The Dagley Dagley Daily  

By Janet Dagley Dagley
Covering the world from the waterfront in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

ISSN 1544-9114

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30 years ago today...

...I was a cub reporter for the Dayton Daily News, covering the F-5 tornado that hit Xenia, Ohio, on what may have been the worst weather day in recorded history.

One year ago today

I wrote this. I can't think of a better way to say it for this anniversary, so I'm reposting it here today.

This year the Dayton Daily News has a lot of special features on it, including one I'd never seen: a home movie made by a teenager who barely escaped the tornado. If you watch it in streaming audio, make sure your computer sound is on, and right-click on the image to choose the full-screen option. You might also want to be sitting down. If you're not holding on tight to your chair or your desk or whatever's handy when the video starts, you probably will be by the time it's over. Everyone I've ever talked to who witnessed a tornado has said the same thing: it sounded like a train coming. The video gives you a better idea what they mean by that.

The Weather Channel is also doing a special anniversary report on the anniversary of that stormy day.

Here's my story, and I'm sticking to it:

It was hot and muggy over much of North America the morning of April 3, 1974, with thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon across the middle of the continent as a cold front moved through. A typical spring day? Anything but.

Weather history was made that day: six F-5 (the most powerful on the Fujita scale) tornadoes, 23 F-4 tornadoes, 35 F-3 tornadoes, 30 F-2 tornadoes, 31 F-1 tornadoes, and 23 F-0 tornadoes — that's 148 in a 24-hour period, along with hundreds of thunderstorms, lightning strikes and the most powerful winds on record: 318 miles per hour. The storms killed 315 people, injured more than 5,000, from Mississippi to Ontario, Canada, snatched infants from their mothers' arms, ripped away not only whole houses but whole neighborhoods, and is best known either as "the Super Tornado Outbreak" or by the name of the city that was hit the hardest: Xenia, Ohio, where 33 people died.

Weather historians have another name for that day: the worst weather day ever.

I was a veteran cub reporter for the Dayton Daily News at the time, still the youngest person on the staff at 21 even though I'd worked there three years, part time at first covering local government meetings at night, by then a full fledged staff writer with, as then-editor Jim Fain would have put it, "all the rights and perquisites appertaining thereto." I was making $174 a week, paying $80 a month rent, driving a brand-new silver-blue Volkswagen with an even newer 8-track-tape stereo. I was working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. then, and I'd just gotten home from work when the phone rang. It was my boss, Randy Preddy, telling me Xenia had just been hit by a tornado. "Try to get there if you can, any way you can — but be careful: there may be trees or power lines down in the roadway, or bridges out. Don't take any chances. We're trying to get as many people as we can out there, so if you can't make it, just come back to the office. We'll be here."

I drove straight east on U.S. 35 until I saw a roadblock ahead. I took a left just before it and headed north on a dark two-lane road, over a railroad crossing, toward Yellow Springs. Eventually I found U.S. 68 and turned south again toward Xenia, but I ran into another road block. I pulled out my press pass to show the authorities. "I don't care who you are, ma'am, you can't go any farther here," a sheriff's deputy said. "Nobody can." He pointed his flashlight toward the huge tree across the road in front of us, and beyond that, a live, sparking power line. So I took another detour, and eventually made it into Xenia from the north. The tornado had destroyed the western half of the town, in some places scrubbing a whole subdivision down to bare earth and concrete slabs. But the hospital was a few blocks north and east of downtown, and it was still there. So were as many injured people as could get there, hundreds of them. I talked to as many as I could, collecting names to run in the next day's paper, listening to one eyewitness account after another. People were crying, shaking, bloody — many had been hit by broken glass, and you could see little pieces of it stuck on their faces and hair. Many weren't injured, just looking for someone missing. There were lists of names, handwritten on yellow legal paper, posted on a bulletin board in the emergency room. I copied them all into my notebook; that took awhile. I got statements from the hospital staff, who were impeccably professional even though they'd been through much the same traumatic experience as their patients. I didn't even realize I was tired or hungry until a grandmotherly Red Cross volunteer, in a crisp Red Cross uniform, handed me a sandwich. I tried to decline; after all, reporters aren't supposed to accept gifts of any kind. "I don't think I should have one," I told her, "I'm the press, not one of the victims."

"That doesn't matter," she said, "Everybody gets one." I devoured it on the spot.

After I'd interviewed everybody who'd talk to me, I got back in the VW and headed back to Dayton the way I'd come, detours and all, since it seemed unlikely that the roads had been cleared. My article about that night in the hospital was in the next day's paper, and in subsequent days, more articles by most everybody on the staff who could read and write. A week after it happened, I decided to go back to Xenia on my own time and take a closer, not-on-deadline look. A friend and co-worker of mine (at the time), Tom Lynch, went along with me that day. I took notes; he drew in his sketchpad. People were already trying to rebuild; the Mennonites had arrived on the scene and the sound of hammering was everywhere. Some families had spray-painted messages on what was left of their homes, which for block upon block was little more than a piece of foundation and some plumbing, with upstairs toilets still in place even after the stairs and walls and floor were gone. The paper printed that, too, but warned us not to do any further tornado pieces without an editor's approval. You can find all that in the microfilm archives at the Dayton Public Library.

There are lots of people who remember the Xenia tornado better than I do, because they lived through it. There are lots of people who know more about what happened that day, scientifically speaking, than I do, because they are meteorologists and every meteorologist learns about that day in order to become a meteorologist.

A man now known only as "Mr. Brokeshoulder," a Native American resident of Xenia, happened to have a live microphone and a reel-to-reel tape recorder going when the tornado ripped through; you can hear that recording in mp3 form here. There's also a link to a video clip from the History Channel. Survivor Kitty Merchant has lots of photos on her site. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did a nice writeup for the 25th anniversary. And Dr. Fujita, inventor of the Fujita scale, put together this map of the outbreak as part of his extensive study of the outbreak.

But wait: there's more. On September 20, 2000, another tornado, following the same path as the 1974 twister, touched down in Xenia again, killing one, injuring 80, and destroying 48 homes, some of them rebuilt after 1974.

So wherever you are right now, whether the sun is out or cats and dogs are coming down in buckets, no matter how bad the weather, take a moment to remind yourself that it could be worse.

  posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @1:42 PM


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