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May
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2024
History

This year marks the 50th anniversary since an F-5 tornado ravaged Xenia and neighboring Wilberforce. On Wednesday, April 3, 1974, the tornado killed 32 people, injured more than 1,000 and cost over $100 million in damage in those and surrounding communities. (1974 photo by former News photographer Bill McCuddy)

‘Like a war zone’ | Yellow Springs residents remember the 1974 Xenia tornado

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Wednesday, April 3, 1974, is a day of local infamy — a dark day of far-reaching devastation, horrific awe and the grim origin of lifelong trauma for many.

It’s when a massive F-5 tornado touched down in Xenia and Wilberforce, killing 32 people, injuring more than 1,100 and causing over $100 million — nearly $600 million, adjusted to 2024 values — in damage.

The tornado wiped out entire housing subdivisions, schools and churches; threw whole trains into the sky like toys; buried people, pets and possessions under mountains of debris that took many months to clear; sent down deadly softball-sized hail; and indelibly seared itself in the memories of those who survived.

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To this day, it is considered one of the worst tornadoes in Ohio’s history — the deadliest of the 1974 Super Outbreak, when, over the course of a single day, 148 tornadoes touched down in 13 states.

This year, those memories of the Xenia tornado turn 50. To mark the occasion, the News talked to several dozen current and former local residents who shared their stories of that fateful and fearful day, what came after and how they were — and continue to be — affected.

Downtown Xenia, Ohio (Photo by Bill McCuddy)


A storm brews

It started out like any other spring day in Southwest Ohio.

On April 3, Xenia children nodded off in school, people went grocery shopping and neighbors gathered and laughed in their backyards. Julie Steinhilber’s magnolia trees were beginning to bloom.

The day’s weather was a little strange, Bill Farnsworth remembered. There were intermittent periods of rain, sunshine and brief windstorms, and throughout it all, the billowing and beautiful cloud formations captured Farnsworth’s attention.

By the afternoon, people began observing unusual hues tinting the sky. Kathy Adams observed from her Wright Street home in Yellow Springs that it had an “unnatural, bright yellow color” that she had never seen before. Denza Pitts described the sky over her Route 42 home as having “a funny glassy color.”

When he was cutting class and loitering in downtown Xenia, Todd Kennedy looked up to see things had turned “weirdly pink.” He also said the bank’s street-facing clock displayed a temperature that kept plummeting every time he checked.

All day, the threat of violent thunderstorms and tornadoes lingered, and radio and TV stations regularly broadcasted storm watches. A 3:50 p.m. broadcast issued a warning for Greene County of a storm blowing in from Missouri that had changed course at 4 p.m. (It was around then that Steinhilber noticed the birds had stopped chirping.) Soon after, national weather forecasters in Cincinnati spotted the tell-tale “hook” on their radars.

Dispatcher Judy Hubbard stayed by the YS fire department dispatch panel through much of the critical period, helping coordinate movement of emergency equipment and men to and from the disaster area. (News archive photo)

At 4:30 p.m., a tornado formed near Bellbrook, southwest of Xenia, with gusts around 50 mph, as reported by Gil Whitney, a meteorologist with Dayton-based WHIO.

From his office on East Second Street in Xenia, Tim Heaton looked west down the roadway, and above the treeline, he spotted what appeared to be pieces of straw whirling through the sky amid some debris.

“Then I realized that what I was seeing was a mile away — that ‘straw’ was two-by-four-[inch]-by-six-foot boards from houses that were being blown up into the sky,” Heaton said. “I went to the basement.”

On his jaunt through downtown Xenia, and still skipping school, young Kennedy was nearly pelted on the head by “grapefruit-sized” hail. He darted indoors.

Ten minutes after Whitney’s urgent warning, at 4:40 p.m., the F-5 tornado touched down in Xenia. Enormous destruction ensued.

The Xenia Armory (Photo by former News photographer Keith Swigart)


At around 300 mph, the tornado first slammed into Xenia’s Arrowhead and Windsor Park subdivisions in the southwest corner of the city. Entire homes were bifurcated and roofs were torn off. Decades-old trees were uprooted and poles were downed like dominos. Nearly everyone who spoke with the News reported hearing the quintessential sound of a train rushing by as the tornado ripped through Xenia.

Across the street from the courthouse was now-Gov. Mike DeWine. He and other county prosecutors were sheltering in their office basement.

“There weren’t any lights down there,” DeWine told the News last week. “Absolutely it sounded like a train. It was extremely scary.”

Down the street from Heaton and DeWine’s buildings were Irene Pagett and Doris Boggs in the Cancer Society Office. They had just finished addressing and stamping 500 letters soliciting contributions, a 1984 special edition of the Dayton Daily News reported. When the tornado ripped through the downtown business district, a heavy steel door blew open and the Cancer Society building came down. Both women were hit; Pagett died.

