Tuesday, March 30, 1999

'74 tornado tore Xenia's heart

But spirit stronger than winds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Catherine Wilson, displaying a child's T-shirt from 1974, was 9 when her home was destroyed.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        XENIA, Ohio — Marilyn Mardis thought they were blackbirds, circling and circling, furiously. Catherine Wilson, 9 years old, couldn't quite figure out what the black specks were that swirled in the huge, dirty gray, breathing cloud.

        The blackbirds, the black specks, were actually shingles, pulled from the rooftops of Xenia on April 3, 1974.

        The shingles, the lumber pried free and the walls from houses added color and form to the tornado that entered this town from the west and cut a devastating swath through the very heart of this community.

Joan Baxter shows a twig driven through a board - evidence of the tornado's power.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        It took out buildings, swept houses from concrete slabs, imploded some homes, exploded others, destroyed businesses, uprooted trees, tore down power lines and so changed the very landscape that people had to blink to remember the moment before.

        A quarter-century ago, much that was familiar to the 25,000 residents in Xenia disappeared. The city was devastated. Thirty-three people were killed, 1,600 were injured, more than 1,400 buildings were damaged or de stroyed, property damage was estimated at $75 million to $100 million.

        Ms. Wilson, led by her mother, took refuge in the bathtub in her house in Xenia's Arrowhead subdivision about 15 miles east of Dayton. Ms. Mardis watched the thick column of wind crawl down Main Street and finally took refuge in a service station at the corner of Orange and Main streets with her son, Ed, 16 at the time.

Fred Stewart took this photo as the twister thundered through the Pine Crest Garden section of town.
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        Tuffy Snider had never seen a tornado before and when he saw it coming, he thought to himself, “Damn!” as he watched timbers floating like butterflies down Main Street. In a moment he was inside the Hofbrau House.

        “It's here,” he announced, and about a dozen patrons crammed into a walk-in beer cooler.

        The tornado that touched down in the Arrowhead subdivision and then swept east through downtown Xenia was actually part of a larger storm system that spawned tornadoes in about a dozen Midwestern and Southern states. They killed more than 300 people, injured more than 3,000, left more than 13,000 homeless and caused $442 million in damages.

        In Cincinnati's Sayler Park, 130 people were injured — no one was killed — and 69 homes were destroyed. Hundreds more in Sayler Park were damaged. Five people died in Hamilton County. Dozens of homes in Green Township were damaged. Another tornado cut through Butler County, injuring 80 and damaging 500 homes.

The Xenia toll: 33 killed; 1,600 injured, and 1,400 buildings hit.
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        But Xenia was the hardest-hit single location in the country. The cleanup began. National Guard troops were mobilized. The city responded by rolling up its sleeves.

        Within the first year, more than 80 percent of the homes were rebuilt, as well as about 40 percent of the businesses. State and federal money for rebuilding would total more than $35 million in that first year, while close to $100 million was paid on property insurance policies.

        Within the first four years, Xenia Towne Square was built, a strip mall of retail businesses that became the city's centerpiece and replaced blocks of homes that had been damaged or destroyed. By 1984 a Holiday Inn went up on Main Street, at the edge of the Towne Square and the rebuilding was pronounced complete.

        What happened a quarter-century ago and in the 10 years it took to fully rebound was that this small Midwestern city learned something about itself. It learned that the human spirit can be indomitable, that people can be plucky when they have to be, that generosity seems most pronounced when it has to be, that community matters.

xenia map
        “I think it's a Midwest spirit, I really do,” says Joan Baxter, whose home was damaged and who took shelter with her children under a huge dining room table 25 years ago. “People rally from whatever happens. People just seem to have a knack for making things work and pulling it together.”

        Robert Stewart, Xenia city manager at the time, saw the tornado from the window of his City Hall office.

        He had called his wife, Yvonne, earlier that day and talked a little about how to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Maybe a drink after work and some dinner.

        When the tornado hit about four hours later, he could hear the metal City Hall doors slamming and glass breaking. The roof started to come off.

        When it passed, he and others stepped outside. “I could see the damage was extensive,” he said. Buildings and trees were down. Wires were strewn about like strands of spilled spaghetti.

        The route to Greene Memorial Hospital needed to be cleared and kept open. Wreckage needed to be searched. Church basements and public buildings needed to be turned into shelters for the temporarily homeless.

