The 1924 tornado in St. James Parish

laurelplantation

Thank you to the Bayou History Center for this picture of Laurel Ridge Plantation home.  Wasn’t it gorgeous? I may be mistaken in labeling this as the Haydels’ Laurel Plantation, but White Castle is very near St. James Parish.

Times-Picayune: Aug. 26, 1924

Vacherie, La., Aug. 25 – Realization of the full extent of the tragedy which fell upon their peaceful little parish Sunday afternoon slowly is forming in the minds of the residents of St. James Parish.

Grim death, riding rampant on the wings of a ‘twister’ left in his wake eight dead, several dying and many injured as a result of the destruction of St. Philip’s Hall, three miles from Vacherie on the river road and about 40 miles from New Orleans.

Five thousand persons this afternoon attended the joint funeral services at St. Patrick for seven of the eight victims. Rev. Father Fontaine of St. Philip’s Catholic Church and nearly a score of other priests from nearby points conducting the services. The church was far too small to accommodate the crowd, but as many as possible entered it and the others grouped themselves about the building.

Seven caskets containing the bodies offics. The body of Florence Fernandez, one of the victims, was taken to Gretna for burial.

haydels

Stephen Haydel and his wife (above) both died in the tornado. Their son also perished.

The list of dead follows:

Stephen A. Haydell Sr., 63 years old, part owner of Laurel plantation and the father of 10 children.

Mrs. Stephen A. Haydell Sr., 59.

 

stephenjr

Stephen Haydell Jr. 

Stephan A. Haydell Jr., 34, member of the St. James Parish School Board, manager of Laurel plantation and one of the foremost young business men in St. James.

Arthur Hubbell, 40, clerk in the general plantation store and father of five children.

hubbell2

Arthur Hubbell and his sister Virginia died. 

Virginia Hubbell, 29, sister of Arthur Hubbell.

Burchman Waguespack, 21, druggist, son of Dr. Lionel Waguespack and brother of Rene Waguespack, former United States district attorney at New Orleans.

Marie Louise Troxclair, 5, daughter of Fabian Troxclair of St. James.

Florence Fernandez, 7, daughter of Dr. J. R. Fernandez.

florence

Little Florence Mary Fernandez was just 7.

Seriously, perhaps fatally wounded, are Mary Haydell, sister of Stephen Haydell, and Belphor Haydell, brother of Stephen Haydell Sr.

NOTE: BELFORT DID DIE OF HIS INJURIES;  MARY SURVIVED. 

More than a dozen others were painfully hurt, among them being Albert Haydell, another son of Stephen Haydell Sr. Albert Haydell suffered a broken arm, internal injuries and surgeons say a possible fracture of the spine.

Miss Mary Haydell, whose injuries were so serious that she could not be moved far, was taken into the home of Father Fontaine, near the scene. Little hope is felt for her recovery, though she is still conscious. Her chief worry seems to be the well being of her mother and father.

‘Why don’t mama and dad come?’ she has asked many times.

They are not going to tell her why – for a while yet.

Tales of heroism of those who died, those who were injured and those who fought furiously for the lives of the stricken ones will go into the history of St. James Parish to be told and retold for generations to come.

waguespack

Dr. Lionel Waguespack and his wife on their wedding day.

Of how some of the doomed met death and of how Father Fontaine, Drs. Lionel Waguespack and J.R. Fernandez and others battled for the lives of others in the face of irretrievable loss in their own families makes a story St. James can well be proud of.

This afternoon St. James, worn out from a night of vigil over the deceased and administering to the injured, buried its dead amid the deepest spell of mourning and despair this parish ever has known. One simple service comprised the obesquies of those whose lives, one minute joyous in anticipation of a gala evening at St. Phillip’s church fair, were the next minute blown out by the breath of death in the shape of a whirlwind.

It will be many days before the survivors of the awful calamity recover from the shock. Some of the stricken families never will. Indeed, two families were partially wiped out. Those two are the Haydell and Waguespack households.

Theirs had been the moving spirit in arrangements for the fair, and the hand of destiny had beckoned them to be early to see that everything was in order. Had the whirlwind struck two hours later than it did, it must have buried several hundred persons instead of the three score who were in the building at the time.

Many relatives and friends of the Haydell and Waguespack families were also early arrivals. In fact, most of the families in this section of St. James, through intermarriages or by blood, are related, and it is little wonder the St. Phillip’s hall disaster has bereaved the entire parish. The business and social partnership, which Stephen Haydell Sr. and Ramond Waguespack formed many years ago, under the firm name of Waguespack and Haydell they extablished Laurel plantation has grown so much that the two families are considered one.

And few sadder blows ever visited one household.

Nearly half a century ago Stephen Haydel, an ambitious farmer boy, begun his career in St. James Parish.

He had seen his parish prosper, had worked hard, managed well, saved and himself had prospered.

He had seen his few acres grow into hundreds of acres; then had seen them become more important when he merged with his friend Ramond Waguespack, himself on of St. James’ most energetic builders.

