky.

"It was really windy and then it got real calm, real still-like. Then the winds picked up to the north. ... It was really a bad thing," said Timm, who now lives in Burton. "I saw a refrigerator wrapped around a telephone pole. ... Not too many (buildings were left). What was standing, there was a lot of damage."

There was no advanced warning that Timm knew of. When she visited the hospital to see her friends, she barely recognized them, she said. Their injuries were severe and the emergency room was packed.

The family had a 4-year-old son and an 8-month-old son. The family lived on the farm and tried to lay over the young children as they hung on to the tall grass in their yard, Timm said. The injuries sustained by the baby were too serious and he didn't make it. The house was destroyed.

The devastating tornado was talked about constantly for years to follow, she said.

"It was kind of a sickening feeling, just unbelievable," Timm said. "No other storms come close."

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