Saturday, April 10, 1999
Hope emerges from the rubble
4 dead, 200 homes destroyed
BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A killer tornado ripped through the Tristate in 57 erratic and terrifying minutes early Friday, leaving four people dead, dozens injured and hundreds of homes destroyed or severely damaged.
Earl Durham, right, and his wife Wildred, center, pray with family members. Their home on Lakewater in Montgomery was destroyed.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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The powerful storm triggered a massive emergency response that restored electric power to thousands of darkened homes, fed and sheltered stunned and bewildered residents and offered hope that people would not have to rebuild their lives and homes alone.
The tornado carried top winds of 260 mph when it touched down in the Blue Ash and Montgomery areas in the predawn hours Friday. Its path before then included Ripley County, Ind., and the small western Hamilton County towns of Addyston and Hooven.
The impact was lethal and destructive:
Four persons were killed and at least 47 people were treated at area hospitals.
About 200 homes were destroyed and another 400 had major damage in Hamilton County, according to Ohio emergency management officials.
Nearly 200,000 were without electric power early Friday morning. By evening, about 15,000 had no hope of getting their power back until at least Sunday.
Even amid the rubble, miracles emerged.
Huge trees were snapped off in the Montgomery area.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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Family and neighbors searched frantically for 10-month-old Nicholas Stein after the storm whipped apart the Cornell Road home of his parents, Brad and Rebecca Stein, who escaped with their son Joe, 13.
Moments later, neighbors found Nicholas blissfully playing beneath a door in the ravaged house. The family suffered only bumps and scrapes.
That's all I cared about, Mrs. Stein said. Thank God everyone is alive. It's all stuff. We can replace stuff.
Property and structural damage from the storm system will be in the tens of millions of dollars, local officials said. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft declared disaster areas in Hamilton, Warren and Clinton counties, setting off state relief efforts in the stricken areas.
A dog on a leash is tied to an overturned SUV.
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Two of those killed, Lee and Jacqueline Cook of 7575 Cornell Road, Montgomery, were literally thrown from their home across from Sycamore High School into an embankment across the street.
The 58-year-old chemical engineer and his 52-year-old wife were dead at the scene, police said.
Stakes with yellow police tape fluttered Friday morning, marking where the bodies had landed almost indiscernible among the piles of storm-tossed debris. A car lay overturned; a white recliner rested on its side; tree limbs held a mattress aloft, and clothing and shredded paper collected in clusters.
Trees that were not uprooted stood stripped of bark and branches, their white trunks twisted like a rung washcloth.
Search-and-rescue officials said they were confident no more bodies were to be found in the Montgomery Woods subdivision.
Two drivers died when high winds lifted their vehicles from the highway.
Shelley Svec pauses while picking up debris around her boyfriend's home on Cornell Road.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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Donald E. Lewis, 38, of Blanchester, was killed at 5:15 a.m. Friday while driving westbound on I-275 near Montgomery Road, said the Ohio State Patrol. Winds tossed his car into a ditch.
At 5:30 a.m., Blue Ash police said, high winds also lifted the sedan driven by Charles S. Smith, 40, of Loveland, off I-71 north of Pfeiffer Road and slammed it into a noise barrier. Mr. Smith was pronounced dead on the scene.
At least 45 people from the Montgomery and Blue Ash areas were treated at area hospitals, mostly for minor injuries.
Some residents of the hardest-hit area people whose homes were totally or nearly destroyed told harrowing tales of the terror that struck their upper middle-class neighborhood before dawn Friday.
Tammy Wade, whose home was in the Montgomery Woods area near Sycamore High School, said she and her husband, Robert, and their three small children rushed to the basement of their ranch-style house after being awakened by a noise like a freight train shortly before 5 a.m.
Maureen Sheets cries after finding her dog under the rubble of her garage, right.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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The house was shaking and we could hear glass breaking, Mrs. Wade said. We could hear the roof coming off.
Rescue workers located the Wades in their destroyed home and took them to the junior high school shelter about 9:30 a.m.
Jill Cole said the roof of her home on Lake Water Drive, near the high school, was blown away. She and her husband, Steve, first took their three children ages 10, 7 and 5 to the basement and then moved into an interior room of the house.
You could feel the whole house shaking; you could feel the violence, Mrs. Cole said Friday morning at the junior high school, as her children drew pictures of tornadoes on construction paper.
