“When the clocks stopped around 4:40” – Memories of the ’74 Xenia tornado remain vivid for a thought-provoking reason

By Jeff Louderback

On an early spring Wednesday afternoon 47 years ago, time stood still and life was forever impacted in my hometown of Xenia, Ohio.

April 3, 1974. Those of us who lived in Xenia and are old enough to remember vividly recall where we were when the clocks stopped around 4:40 p.m.

This iconic image was captured at Greene Memorial Hospital by the hospital’s PR director, Fred Stewart.

That is 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. Xenia 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.

The Tornado Through the Eyes of a 5-Year-Old

A day after the tornado, Hank Aaron ripped a home run on his first swing of the season, a blast at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium off Jack Billingham that tied Babe Ruth’s home run record at 714. President Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst was still missing. On that turbulent Wednesday afternoon, the nation’s headlines abruptly became insignificant in the Greene County seat where 25,000 called home.

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.

A clock that survived the ’74 tornado at Xenia High School.

I was a 5-year-old kindergartner on that day. 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 Immediate Aftermath

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 people searching for their loved ones.

A photo of the Arrowhead subdivision were we lived.

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.

Neighbor Rod Varner, who lived three houses down on the corner of Wyoming and Commonwealth, snapped this photo of his home.

Little did we know the carnage left by the storm’s fury. The heart of the tornado was centered two short blocks away, where many homes were swept off their foundations.

Sharon Augsburger lived on Commonwealth Drive, not far from our block, which connected Wyoming Drive to Commonwealth, Gayhart and Montana. When she saw the mammoth twister, she placed her daughter and two neighborhood children under a couch before hustling across the street to retrieve six more kids. She opened windows, pulled plugs, shut off lights, grabbed a flashlight and joined the nine children who were huddled under two couches.

When the tornado passed, rubble surrounded Augsburger and the nine children, as did death. Her home was destroyed, but everyone in it escaped with minor cuts. Occupants in the adjacent homes on both sides were killed, including 22-year-old Joyce Behnken, who was 8 ½ months pregnant; and 33-year-old Virginia Walls.

Prabhakbhaker Dixit, 14, was killed around the corner on Roxbury. His family had recently moved to Xenia from India. Nearby, 12-year-old Sabina Ehret and her 16-year-old brother Michael Ehret were killed. Marilyn Miller, 33, and her seven-year-old son, Robert, 7, died on Gayhart. On Roxbury, four-week-old Eric Crabtree and 7-year-old Brian Blakely were fatal victims.

Neighbor Rod Varner lived three houses down from us on the corner of Wyoming and Commonwealth. His house is circled. Our house is three homes to the right.

Nine people were killed before the tornado departed the neighborhood. Some of the children would have been my classmates at McKinley Elementary School, which sprouted a few years later in the field where the tornado touched down.

The tornado continued its path of carnage as it tore through Xenia and nearby Wilberforce. On Trumbull Street, not far from the city’s commercial district, the Graham family found shelter in their basement, but a steel beam from the Kroehler furniture plant cut through their home and claimed David Graham, 8; Billy Graham, 7; and Sheri Lynn Graham, 3. Their neighbors, 82-year-old Ruth Palmer and 82-year-old Ollie Grooms, also died.

A short walk from Trumbull Street, it was almost happy hour at the Bon Aire Motel’s bar.  The building was leveled, but the patrons picked themselves up from the floor, unscathed. A few blocks away, five people were killed under the rubble of the A&W Root Beer Stande, including a family enjoying dinner – Paul Wisecup, 25; Sue Ann WIsecup, 19; and Amy, 16 months old. A young woman who worked there also died. At her funeral, she was buried in her wedding dress, her grieving fiance at her side.

The Best and the Worst of Humankind

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. Shady contractors flocked to the most devastated neighborhoods, took residents’ money and left without delivering what they promised.

The days and weeks following the disaster 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). Aerial photographs illustrate how some houses were flattened while other next door remained intact with little damage. One photograph showed a piece of wood embedded in a steel beam, demonstrating the wind’s ferocity.

