Skip to main content

Riderwood Resident Kathleen "Dee" McGrath Survived the November 9, 1926 F-4 Tornado That Touched Down in La Plata, MD

October 27, 2011

SILVER SPRING, MD (October 27, 2011) -- It has been 85 years since an F-4 tornado touched down on November 9, 1926 about 5 miles southwest of La Plata in central Charles County, cutting a swath that left a ledger from a school house as far away as Bowie. Riderwood retirement community resident Kathleen "Dee" McGrath was one of its child survivors.
As the tornado made its way north, it picked up a two-room school house filled with students, utterly destroying the building and leaving remnants strewn for 30 miles. Three of the survivors were from one family: a boy in the first grade, a girl of 8 in the third grade and an older sister in the sixth grade.
In a space of a few seconds, 13 people were killed and 47 injured from the school; it became known as the most severe tornado, the worst Maryland disaster of the 20th century.
One small third grader in the schoolhouse was McGrath.
"We were studying, there were the first three grades in my room, the fourth, fifth and sixth grades were in the other," she said. "La Plata was a small hamlet then. It began to get dark, the wind picked up, and then large hail stones began breaking the windows. Our teacher called us to her desk. There was a tremendous noise as if huge freight trains were rumbling above us."
Her story continues:
"The girl next to me and I began walking up to the teacher's desk when suddenly the room seemed to come apart, to begin sliding off the knoll toward the out-houses," she said. "My friend went flying away (later a girl was found in the top of a tree) and I was swept up and spinning. Then I was dropped down in what was left of my school room, under the rubble, which finally had stopped moving.
"My sister, the sixth grader, called to me, holding my young brother who was crying and bleeding where his little toe had been severed. I must have been in shock as I barely remember following my sister home, walking past the children lying in the remnants of the tornado's path, some crying, some lying very still."
She is somber she looks at memorabilia and news articles from that day. What more is there to say?
McGrath went on to raise five daughters, become a teacher and work with disadvantaged children.
On a Sunday evening in April, 2002 another F-4 tornado struck La Plata, killing four and demolishing a few older buildings. Although as strong as the 1926 tornado, less damage was done, and the lessons learned from McGrath's experience can be credited for that.