The Deadly Right Hook

xenia-tornado-on-radar
Hook echo of the Xenia tornado, as captured by radar on April 3, 1974

It is still there, in my dreams.

On April 3, 1974, a tornado destroyed the town of Xenia, OH, a town about an hour from my home in Columbus.  I had just turned seven years old.  When the sirens sounded that day, we retreated to the unfinished basement of my first childhood home, listening to the tinny sounds of a transistor radio until the warning subsided. When we came out up into the sunlight, we saw no visible damage from what would soon be known as the Super Outbreak of 1974.  But the TV soon showed scenes of devastation from the now-flattened town of Xenia, and what had once seemed like a silly game of retreating to the basement to a seven-year-old now became frighteningly real, even as I could not stop myself from reading about it in the newspaper the next day.

The consequences are still with me. Growing up, when the sirens sounded, I would, in a panic, gather up all of my most treasured possessions, desperately herd together the cats, and head for the basement.  Once there, we’d turn on the TV, and I’d glue myself to the images of Doppler radar and the chyron of incoming reports.  No tornado ever came near us, but for years–even to this day–tornadoes appeared in my dreams, malevolent twisting vortices spotted from the windshield of my car, sometimes in multiples.  I always managed to evade them, as I did in real life.  Over the years, my horror and fear turned to fascination with this force of nature.  In university, a friend (briefly a love interest) who had grown up in Kansas would run outside at the sound of the sirens to search the skies for rotation in the clouds.  On the day we graduated from Ohio State, the ceremonies earlier in the day nearly cancelled for fear of inclement weather, our celebratory prowl of campus that evening was marked by darkened skies.  “Look,” he said, at one point, pointing up, where the clouds were boiling in a slow circular motion. Is the metaphor for the change that would rock my life as I left Columbus just two months later to move to Toronto too obvious?

In the area where I now live, tornadoes are rare.  Those few that develop are generally minor events, ripping a few roofs off of homes, downing a few trees.  There are no tornado drills, no repurposed defense sirens, no gluing oneself to the TV as local stations compete as to who has the best Super Extra Double Doppler radar.  Tornadoes are simply not part of the psyche.  No child of the Midwest, however, ever forgets.

***

The Xenia tornado was part of what was, until 2011, the largest outbreak of tornadoes in a single 24 hour period.   The Super Outbreak, as it is now known, included 156 tornadoes in thirteen US states–and the province of Ontario.   Thirty of these were the most powerful F4/F5 tornadoes.  Beginning in Illinois around 1 pm of March 3, the outbreak first focused on Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio before erupting further south into Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.   Some of these tornadoes were short-lived, but many had strikingly long paths–the longest a staggering 121 miles.

The Xenia tornado, the first F5 of the outbreak, hit around 4:40 pm. Thomas Youngen happened to be making a tape recording at the time to send to a friend.  Mark Levine describes the scene in his book Monster Tornado:

“There was thunder that afternoon, so I thought I’d record that,” he said. “I was sitting thee and the thunder, rain, and wind all stopped.” He looked up and saw a tornado taking shape. Two rags of sooty cloud were spiraling to the ground, and as they lowered they twisted around each other. “I could see the cloud coming across a graveyard–that’s apropos–coming straight for me,” Youngen recounted. As the tornado neared, “I could see solid things in it but was too shocked to identify them.” He tried to duck behind a stove but was carried through a doorway. His building collapsed. “I thought, ‘Oh hell, I’m dead.”

Over the next eight minutes, as the tornado shredded Xenia with winds of more than 300 miles per hour, the town emerged from obscurity to become the public face of the day’s national disaster.

Xenia, as Levine describes it, “fit the role well.”  A small Midwest town, about 25,000 residents, “the kind of place many Americans had grown up in and left behind.”   Bypassed by highways, its industries floundering, its population aging, its downtown emptying, its homes becoming run down, Xenia had seen better days.  The tornado utterly flattened a quarter of the town and severely damaged another quarter.  The older Windsor Park subdivision and the newer Arrowhead subdivisions–homes built on slab foundations, with no basements–were part of the destruction and a significant portion of the death and injury toll. (This was likely responsible for my parents’ reluctance to even consider a home built on a slab when we moved the next year).  Five schools were destroyed.  Only daylight savings time’s 1974 extension during the midst of the energy crisis–it had started on January 2, not on the first Sunday in April–prevented a possible catastrophe there, since the schools were largely empty instead of full of afterschool activities.  At the high school, three buses landed on the stage, where the last of students rehearsing a musical had just fled.

“Xenia was broken in half,” recounts Levine. “Fifteen hundred buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed. Thirty-four people died and 1,150 were injured.”  When the tornado passed through nearby Wilberforce College, a professor described the scene: “It looked worse than a war scene from Vietnam.”  Thomas Youngen and his tape recorder survived, and you can hear part of his recording in this video, which also shows some rare video footage of the tornado itself.

Here’s a video of just that footage, shot on Super 8 by 16-year-old resident Bruce Boyd:

At its peak, the tornado was nearly half a mile wide, and traveled a little over 30 miles before dissipating.  Something I did not know at the time, however, was that this same cell generated a second, weaker tornado in northeastern Franklin County (near New Albany)–much closer to home.

Things were just getting underway for the Super Outbreak, however. A total of seven F5 tornadoes would form as part of the paroxysm of storms on April 3 and into April 4, 1974.  Like a terrorist setting off a bomb and then a second one after first responders have arrived, this tornadic system targeted the town of Tanner, in Limestone County, AL with two F5s just 30 minutes apart, starting at 6:30 pm CDT.  This is the focus of Mark Levine’s book Monster Tornado, from which I’ve quoted above and which I highly recommend for its survivor-based narrative of the events of that evening.

Levine’s book also discusses the state of the US on April 3, a date which also witnessed the release of inquiries into President Richard Nixon’s tax records,  the audiotape where Patty Hearst joins the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the night before, the famous refusal of the Best Actor Oscar awarded to Marlon Brando by Sacheen Littlefeather, whom he had sent to protest treatment of Native Americans.  As Levine says, “A venerable strain of magical thinking sees natural disaster as an expression of–or retribution for–human failings… Events related by nothing more than coincidence are nonetheless related. Synchronicity is the logic of disaster. Timing is everything.”

Xenia rebuilt, of course–over 80%, just a year later, thanks to national attention and fundraising by comedian Bob Hope–but Fate had other plans. An F2 tornado hit the town in 1989. And on November 20, 2000, an unusual September tornado, an F4, hit the town, following an almost identical path as the 1974 storm, although only 1 person was killed and 300 buildings damaged.  Today, the town still has about 25,000 inhabitants.  But no Ohioan who was alive 45 years ago will ever hear its name without conjuring memories of that deadly, unworldly roar and the sickening, twisting clouds that ripped the city apart.

And those twisters still haunt my dreams. But I can never look away.

*****

The Dayton Daily News commemorates the anniversary today here.

If you’re interested in more photos and accounts from survivors of the Xenia tornado visit Homer G. Ramby’s site.

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