News - McHenry County

Palm Sunday tornado: 50 years later, Crystal Lake, Island Lake survivors reflect

Cheryl and Gordon Triefenbach were living in the Colby subdivision when tornado hit on Palm Sunday on April 11th 1965.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Nearly every story about Palm Sunday 1965 starts with the humidity.

The day was unseasonably warm, so much so that Rick Burman, then about 20 years old, remembered wearing shorts and a T-shirt while building a dog kennel with his brother-in-law Ed Ozog at his grandparents’ farmhouse where he and his wife lived.

Barbara Oehmke was escaping the humidity by taking her four children shopping for Easter clothes at the Meadowdale Shopping Center in Carpentersville while her husband, Keith, was out, working an overtime shift for ComEd.

"Everybody was happy to be outside," said Mark Eckel, who was outdoors with his parents and little sister while his brother played at a friend's house next door.

But then the weather shifted.

"It started to rain like crazy, so we went in the house," Ozog said. "Then it cleared up, and we went outside and were working again [on the dog kennel]. But the skies were really –"

"Weird," Burman said.

"Weird colors and everything," Ozog agreed.

"Eerie," Burman said. "Bluish green. Just eerie."

The color was what had 8-year-old Rich Sade’s father herding him and his brother into their Lake Avenue garage, interrupting a round of shooting hoops after the Palm Sunday church service. And when the hail came, Sade’s father knew it was a tornado.

The F-4 tornado touched down in Crystal Lake about 3:30 p.m. April 11, 1965, destroying more than 100 homes, killing five residents and injuring at least another 95 before moving on to Island Lake where it dug a trench in the bottom of the lake, destroyed more homes and killed a 5-year-old boy.

"By the time we got to the front door, it was coming through," Sade said. "I could remember seeing shingles and debris flying to the south of us toward Lundahl Junior High School. My aunt lived across the street, and I could see the bushes in the back being uprooted. By the time we got in the house, it pretty much [was] full blown at that point. I mean, it was howling and blowing and all the things that happen in a storm like that."

Barbara Oehmke was back in Crystal Lake, in the parking lot of Neisner’s dime store and about to run in to get some candy for the kids, when a driving rain came. The tornado quickly followed.

The force of the storm began pushing their Rambler station wagon toward the big pane windows that lined the storefront, but Oehmke still was able to steer and she managed to keep the car from going straight through the windows.

Her daughter, now Gretchen Flynn but then 6-year-old Gretchen Oehmke, was in the backseat.

"I remember feeling just this force in the back of the car," she said. "It was almost like being on some kind of carnival ride where the car was just going up and down and moving at the same time. ... I remember looking up and seeing the roof of the store Neisner's we were in front of. All of sudden of it just came off. It was just sucked off. I remember seeing it twirl around twice and then go back down. It landed right on top of the building."

Mark Eckel, his parents and his little sister were caught in the entry way of their split-level home when the storm hit, and so they pressed against the stairwell to get as much cover as possible. While the wind still was blowing, his father looked out the window and saw the garage where Eckel’s little brother had been playing.

The garage had collapsed, although one end of the roof still was attached to the house "like on a hinge and the other part was resting on their '57 Plymouth with the big tail fins."

The boys were OK, but not everyone was.

The first to be killed by the storm was Rae Goss, 52, who had been outside marking where he wanted a new deck poured, his granddaughter Cheri Doetch said. He was on his way back to the house when the parts of the barn – which he had converted into a quasi-community center where teenage boys could play basketball – landed on him.

The only reason the boys weren't in the barn that day, Doetch said, was because signs Goss had posted around the barn that warned against smoking on the property had been removed the week before. Goss told them they could come back when the signs did.

(Reports from the time do say that Goss had gone back out to the barn to make sure it was empty when he was killed.)

Louis Knaack, 55, was killed when a garage door and wall collapsed on him and his wife, according to reports from the time. His wife was severely injured but survived.

Richard "Dick" and Rosalie Holter were killed along with their oldest son, John, when their entire home was destroyed when the tornado swept through the Colby subdivision.

Their next-door neighbor Jerrold Michaels knew immediately that they couldn’t have made it. The house was completely gone. Richard Holter’s work truck was in the basement.

Five-year-old Charles Pokorny died later that day from injuries he sustained when the tornado destroyed his Island Lake home, according to the Historical Society of Island Lake. His father had tried to protect him as they raced to the basement.

Emergency centers for the injured were set up in the Crystal Lake community hall and city hall. Emergency responders set up road blocks to keep gawkers out.

Leo Carvis, then a detective with the Lake County Sheriff's Office, was called out to Island Lake to help with the response. His job was to go and look for people trapped in destroyed homes.

"To see the destruction, it was one of those things," Carvis said. "It wasn't pretty, but it was a job that we had to do."

Barbara Oehmke’s husband, Keith, didn’t come home on time from his shift with ComEd. He worked until midnight for several days in a row repairing electricity lines.

"It was cold as hell," he said. "We were looking for anything we could find – jackets, coats."

Nancy Barchard spent the night working at her father’s restaurant Bill’s Grill.

"We served lots and lots of people as a family all night – to serve the electricians and everybody that was out working," she said. "We stayed open all night long to feed them. They paid for it, [but] it was a lot of hard work being open. Everybody was kind of loving each other, helping each. We all felt that we were really helping by staying open and feeding people. Those poor guys worked so hard."

The Red Cross set up an emergency center at Crystal Lake Central High School, but no one needed it. Everyone found a place to stay, including Marian and Jerrold Michaels whose home was destroyed along with their neighbors'.

They stayed with friends for six weeks until they found a new home near the lake, she said.

And for weeks, people brought them items that they knew were theirs, Jerrold Michaels said. The police chief brought them their marriage certificate, which had been found in a field. He had figured it was theirs because there was Hebrew writing on it.

"It shows just what a great community we have here," said Diana Kenney, the president of the Crystal Lake Historical Society. "They fed them, clothed them, provided housing, helped rebuild neighbor helping neighbor."

Over the next days and months, businesses in the Crystal Lake Plaza started to reopen, and about a year after the storm, all the mobile home trailers that had been used as temporary housing were gone.

And every Palm Sunday for years afterward, the pictures would come out and the stories would be told, Sade said.

Emily Coleman

Emily K. Coleman

Originally from the northwest suburbs, Emily K. Coleman is Shaw Media's editor for newsletters and engagement. She previously served as the Northwest Herald's editor and spent about seven years as a reporter with Shaw Media, first covering Dixon for Sauk Valley Media and then various communities within McHenry County from 2012 to 2016.