The morning after, sunlight beamed and illuminated the damage. 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 knocked down, 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.

Xenia Lives, and My Parents Rebuild

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. During the rebuilding phase, we lived in the basement of my grandparents’ Xenia home that was untouched by the disaster. At one point, we even stayed in a small camper in the backyard. One windy, stormy night, the camper shook, and we slept on what would be our kitchen floor in the unfinished house.

To this day, the ’74 Xenia tornado is studied intently at meteorology schools across the country. The late Bruce Boyd was 16 when he recorded a 16 mm home movie of the tornado while standing in the front yard of his family’s home on Ridgebury Drive, much to the chagrin of his mother. That two-minute film was closely reviewed by scientist Ted Fujita, who created the Fujita scale of damage. The ’74 tornado was classified as an F-5, but Fujita said that if an F-6 existed, the Xenia tornado would qualify.

Xenia Daily Gazette photographer Frank Cimmino compared the devastation to the ruins he had witnessed at St. Lo, a French town destroyed from bombing in World War II.

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.

Memories That Remain Today

Today, 47 years later, there are a few visible reminders of the 1974 disaster. The city hall and court house are architectural treasures. Though the high school was destroyed, historic Benner Field House survived. The 1930s era gym where Xenia High School’s 1942 state championship basketball team played, is getting a facelift and will once again host sporting events. Shawnee Park is the focal point of community events and one of the most picturesque small city parks anywhere. 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.

Xenia High School was destroyed, but historic Benner Field House (pictured far right) survived and is currently undergoing exterior renovations.

I don’t remember landmarks that pre-date the tornado, like the Xenia Hotel, which was built before the Civil War and reportedly housed guests like President William McKinley and Charles Dickens. I don’t recall the Xenia where Victorian homes dotted tree-lined streets near downtown where the eyesore that is Xenia Towne Square has sat since the mid-70s.

What I most recall is the family togetherness that followed April 3. First, my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends pitched in to clean up the mounds of rubble until there was a clean slab. Then many of the same people helped rebuild the house where I grew up.

How one measure’s time in his mind is different when he is teenager compared to when he is 50. When I graduated from high school, it was 12 years after the ’74 tornado. Yet it seemed like a lifetime. My parents lost most of their possessions and had no choice but to start over. I once asked my dad why they decided to stay when many families relocated to other towns.

“This is home. It’s where we were raised and where we had lived all of our lives,” my dad said. My parents have been married for 51 years and remain in Xenia. I’m thankful they rebuilt in a neighborhood where I never felt alone and forged fond memories that bring a smile.

Wyoming Drive is quiet now with a new generation of residents. Many of these families likely do not know the severity of what happened in the two-block radius of where they live. I’m glad I was raised in Xenia. In my post-’74 tornado childhood years, our 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.

The tornado remained etched in our minds for a while, but over time it faded from daily memories. The same backyard where the Volkswagen was blown through the garage was a place where home plate, pitcher’s mound and three bases were dirt patches; and hundreds of games were hosted as the years passed. In the same field where we saw the tornado touch down, there was a baseball diamond where kids from our block would play children from other parts of the subdivision during the summer.

Sometimes, I thought about the kids in our neighborhood who lost their lives in the tornado – boys and girls who might have become classmates, friends and part of our wiffle ball games. If the center of the tornado struck just a block closer, perhaps our names would be on the monument honoring those who lost their lives, and the children and their parents who perished on Commonwealth, Roxbury and Gayhart would write about their memories from that day.

There are some people who wish that the ’74 tornado would no longer be mentioned, but it is important to commemorate the past, for the sake of understanding how dangerous a tornado can be, and to reflect and appreciate even life’s simplest pleasures, like awaking on an early April morning and taking a moment to bask in warm sunlight.

I remember where I was when the clocks stopped around 4:40 p.m. on April 3, 1974. And I’m grateful to have memories because they serve as a reminder to appreciate life lived, and life yet to be experienced.