When a tornado roars into a populated area, the change is often drastic and deadly, and it happens within minutes. As the people of Oklahoma struggle to look beyond this month's devastating storms, residents of Xenia, Ohio, are reflecting on the tornado of 1974.
Xenia, in southwest Ohio near Dayton, became well-known to the nation that year. "Everywhere I go, and I've been all over the U.S., if I say I'm from Xenia people say, 'tornado,' " says Catherine Wilson, who runs the historical society in Xenia. She still gets a lot of questions about the twister.
Late in the afternoon of April 3, 1974, a radar image, lit up with storms, cut into The Andy Griffith Show on local television station WHIO. "The hook in our radar screen is now moving into the city of Xenia," the weatherman warned. "Persons in the city of Xenia and along a track just south of it should take cover immediately."
The wind was so strong it blew seven railroad freight cars off the tracks downtown. One thousand buildings were damaged, entire blocks of homes lost completely. Hundreds of people were injured and 33 were killed.
If you come to Xenia these days you might not know about the tornado. A neighborhood that had been just shattered houses and slabs looks great now. You might notice a bronze tablet outside City Hall, which reads, "In memory of those who lost their lives in April 3, 1974 tornado." The names start with Richard Adams and end with Sue Ann Wisecup.
On the day of the tornado, Jim Langan was a rookie with the fire department. He was ready to help as soon as he came out of his basement shelter. He worked 24 hours a day for three days, he says. He describes the worst moments of those days tersely.
"We dug three people out of one building that were alive," he recalls. "Another one found — there wasn't anything we could do with her. Found another lady on up Second Street, got the daughter out, but the mother — we weren't able to save her."
Langan, now retired, does describe one of his tornado memories with a smile. On that first day, he didn't know what had happened to his wife. But then, "I seen this lady coming down the street with an umbrella that was blown inside out," he says. "And I chuckled and wondered who that was, and it happened to be her."
One saving grace was the time of day in Xenia: 4:30 p.m. School had been out for an hour and Catherine Wilson, 9 at the time, was home with her sister. And safe — until she looked out the window.
"There was a big boiling, gray cloud with all sorts of things flying around," Wilson says. "We thought they were newspapers; they were actually walls. I had a little weather book and said, 'Mom, is that a tornado?' "
The girls got in the bathtub and their mother climbed in on top.
"We heard that horrible loud 'HHHHHHUUNK' [sound]," Wilson says. "It's just an awful sound. And the glass hitting the walls, swirling around hitting the walls. That was the sound I remember the worst."
Wilson still has tornado dreams in spring and sometimes when she's under stress. She feels a strong sense of support in this town for the people of Moore, Okla., and Joplin, Mo. But she needs to keep a distance from those storms.
"My husband is a news junkie and he watches it and says, 'Oh, come out here, you gotta see this, you gotta see this.' I watched about two minutes and said, 'Ahh — I've seen that in person. I'm leaving the room, thank you.' "
In 1974, Xenia didn't have a way to warn people about the tornado. But today, a new phone alert system can reach thousands of residents within five minutes. And on Monday, June 3, five tornado sirens will sound at noon. It's the current system's monthly test.