50 years after F3 twister, Grandville couple relives close call

Left to right: the VanderZouwens home after the 1967 twister and now.

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Much has changed along Kenowa Avenue in the years since an F3 tornado tore through the area on April 21, 1967.

A neighborhood now sits on the east side of the road at Rivera Drive, which was fields and farmland 50 years ago.

But at least one home has been there the whole time. And its owners — Cornelius and Thelma VanderZouwen — will never forget the day that tornado touched down.

1967 tornado couple survivors
Cornelius and Thelma VanderZouwen recount the F3 tornado that damaged their Grandville home on April 21, 1967.

The twister tore a path from Grandville to Ada, injuring 32 people in the process. Homes were sliced open at the sides and a local church was gutted.

The storm’s wrath was first felt on the couple’s property.

“The VanderZouwen’s house, first struck by the twister that lashed its way across southern Kent County,” Thelma said Friday, reading an old newspaper clipping from when the storm hit. Their house made the front page of The Grandville Star.

A 1967 newspaper clipping from The Grandville Star recounts the F3 tornado that tore through the area.

It was more bad luck in an already bad month for the VanderZouwens. A lightning strike sparked a fire inside their house the week before, forcing them to stay in a trailer on their front lawn.

But there was a silver lining: when that rare F3 twister hit, they weren’t even home. Instead, they were just down the road, visiting relatives.

A 1967 newspaper clipping from The Grandville Star recounts the F3 tornado that tore through the area.

They remember seeing something unusual across the fields.

“It was just like a black, low clouds and a black wall, just coming,” Cornelius recounted.

Hearts racing, everyone inside the home scrambled to get to the basement.

“(I was) totally scared,” Cornelius recalled. “I grabbed a rug, (a) big rug on the floor. I jerked it out from under the furniture and pulled it over our heads and we just sat in the corner.”

They sat through the storm and came out shaken but OK. But their home was another story.

The VanderZouwens returned home to find the tornado ripped a hole into their roof. Debris was scattered everywhere, and the small trailer they were staying in was gone.

“From the front wall back, this was all just gone,” Cornelius said inside their home Friday. “The roof was down the road quite afar.”

In the months after, they would rebuild the house with bricks. It looks the same today as it did after the rebuild.

But around them, a lot has changed in the decades that followed. Neighborhoods sprouted up and so did the lines of stores and restaurants along 44th Street.

One thing that remains unchanged is their gratefulness, a feeling that someone was looking out for them on this day, five decades ago.

“Trust in the Lord. That’s the best way I can say it,” Cornelius said. “He took care of us. We were in the right place at the right time.”

When that tornado hit in 1967, it was the third twister that was an F3 or stronger in just 11 years. But metro Grand Rapids hasn’t seen another twister of that strength since.