        A campaign was started, a “Spirit of '74 Committee” was established and bumper stickers began appearing about town — “Xenia Lives!”

        State and federal funds were sought, for both cleanup and rebuilding. What had been scenes of devastation turned into construction sites.

        Mr. Stewart remained Xenia city manager through it all — the campaign, the rebuilding, before retiring in 1986.

        “I'm amazed at what people did accomplish,” said Mr. Stewart. “Instead of cutting and running, they survived, went ahead and rebuilt their homes. When I've been asked what the major accomplishment was, I said surviving.”

"You can't tell' now
        From the bell tower at the Courthouse, Xenia presents itself as flat real estate, stretching from the Arrowhead subdivision about a mile or so in the distance to Xenia Towne Square to the city's downtown streets, the eye following roughly the tornado's path.

        Drive the streets of Arrowhead and nothing suggests what happened a quarter-century before. Ranch-style homes with brick facades. Many residents stayed and rebuilt.

        “You can't tell, but we can,” said Joy Wright, the city's director of community development. “There's little things. We know what was in certain places.”

        People stayed, Ms. Wright surmises, because of a shared sense of loss. “That helped,” she said. “They said we're going to stay here and rebuild because almost everyone was doing that. It was people coming together.”

        According to the 1990 census, the city still has close to 25,000 residents living in just more than 9,000 households.

        “Xenia is doing quite well,” said Charley Bowman, Xenia's city manager. “We have at least a dozen residential subdivisions under way, we have two industrial parks. Our downtown is healthy. I think we're in very good shape.”

        of Commerce.

        Said David Ruppert, president of the Chamber of Com merce: “We have done very well. Towne Square is well-occupied. (The rebuilding) involved a lot of hard work on the part of an unbelievably large number of people.”

Sky through ceiling
        Catherine Wilson recalls the hole punched in the ceiling of her Arrowhead home and seeing blue sky peek through after the tornado had passed. Homes on either side of her family's home were gone. Marilyn Mardis picked herself up from the floor of the service station and noticed straightaway how the landscape had changed.

        Each spring, at least once, Ms. Wilson has a tornado-related dream. In her dream, she finds herself trapped.

        “I can see it coming for me,” said Ms. Wilson, who now lives in Springfield. “I can't get away.”

        That year, as a 9-year-old, she remembers playing on the slabs of demolished homes all summer in the Arrowhead subdivision. She would pack ham-and-cheese or tuna sandwiches, she said, and “go picnic on somebody's slab.”

        Ms. Mardis and her son were packed into a service station office with at least a half-dozen other people. When the tornado had passed, everyone walked outside in a state of shock. Ms. Mardis and her son were pockmarked with gravel and grime that had literally blown through their clothing and embedded in their skin.

        But what really caused the most anxiety for Ms. Mardis and so many others was not knowing how other family members had fared. With her car crushed, Ms. Mardis said, she and her son ran the entire distance back to Arrowhead, about 15 blocks, running past downed wires that popped and crackled along the road.

        “They were standing in front of the house,” Ms. Mardis said of her husband and two other children.

        When Tuffy Snider emerged from safety, the scene had changed dramatically. Where once there were cars, there were no cars. A truck was now facing in another direction. Mr. Snider, who ran a local pharmacy downtown, saw that the roof had lifted from his own store and the windows had blown out.

        “We knew there was going to be a lot of hurt people,” said Mr. Snider, who is now the pharmacist at the Rite-Aid in Xenia Towne Square.

        He got his van, loaded it with whatever first-aid supplies he could find from his store and recruited help from among friends. Fire officials directed him to the fire station on West Second Street. He was led to the body of a child who needed to be taken to the hospital.

        “They said they can't leave him here,” Mr. Snider said. “I don't know who the child was.”

        They wrapped the child's body in a blanket, put him in the van and made the trip to the hospital. What should have been a five-minute trip took more than two hours.

        “It was one of the many deaths that day,” Mr. Snider said. “I still don't know who the child was.”

        Joan Baxter said the miracle was that so many lived to witness the devastation. And a sense of memory and history to pass along.

        “There's a whole generation who have no idea,” Ms. Baxter said. “But people do remember. These people built their houses, bought new furniture, put their kids back in school and did what they had to do.”

- '74 tornado tore Xenia's heart
More tornadoes coming?
Sirens not the perfect alert system

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