By Jeff Louderback
One moment can impact your life forever. In Xenia, that instant happened on April 3, 1974.
President Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst was still missing and Hank Aaron was about to eclipse Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. On a turbulent Wednesday afternoon, the nation’s headlines abruptly became insignificant in the Greene County seat where 25,000 called home.
The clocks stopped at 4:40 p.m. when a tornado packing 318 miles-per-hour winds splintered neighborhoods, reduced schools and businesses to piles of rubble, shredded graceful Victorians like paper dollhouses and ripped apart historic landmarks that had stood for more than a century. My hometown was caught in the grip of one of the most violent single-day tornado outbreaks ever to strike North America.
In a 16-hour period on April 3 – or Black Wednesday, as it is called – 4,148 twisters ravaged parts of 13 states, killed more than 300 people, injured nearly 6,000 others and caused about a half-billion dollars in property damage.
Xenia was the hardest hit area of all.
When the tornado had passed, 25 people were dead and more than 1,000 others were injured. Eight more people died from their injuries in the next week. Twelve of the fatalities were children 16 or younger. Half of our town’s structures were gone.
I was a 5-year-old kindergartner in April 1974. An only child, I lived with my parents at 3281 Wyoming Drive in Arrowhead Acres, which is simply called “Arrowhead” by locals. The expansive subdivision of brick ranches was built five years earlier on the west side of Xenia. My carefree days consisted of school in the morning, and laughter with neighborhood children on my backyard swing set and riding Big Wheels during the afternoon – except on April 3.
The cotton-like clouds and rays of sunshine on this warm spring day were replaced by an ominous dark cloud that cast a green glow in the southwest sky as I was called to the kitchen for dinner at about 4:30. A tornado watch was posted, but there was no reason for alarm, we figured. Tornadoes seemed to strike other parts of the region, not Xenia. It was just a typical April thunderstorm, or so we thought.
Pork chops, mashed potatoes, apple sauce and peas were on the table. Outside, the wind gusted and the sky grew darker.
Moments later, we were drawn away from the table to the living room, where a weatherman on TV frantically urged the residents of Xenia to seek cover immediately. A tornado was on the way.
From the picture window, my mom and dad looked down the street to a field a block away. I was oblivious to the pending danger, but frightened by my parents’ facial expressions.
We rushed down the hallway of our one-story home into my bedroom, which offered a better view of the field. The massive black cloud had started its destruction, tearing shingles from roofs and tossing debris into the air.
Perhaps to clutch a good luck charm, I grabbed a copper rabbit figurine that sat on a shelf above my bed. Our house did not have a basement, so we dove onto the hallway floor. The phone rang momentarily. Then the tornado hit.
Mom and dad covered me, shielding my body from flying bricks, shattered glass and other debris. The deafening wind sounded like a team of fighter jets hovering above. It was the sound of devastation. In between my sobs, I could hear dad praying to God for our protection. I looked down the hallway and saw the bedroom doors slamming against the wall before ripping from their hinges. The roof tore away, and the walls around us crumbled.
The horror of the storm seemed longer. Yet, in less than a minute, the tornado had left our neighborhood and continued its destruction across the city. The eerie silence that shortly followed was broken by the whining of sirens, the cries of frightened survivors and the screams of family members searching for their loved ones.
Daylight appeared above us as we climbed to our feet. Most of what was our comfortable and cozy 1,000-square-foot house minutes before was reduced to piles of rubble. Thankfully, the hallway wall beside us was only partially collapsed, leaving us mostly unscathed. Glass covered the floor as mom took me into the bathroom steps away. Though the roof was gone, a tissue box remained in the same spot on the sink, and my mom wiped away my tears. Dad’s blood-soaked hand from a flying brick was the only injury among us.
Amid the rubble, we discovered that my bedroom window was our only path of escape. Our neighbor, a family friend who was a Miamisburg police officer, pulled us to safety. Outside, children screamed hysterically as their stunned parents offered comfort. Our idyllic middle-class neighborhood lay in ruins. Cars were tossed like toys. Downed power lines danced on the street.