Homes were torn apart. (Photo by Bill McCuddy)

For several consecutive minutes, all of downtown Xenia was under total siege. Xenia High School was destroyed not long after students had been rehearsing for an upcoming play; they had taken cover in a hallway just moments before a school bus was dropped on the play’s stage. As the Ohio Historical Society reported, several Penn Central railroad cars were lifted from the tracks and thrown afield. The A&W Root Beer Stande on Dayton Avenue was completely demolished, killing several people.

Before leaving Xenia, the tornado barreled through an empty school at Shawnee Park — scattering school buses throughout the parking lot — and veered toward the Pinecrest Gardens subdivision, leaving many more homes leveled in its wake.

The tornado continued along Route 42, eventually descended on Wilberforce, and laid waste to the campus of Central State University. The campus bookstore and administration buildings were cut to smithereens. Books from the library were thrown to the wind, and Central State President Lionel Newsom’s home had its roof ripped off. The campus water tower toppled over.

After its rampage at Central State, the twister lifted, but the storm cell continued on a northeast trajectory. The cell hit farms and houses around the Cortsville settlement, southwest of South Charleston. After battering a state-owned farm on state Route 41, the storm continued through the central square in London, then eventually to the southeast corner of Delaware County, where it dissipated around 6:30 p.m.

The tornado toppled the Central State water tower. (Photo by Bill McCuddy)


Hail pelts the village

While Yellow Springs was spared the brunt of the tornadic winds, the village nevertheless incurred significant damage — mostly from the barrage of hailstones.

Becky and Alan Brunsman were outside visiting with friends when the storm began. As they began picking up their children’s toys, the “grape-sized pellets” that were pelting the family had quickly grown to softballs.

Jim Spangler, who was living in an apartment above Stagg’s Cleaners, heard what sounded like “an approaching jet or train” as he watched his car get pummeled by the large hailstones.

Bob Baldwin was even less fortunate; nearly all of the vehicles parked in front his car dealership were dented beyond repair.

Abigail Cobb, who was on an afternoon stroll with her five-week-old child on the Antioch golf course, just barely made it back to her Marshall Street home before the onslaught began. She said she was grateful to have taken her child on a walk in a carrier and not a stroller, noting that a stroller might have slowed her down.

The glass roof and walls of the Carr Greenhouses on South High Street were almost entirely destroyed. (News archive photo)


“In a dead run the last half block, I literally jumped into my house, slamming the door behind me,” Cobb recalled. “As I unwrapped my baby … I saw and heard an incredible bombardment of hail the size of oranges pelting our house and covering the lawn. It looked like mounds of snow made of four-inch ice.”

Sam Eckenrode, who had just recently turned 13, was at The Riding Centre when the hailstorm began.

“It was a fast, noisy, powerful scene,” Eckenrode told the News. “The hail was so big and sharp that some of the horses came in with bloody cuts on their necks and flanks.”

Simone Stave Demarzi, who was in 10th grade, said the hail made her yard look like a warzone.

“I looked out the glass slider and saw those huge hailstones landing on the soggy, waterlogged ground,” she said. “Water explosions [were] nearly 10 feet tall.”

When her mom Liselotte Stave got home from directing a play rehearsal at the Bryan Center, her car was also checkered with dents from the hail.

“Softball-sized” hail pelted all of Yellow Springs — including the back lot behind the News office. (News archive photo)

When the hailstorm subsided, Mary Lamborg recalled that the air had “an incredible smell of pine” from all the broken tree branches.

As the News later reported, the villagewide damage from the hail cost many thousands of dollars in repairs. Yellow Springs High School’s music room, Antioch College’s then-new art building and the Antioch greenhouse were all badly damaged.

“Local roofer Robert Smith of Smith Maintenance on Glen Street has been surveying damaged roofs here and estimates that 75% of all roofs need some repair,” the News wrote. “One of the most extensively damaged roofs was that of Hardy Trolander, 1475 President St., whose tile roof would cost $14,000 to replace.”

Although the glass roof and walls of the Carr Greenhouses on South High Street were almost entirely destroyed, Corinne Odiorne then told the News that she was determined to stay in business; few of her plants suffered any damage.

Seven of the eight skylights at the YS News office were shattered, totaling $2,000 in damage.

The aftermath

All told, the Xenia tornado claimed the lives of 32 people and injured around 1,150. Two weeks after the storm, on April 17, two Ohio Air National Guardsmen were killed in a fire that swept through their ad hoc barracks in the Cherry Furniture store.