Nearby in Symmes Township, residents of Village Brooke apartments huddled in bathrooms as roofs and the sides of their apartment buildings were ripped off.
A car is battered with potmarks from flying debris at the Blue Ash Industrial Park.
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The complex is near the corner of Kemper Road and Montgomery Road, where the tornado devastated The Shops at Harper's Point and Harper's Stations, taking with it rooftops, storefronts and toppling tele phone poles.
More than 1,000 residents at the apartment complex were evacuated by bus to shelters as disaster workers condemned the apartment buildings.
Bethesda North Hospital in Montgomery took in 37 patients, most of them treated and released.
The hospital itself became a victim of the storm after a transformer blew, forcing the hospital to operate on power from a back-up generator. Full power was restored about 4:30 p.m.
Jewish Hospital Kenwood received about 17 patients.
We had a couple of people who fell out of windows, said Erika Taylor, a hospital spokeswoman. A lot of them were dressed in pajamas and the things you grab in the dark, like sweats.
The storm system that produced the devastating tornado was part of a larger system in the Midwest that also killed two people in Illinois and caused damage in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
About 28 hours before the disaster struck the Tristate, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., issued an alert about possible tornadoes, but forecasters thought the worst damage would come in the Mississippi Valley.
Instead, it hit the Ohio River Valley hardest.
The harrowing morning began with a report of a tornado touchdown at 4:20 a.m. in Rexville in Ripley County, Ind.
The wind and rain demolished three 100-year-old barns and four 25-year-old grain bins at the 1,200-acre farm of Donetta and Jim Benham, of Ripley County, Ind., but neither was harmed.
You can hold your breath longer than it took to do this, Mr. Benham said. Some things my father built are gone and he passed away, so they meant a lot.
By 4:50 a.m., the storm had crossed into Ohio and a weather spotter was reporting a touchdown in Hooven, 18 miles west of Cincinnati.
At 4:55 a.m., the severe-weather warning sirens blasted in Hamilton County, and by 5:17 a.m., the tornado, with wind speeds up to 260 mph, was slamming into Montgomery and Blue Ash.
By 6 a.m., the storm had passed through southern Warren County and Clinton County.
Warren County Emergency Management officials reported no injuries, but 16 homes in the southern part of the county, many of them in Deerfield Township, were destroyed.
In the southwest corner of Clinton County, high winds swept farm silos from one side of the road to the other. At least 12 homes were extensively damaged; another 30 properties sustaining minor losses.
Gov. Taft toured the storm-damaged areas of Montgomery and Blue Ash with U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park.
My heart went out to the families who went to bed last night and woke up to this, Mr. Taft said after the tour. If there is a positive side to this whole tragedy, it has been the tremendous outpouring of support.
The governor said the state's declaration will mean that Ohio Department of Transportation crews will begin immediately clearing roads and the Ohio Department of Health will begin providing tetanus vaccinations and bottled waters to disaster victims.
Mr. Taft said the state will also ask for federal help specifically, from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which could end up providing low-in terest loans to homeowners and businesses if they qualify.
In Montgomery, police and fire officials said 68 homes were damaged and 23 were described by officials as uninhabitable.
Police and fire officials estimated that commercial and residential buildings in Montgomery suffered $14 million in structural damage alone, not including property in those buildings.
Early Friday afternoon, Montgomery authorities began letting residents of the hardest-hit homes back into their neighborhoods to try to salvage whatever valuables they could from the rubble.
Everything these people own is in these homes, so we're trying to help them save what they can, said Montgomery police chief Don McLaughlin. As long as it is safe, we'll let them in.
But officials cut off access to Cornell Road, Shadowhill Way, Lake Water Drive and Valleystream Drive by mid-afternoon and said they would let homeowners back into the area from noon to dusk today.
Officials in Blue Ash said structural and property damage there could reach millions of dollars, too.
As of Friday evening, two shelters were operating for people displaced by the storm Sycamore Junior High School in Blue Ash, which began operating about 7:30 a.m. Friday; and the Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy on Snider Road.
By mid-afternoon, township trustees in both Symmes and Sycamore township had ordered a curfew for the tornado-struck areas, lasting through Sunday, from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day.
Reporters Lew Moores, Walt Schaefer, Mark Curnutte, Bernie Mixon, Perry Brothers, Tanya Bricking, Janice Morse, Christine Wolff, Richelle Thompson and Sheila McLaughlin contributed.
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