Life had treated Stephen Haydell kindly in return for his faithful work and he was kind to his fellow man, showing his appreciation for his success in business, his stalwart sons, beloved wife and beautiful daughters. Though he continued active in the administration of many features of the plantation business, he gradually was turning over his part of the work to his sons and he and his wife devoted much of their time to community work.

It was with pride they had seen a tiny chapel grow into the original St. Phillip’s church and with added pride they had seen the new church recently erected and the old church converted into a hall.

Then, came the time for the holding of the church fair, which provided the last fair to be held in St. Phillip’s Hall.

Stephen Haydel Sr. had seen his wife and daughter and other womenfolk of the parish preparing days ahead for the fair. He had helped them and his sons and all his relatives had helped, and the anticipated success of the fair was only another of the many good things he was to get from life.

So there was an early gathering of those most interested in the success of the project. They wanted to arrange the ice cream, candy and pop booths, fix the beaches, prepare a stage for the little play, which was to be held Sunday night and complete all details. Father Fontaine, rector of St. Philip’s church, was here, there and everywhere, working like a beaver with his friends toward the same end. It was his flocking giving the fair and, therefore, was his fair.

Scant attention was paid to the black, ominous-looking cloud which was seen hovering low on the horizon across the Mississippi river.

Big drops of rain which predicated the approach of a heavy downpour fell and created only additional joy, even though the threat prompted the removal into the hall of benches, booths and chairs, which were outside on the lawn in front. St. James had seen little rain in three months, and almost any inconvenience was to be put up with if the soil could be drenched.

Stephen Haydell had walked hurriedly into the hall when the first sheet of rain fell and there was a smile on his face as he addressed Albert Haydell, one of his sons.

“I hope we will get a little of this down at the plantation,” he said. Laurel plantation is about a mile nearer Vacherie than St. Philip’s.

Just then Father Fontaine, whose home is a hundred feet in the rear of the hall and about the same distance to the side of the new St. Philip’s church, noticed one of the windows in his home and blown open and he scurried across to close it.

At the same time, Albert Haydell, who was helping to close some of the doors and windows of the hall, remarked how the sky suddenly was becoming overcast and that black clouds suddenly had taken on a fringe of dirty yellow, which spread an unnatural light over the vicinity.

Then the rain fell in blinding sheets, driving down the road before a strong, but apparently not dangerous wind.

And then, as if dropping with the weight of a stone, that black cloud hurtled downward, whirling wind and rain around in a literal maelstrom of destruction.

Directly over St. Philip’s Hall it settled and its first blow staggered the gigantic wooden structure.

“I was returning from my home just as I saw the whirlwind strike,” said Father Fontaine “and the next second it seemed the roof split asunder and, caught in the irresistable eddy of the whirlwind, both sides of the building collapsed and in another few moments the whole thing was levelled.”

Crumbling walls, falling timbers and avalanching debris hurled the threescore persons who had been huddled in the shelter of the hall. Some were smothered to death; others suffered broken backs or broken necks.

All happened in much less time than it takes to tell. According to those who escaped unscratched from the falling building, it hardly seemed ten seconds between the first shock and the time when shrieks of the crushed and dying mingled with the dreadfu roar of the whirlwind which, within another few seconds, seemed to list as if to survey its work of devastation, gave one last demonical cry and circled off into space. Several unroofed houses, fallen fences and mangled trees were left as mute evidence of where the whirlwind now and then dipped back earthwards after leaving the ruins of St. Philip’s behind.

For a few seconds, then, the ones who were fortunate enough to have been unhurt, and the few who had not been in the building were stunned. But only for a few seconds. Then, desperately they sent out calls for help and more desperately fell to work, in the driving rain, to tear the timber and ruins off those pinned beneath the wreckage.

Within a few minutes men came from every point and they worked until blood poured from their torn hands.

Dr. Lionel Waguespack, who, in some miraculous way had escaped unhurt, rushed to the side of his won, Burchman, just as the latter was pulled from beneath a timber.

Conscious to the last, Burchman intimated there was no hope for him and begged his father to forget him and attend to those whom help would mean much. The young man had been standing by the side of his sweetheart, and at the crash had pushed her aside just as a heavy timber bore him down. The girl suffered only a slight scratch, a table and some benches saving her from the weight of the other timbers.

Dr. Fernandez, whose family was there, for a second was speechless and numb with sorrow as his little daughter Florence as pulled out of the wreckage and it was seen there was no hope for her. Then another younger daughter was rescued from beneath some timbers and when Dr. Fernandez saw she was only slightly injured, he forgot his own terrible misfortune and, with Dr. Waguespack, heroically bent to the task of administering to the injured ones who most needed it.

It took more than an hour of frantic work to make a thorough search, recover the dead bodies and rescue those who were pinned beneath the ruins.

The exception was Miss Mary Haydell who, with others was rushed into Father Fontaine’s home.

The body of Miss Florence Mary Fernandez was sent to Gretna and will be buried there Tuesday morning from the home of her uncle C. E. Thomassie.

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