AP Was There: A 1974 tornado in Xenia, Ohio, kills 32 and levels half the city

FILE - This is a section of Xenia Ohio on April 5, 1974. The deadly tornado killed 32 people, injured hundreds and leveled half the city of 25,000. Nearby Wilberforce was also hit hard. As the Watergate scandal unfolded in Washington, President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to Xenia to tour the damage. Xenia's was the deadliest and most powerful tornado of the 1974 Super Outbreak. (AP Photo)

FILE – This is a section of Xenia Ohio on April 5, 1974. The deadly tornado killed 32 people, injured hundreds and leveled half the city of 25,000. Nearby Wilberforce was also hit hard. As the Watergate scandal unfolded in Washington, President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to Xenia to tour the damage. Xenia’s was the deadliest and most powerful tornado of the 1974 Super Outbreak. (AP Photo)

XENIA, Ohio (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE — On April 3, 1974, a fierce tornado barreled through Xenia, Ohio, without warning, killing 32 people, injuring hundreds and leveling half the city of 25,000. Hundreds were left homeless. Nearby Wilberforce, home to Central State University, was also hit with deadly force. Afterward, President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to Xenia as the Watergate scandal unfolded in Washington.

The Xenia tornado was the deadliest and most powerful of what was later labeled the 1974 Super Outbreak, a series of 148 tornadoes that touched down across 13 states over 24 hours between April 3 and April 4. It was considered the worst such outbreak in U.S. history for nearly 40 years. It’s now second behind a 2011 outbreak. State and federal weather warning systems, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Radio, were both improved after the 1974 event.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was in Xenia during the storm. The 77-year-old Republican told The Associated Press that he was working in the city as an assistant county prosecutor that day. From the porch of their building, his group saw the funnel on the horizon and moved to take cover in the basement. “It sounded like a freight train coming through,” he said. When they emerged, the structure’s roof was gone and the city lay in ruins.

DeWine’s wife was at home on their Cedarville farm with three young children and one on the way. “It was just really dark and windy,” she said. “It wasn’t your normal storm, we knew that. So that’s why we thought we should take cover.” The strength of the winds made it impossible for Fran DeWine to open the door that allowed access to the cellar, so they hunkered under a dining room table. Both her neighbors’ barns were demolished when she emerged.

The DeWines joined the rescue and cleanup operation over the ensuing days, gathering home movie footage that they provided to AP. That included very close access to Nixon as he moved through the streets. “I think what you take away from it is just how fragile life is, and how things can change just so very, very quickly,” the governor said.

On the 50th anniversary of the Xenia tornado, AP is republishing a version of its original, unbylined report from the scene.

Ohio Storms Kill at Least 35

Spring tornadoes mowed a murderous swath across southwestern Ohio Wednesday night, killing at least 35 persons, injuring about 500 and destroying millions of dollars in property.

The toll appeared likely to mount.

The Ohio Highway Patrol said it had unconfirmed reports of 40 to 50 persons missing in this Greene County city of 25,000 and reported five more deaths than rescue workers listed.

At mid-morning workers picking through the debris of Xenia said 30 had died in the twister that demolished an estimated half of the city.

Another funnel storm killed five persons in Cincinnati and hurt more than 200.

One, perhaps two, persons were killed when the twisting funnel smashed Central State University one mile northeast of Xenia.

Five persons were killed at Cincinnati and more than 200 injured.

An estimated 75 per cent of the Central State campus was destroyed or severely damaged. President Charles Newsom closed the school.

Police Chief Ray Jordan estimated 50 per cent of Xenia demolished.

Damage at Cincinnati is estimated at up to $20 million.

Gov. John Gilligan sent more than 2,500 National Guard troops into devastated areas and asked the federal government to declare that part of southwestern Ohio a disaster area.

At Xenia, a spokesman at Green Memorial Hospital said the injured were arriving “in anything and everything — cars, ambulances and trucks. They brought bodies in on table tops, doors and boards. The emergency room was packed.”

A National Guard paramedic who flew over the devasted area, Spec. 5 Bob Chapman of Columbus, said it “looked a half-mile wide and three to five miles long. There was nothing.”

Cincinnati Mayor Theodore M. Berry said the damage to sections of his city hit by the twisters was “awesome. It was a miracle that so many trees missed houses, buildings and people.”

Officials at Xenia said more than 1,000 persons were homeless. Most were being housed in a grocery warehouse and a YMCA.

“I’ve been through World War II, and this is worse than any of the bombings in Germany,” one witness to the Xenia disaster said.

National Guard troops were providing medical assistance, setting up communications, providing protection against looting and helping with the cleanup.

The destruction came barely a week before the ninth anniversary of the Palm Sunday tornadoes of April 11, 1965, which killed 250 persons and resulted in the most property damage ever reported from such storms in Ohio.

Wednesday’s tornadoes, accompanied by driving rain and battering winds, ripped first through Cincinnati’s Sayler Park and Prince Hill suburbs, then skipped to the north of the city to Blue Ash, Sharonville and Elmwood.

Then the deadly funnels headed northeast along U.S. 42, slicing through Lebanon, leveling much of Xenia, belting London.

Wilberforce, Cedarville and Selma were hit along the way.

Gilligan almost at once ordered 250 Ohio National Guardsmen into service in Xenia, and by midnight 1,445 men were on duty, more than half of them in Xenia, the rest to the southwest. Another 1,000 were activated today.

The National Weather Service at one time Wednesday had a tornado watch in effect for all of Ohio. But the damage had been done.

The Xenia Hotel and the city’s high schools were demolished. The armory, its roof caved in, was pressed into service. A freight train, 15 of its cars tumbled off the tracks, blocked a U.S. 35 crossing.

Sayler Park, on the Ohio River banks, took the brunt of the storm in Cincinnati.

Said an Associated Press reporter from the scene: “Three square blocks, every house is gone.”

At one point, a fire raged out of control in suburban Cincinnati, a result of the storm damage.

Damage likewise was reported at London, northeast of Xenia. The top of the Madison County Courthouse was blown away, one witness said, and there were reports that all the businesses along the city’s main street had been damaged.

More than 100 residences in Union Township in Butler County were hit, authorities said, and there were reports of destruction from Green Township, Westchester, Pisgah and Mason.

Emergency hospitals were set up in Xenia and Cincinnati, but not until scores of injured had been transported to surrounding communities. Many of those injured at Xenia were taken to Dayton hospitals.

Officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton opened their hospital to tornado victims and dispatched a force of medical specialists to Xenia.

In many communities hit by the severe weather, National Guardsmen were on duty to prevent looting.

AP U.S. News

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