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3:49 pm
Fri May 31, 2013

In Ohio Town, Okla. Twister Conjures Echoes Of 1974 Disaster

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 7:23 pm

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

NPR's Noah Adams has been reporting this year on the effects of change in small towns across America. When a tornado roars into a populated area, changes are drastic and deadly and happen within minutes. As people in Oklahoma try to look beyond last week's storms, Noah takes us to a place in Ohio that knows about that kind of recovery. It was hit by a tornado in 1974.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The town is Xenia. It's in southwest Ohio near Dayton. Xenia is spelled X-E-N-I-A and it became well known 39 years ago.

CATHERINE WILSON: Everywhere I go and I've been all over the U.S., if I say I'm from Xenia, people say tornado.

ADAMS: Catherine Wilson, she runs the historical society in Xenia, she gets a lot of questions about the 1974 tornado. Late in the afternoon April 3rd on television channel 7, a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show vanished, a radar image appeared lit up with storms.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ANNOUNCEMENT)

ANNOUNCER: Persons in the city of Xenia and along a track just south of it should take cover immediately.

ADAMS: The wind was so strong it blew seven railroad freight cars off the tracks downtown. A thousand buildings were damaged, entire blocks of home lost completely. Hundreds of people injured and 33 were killed. If today you come to Xenia, you might not know about the tornado in '74. I drove through a neighborhood that had been nothing but shattered houses and slabs back then. Now it looks great. You might notice a bronze tablet outside city hall.

It says, in memory of those who lost their lives in April 3, 1974 tornado. It starts with Richard Adams and ends with Sue Ann Wisecup. In Xenia, I got to meet Jim Langan. The day of the tornado 39 years ago he was a rookie on the fire department. He was ready to help as soon as he got out of his basement shelter.

How long did you work?

JIM LANGAN: Twenty-four hours a day for three days.

ADAMS: Jim Langan will describe the worst moments of those days quietly.

LANGAN: Dug three people out of one building that were alive and found another lady on up Second Street, got the daughter out but the mother, we weren't able to save her so...

ADAMS: And Jim Langan, now retired, does describe one of the tornado memories with a smile. On that first day he didn't know what had happened to his wife. And then...

LANGAN: I seen this lady coming down the street with an umbrella. It was blown inside out and I chuckled and wondered who that was, and it happened to be her.

ADAMS: One saving grace was the time of day in Xenia, Ohio, 4:30 in the afternoon. School had been out for an hour. Catherine Wilson, who we met earlier, was nine years old, home with her sister, safe until she looked out the window.

WILSON: There was a big boiling gray cloud with all kinds of things flying around we thought were newspapers. They were actually walls. I had a little weather book and said, mom, is that a tornado?

ADAMS: The girls got into the bathtub, their mother on top.

WILSON: We heard that horrible loud - it's just an awful sound. And the glass swirling around, hitting all the walls. That was the sound I remember the worst.

ADAMS: Catherine Wilson still has tornado dreams in springtime and maybe anytime when she's under stress. She feels a strong support in this town for the people of Oklahoma, or Joplin, Missouri, but still needs to keep a distance from those storms.

WILSON: My husband is a news junkie and he watches it and says, oh, come out here, you gotta see this. I watched about two minutes and I said, I've seen that in person. I'm leaving the room, thank you.

ADAMS: Back in 1974, Xenia didn't have a way to warn people. This coming Monday, June 3rd at noon, the tornado sirens will sound, five will go off. It's the monthly test. And a new phone alert system can reach thousands of residents within five minutes. Noah Adams, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you know of a small community that's dealing with change, either past or present, send us a note at npr.org. Click on Contact Us and put Town Journal in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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