The youngest among the dead was Eric Michael Crabtree, who was only a month old; the oldest was 98-year-old Mrs. Ruie Drake.

On top of the lives lost, the damage was catastrophic.

“It looked like a war zone — like a bomb had gone off,” Fran DeWine told the News. “The devastation was just unbelievable.”

From the nameless streets and amid hills of brick and timber came the survivors, rattled, battered and numb. They dug through the debris, searching for their friends and family, salvaging what few possessions they could carry.

Nicole Swani’s father, who at the time was a police officer in West Milton, remembers seeing a washing machine in a tree and upside down cars.

A few days after the tornado struck, President Richard Nixon visited Xenia, and said, “As I look back over the disasters, I saw the earthquake in Anchorage in 1964; I saw 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.” The image of Nixon is a video still from a home movie Gov. Mike DeWine took on a Super 8 film camera when he was a county prosecutor at the time of the tornado. (Video still)

Brothers Tom, Dan and Jim Duffee, who had spent most of April 3 working for their father’s lawn service business, rushed south to Xenia that night to help clear downed trees from roads.

“What we found was total destruction,” Tom Duffee said. “It was dark most of the time we were there. Very dark. There was no electricity. … The downtown area was filled with emergency vehicles with their lights on — the only light in the area was an eerie cast of alternating blues and reds. I remember thinking this must have been what London looked like during the Blitz.”

Duffee continued: “We would see the occasional homeowner trying to salvage what they could from the debris pile. Those individuals were not particularly conversant, nor did we expect them to engage with us. They were too dazed from their personal trauma to try and make small talk.”

The brothers Duffee worked that night until their chainsaws ran out of fuel.

People set to work repairing the roofs of Yellow Springs — even at the high school. (News archive photo)

At Greene Memorial Hospital, Bill Farnsworth recalled physicians operating on patients by flashlight. Some injured people were carried into the hospital lying on top of doors.

In the days that followed, when the National Guard had arrived and relief efforts were in full swing, many more Yellow Springs residents poured into the city to help in a number of ways.

Mike DeWine borrowed trucks from Yellow Springs-based DeWine Seeds to help pick up and move his friends’ possessions. He was also tasked with relocating archives from the Greene County Historical Society, which he moved into the building that presently houses the Yellow Springs Community Foundation. DeWine said the archives stayed there for several years.

Alan Brunsman also helped his friends pick through the rubble of their homes. A moment of relief came when a refrigerator was found several blocks away from a friend’s home. It still had their daughter’s antibiotic medicine inside.

Marsha Bush, Ellen Adkins and Maxine Skuba were a part of the staff at the Xenia Area Interfaith Council, an agency formed by area churches to help dispense relief.

Skuba said she was told about an older woman who had been buried under the rubble. Supposedly, people were alerted to the woman’s whereabouts by a cat meowing and pawing at a particular patch of debris.

What was left of Xenia High School. (Photo by Keith Swigart)

The day after the tornado, now-Mayor Pam Conine was on lunch duty at Bennett Junior High in Piqua. Conine told the News that she remembers a seventh grader calling out, “Ms. Conine! Ms. Conine!”

In the student’s hands was a zip-up bank pouch from a Xenia bank filled with canceled bank checks that had been blown 50 miles from Xenia by the storm, Conine said. Wide-eyed students gathered around the pouch.

“Gee fellas, what do you think we should do?” Conine asked the students.

“As a lesson in responsible citizenship, we walked it into the office and left it with the secretarial staff that day,” she said.

In an editorial titled “Milk of human kindness,” News editor Kieth Howard reflected on the local support and charity from Yellow Springs residents that were given to their Xenia neighbors.

“The unselfish pouring out of human energies and offering of material comforts to ravaged Xenia has warmed the hearts of all America, apparently from the President on down,” Howard wrote on April 10, 1974, referring to President Richard Nixon’s earlier visit to tornado stricken Xenia.

In this editorial, Howard thanks several villagers specifically: Paul Kintzel, whose “marathon hours on radio station WGIC were a very noticeable, important part of the disaster relief effort”; Village Manager Howard Kahoe, who “had the Village’s work crew in Xenia to help within a few minutes after it was known that the tornado had struck”; Beverley Pearson and Eileen Webb, of the Red Cross, and other local physicians; and Antioch College faculty and students, who “provided a thoughtful note when they had over a hundred beds available … for storm victims by 8 p.m. Wednesday, [April 3] night.”

“We are proud of the special things Yellow Springs people did and are doing in the relief work,” Howard wrote. “We glory a little at the almost universal giving of money, food and clothing by our local citizens. We believe that the opportunity for such unselfishness may make all of us finer people.”

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