Time stood still on an early spring afternoon 48 years ago, 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.
That is when a tornado packing 300 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 an 18-hour period on April 3—or Black Wednesday, as it is called—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. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in history at the time. Seven of the tornadoes were rated F5 with winds topping 260 mph.
Xenia was the hardest hit area of all.
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 the town’s structures were gone. Hardly any buildings remained standing in Xenia’s downtown.
I was a 5-year-old kindergartner on that day. An only child, I lived with my parents on 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’ panicked 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.
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 an off-duty 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.
A newspaper article about the tornado that I read years later included a quote from a little boy that reflected my own feelings upon rising from the rubble.
“House all broke, toys all broke, but birds all working.”
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, one block away. 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.
At the Miller home down the street, children were watching Sesame Street. There was no warning when the tornado hit. Illona Miller saw her children buried in the debris. They emerged mostly unscathed.
Prabhakbhaker Dixit, 14, was killed around the corner on Roxbury Drive. 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 Street. On Roxbury, 4-week-old Eric Crabtree and 7-year-old Brian Blakely were fatal victims.
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.
Edward and Betty Yerian also lived on Trumbull. Betty looked out the window and thought she saw birds. Her husband said it was debris. Windows exploded. Glass flew. Betty rushed into the basement. For some reason, Edward darted for the car, and before he climbed in, the tornado picked it up and dropped it on him. His ribs were crushed, but he survived. Betty was unharmed.
A short walk from Trumbull, 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, uninjured. A few blocks away, five people were killed under the rubble of the A&W Root Beer Stand, 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.
Xenia High School, located a short walk from downtown, housed around 2,000 students a few hours before. It lay in ruins. On the west side of town, Warner Junior High was destroyed. Ninety minutes after the tornado hit, an assembly of 600 people was supposed to take place.
Just as the tornado was cutting through downtown Xenia, the engineer of a 57-car freight train sounded a frantic warning with the horn. The twister’s force scattered half of the cars like matchsticks, blocking Main Street. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s heavy construction battalion was sent to remove the train cars so emergency vehicles could reach their destination.
Minutes after the tornado, Greene Memorial Hospital started to overflow. Xenia’s only hospital could not handle the hundreds who arrived, so patients were transported to Dayton, Springfield, and Wright-Patterson. The hallways were crowded with victims and people looking for family members and friends.
The Best and the Worst of Humankind
The twister’s aftermath brought out the best and the worst in humankind.
Help came from all over.
Police and fire personnel from across the region arrived. Volunteers helped search destroyed homes for survivors and bodies.
Wright-Patterson sent a medical convoy of 50 and later dispatched bulldozers, dump trucks, generators, floodlights, and a helicopter airlift of medical supplies. Crews from the American Red Cross and Wright-Patterson played prominent roles in Xenia’s recovery for months.
Looters descended upon Xenia not long after the storm subsided. The National Guard was called in. Two days later, 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. Canceled 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 others next door remained intact with little damage. One photograph showed a piece of wood embedded in a steel beam, demonstrating the wind’s ferocity. A toilet is all that remained on the slabs of some houses.
A few days after the tornado, President Richard Nixon visited Xenia. At the time, he was mired in the Watergate scandal and would resign on Aug. 8, but his presence provided comfort and hope to hundreds of Xenians who surrounded him everywhere he went.
“As I look back over the disasters, I saw the earthquake in Anchorage in 1964; I saw the hurricanes—Hurricane Camille in 1969 down in Mississippi, and I saw Hurricane Agnes in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And it is hard to tell the difference among them all, but I would say in terms of destruction, just total devastation, this is the worst I have seen,” Nixon said.
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.
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 F5, but Fujita said that if an F6 existed, the Xenia tornado would qualify.
The Super Outbreak resulted in an array of changes to weather reporting, including outdoor warning sirens and a wider use of radar at NWS stations. The National Weather Service adopted the F0–F5 Fujita scale as a standard for describing the severity of a tornado. The events of April 3, 1974, demonstrated the critical need for research funding, and that ultimately led to the development of the Doppler radar.
Xenia Daily Gazette photographer Frank Cimmino compared the devastation to the ruins he had witnessed at St. Lo, a French town destroyed by 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.
The Xenia Daily Gazette, where I started my professional journalism career in the early 1990s, won a Pulitzer Prize for its work in the tornado’s aftermath. The newspaper published every day without advertising. It was printed at the Middletown Journal, 30 miles away. Copies were trucked to the disaster area and distributed free the first three days. Reporters shared the few phones that still worked and typed their stories by candlelight and flashlight.
Memories That Remain Today
Today, 48 years later, there are a few visible reminders of the 1974 disaster. The former city hall that now serves as the justice center, and Greene County Courthouse, are architectural treasures that survived. Though the high school was destroyed, historic Benner Field House remained standing. The 1930s era gym where Xenia High School’s 1942 state championship basketball team played received a facelift a few years ago and once again hosts sporting events. Shawnee Park is the focal point of community events and one of the most picturesque small city parks anywhere.
The Shawnee Indians who once lived in the area long ago called Xenia “the land of the devil wind.” 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.
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. On April 14, after years of unsuccessful attempts to refurbish the Towne Square area that forever changed the downtown ambiance, Xenia City Council is expected to approve a development plan to resurrect the area.
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 measures time in his mind is different when he is a teenager compared to when he is 53. 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 nearby streets would write about their memories from that day.
“Xenia” is Greek for “hospitality.” A rescue squad chief drove from New Jersey to Xenia with food and clothes and was impressed by how he was treated in a town devastated and stunned.
“I’d never heard of Xenia, Ohio. But I’ll never forget it,” he said days after the tornado.
Almost 50 years later, I remember where I was when the clocks stopped around 4:40 p.m. on April 3, 1974. I’m grateful to have memories because they serve as a reminder to appreciate life lived, and life yet to be experienced.