Little did we know the carnage left by the storm’s fury. The heart of the tornado was centered around two blocks away, where many homes in the subdivision of Windsor Park were swept off their foundations. On Commonwealth Drive, a short walk from our home, a 22-year-old woman who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant was killed. A 14-year-old boy, whose family recently arrived in the United States from India, died. A one month old infant was snatched from his mother’s arms and found dead two days later.
Nine people were killed before the tornado departed Arrowhead and Windsor Park. Some were children who would have been my classmates at McKinley Elementary School, which sprouted a few years later in the field where the tornado touched down.
The twister’s aftermath brought out the best and the worst in humankind. Fire departments and police departments from across southwest Ohio helped with rescue efforts. The American Red Cross and crews from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base played prominent roles in helping Xenians for weeks after the storm. Mennonite craftsmen arrived from around the state to help rebuild homes.
Looters descended upon Xenia not long after the storm subsided. The National Guard was called in, and two guardsmen were killed in a fire that erupted in a crumbled downtown furniture store.Crooked contractors flocked to the most devastated neighborhoods, took residents’ money and left without delivering what they promised.
The tornado’s aftermath also brought out the bizarre. House walls blown to the ground still had curtains and pictures hanging in place. Cancelled checks adorned with Xenia National Bank stamps were found as far away as Mansfield (which is located between Columbus and Cleveland).
Within 24 hours after the tornado hit, we returned to the house and sifted through the debris. In the kitchen, amid the rubble, the skillet with pork chops, and the pans with mashed potatoes and peas, remained on the range. The walls were crumbled, but my mom found her purse behind the couch where it was before the storm. My parents’ white Volkswagen Beetle was blown through the garage wall and landed upside down in the backyard. With an effort from my dad, uncles and grandfather, they tipped the car upright and it started up.
Like many families in Xenia, my parents were left with few material possessions. And, as many Xenians did, my mom and dad chose to remain in the town where they were raised. They rebuilt a house on the same lot – the house where I grew up.
In the midst of so much tragedy, Xenia literally picked up the pieces and its citizens joined together to overcome the disaster that forever changed the city’s landscape and the psyche of many residents who still grow wary when the skies turn dark. A “Spirit of ’74” Committee” was established, and bumper stickers that read “Xenia Lives!” appeared on cars.
Today, 42 years later, there are few reminders of the 1974 disaster. The city’s emotional recovery was scarred by a small tornado in 1989 and a ferocious twister in 2000 that killed one man and followed the same path as the 1974 storm.
Recent years have brought some positive changes to Xenia. Greene County transformed abandoned railroad beds into paved multi-purpose trails. Xenia has gained national acclaim as a haven for bicycling, inline skating and walking along the rail trails. Xenia Station, a replica of a 19th century train station that stood in the same spot a century before, is the hub for Greene County’s network of trails. Xenia’s downtown is dotted by shops that cater to trail users, and plans for loft apartments in a few historic spots are planned.
The Little Miami Scenic Trail stretches along Detroit Street past Xenia City hall, where a monument recognizes the 33 residents and two National Guardsmen who lost their lives in 1974.
Every year on April 3, moments of silence are held to memorialize the victims. Xenia annually receives media attention for what happened on that day. The Xenia Tornado is still taught in college meteorology programs nationwide.
After my family rebuilt on the same lot at 3281 Wyoming Drive, I was raised in the neighborhood. My backyard was the scene of wiffle ball games that would stretch from morning until night during the summer. At times, we would dig in the yard and uncover bits of glass, plates, soda cans and other remnants scattered about and buried by the tornado.
I don’t grow nervous when the sky darkens and the wind whistles. Yet I do think about that April day when my life was forever altered. I think of the woman eight months pregnant, killed a street away. Her baby also could not be saved. Or the husband, wife and baby who died when the Root Beer Stand collapsed on them. A young woman who worked there was also killed. At her funeral, she was buried in her wedding dress, her grieving fiance at her side.
With life’s inevitable ups and downs -and our daily responsibilities – it is human to forget about appreciating the little things. But those of us who survive a disaster are left with a reminder that the precious gift of life can altered, quickly and forever.