An F-5 tornado moves through Xenia, Ohio, on April 3, 1974. The tornado caused millions of dollars in damage and killed 33 people. More than 1,300 were injured. / Fred Stewart, AP
CINCINNATI -- Forty years ago Thursday, three weather fronts started moving toward each other. When they collided, they spawned storms of astounding violence.
At least 148 deadly tornadoes tore across the Midwest on April 3, 1974, including 20 in Indiana and 26 in Kentucky. Together, the tornadoes, which meteorologists call the "Super Outbreak" - the largest such event on record - killed 330 people and injured 5,484.
Xenia became the shorthand that people used to remember the storms, and with good reason. A tornado with winds approaching 300 mph ran through the center of town, killing 32 people. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed there.
Powerful tornadoes hit Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as well. Homes were destroyed, cars were carried away, trees were uprooted and flew through the sky. And all this time later, people remember the oddest things about the storms.
When an F5 tornado, the most powerful kind, dropped down the the Kentucky hills, crossed the Ohio River and wrecked Bev Heiding's home in Cincinnati's Sayler Park neighborhood, she was 25 years old and eight months pregnant with her second child. It was shortly after 5 p.m. and she had just made sweet and sour chicken for her husband. Everyone would be fine, but the home was destroyed. Heiding would go back day after day to see the broken windows and holes in the walls. The temperature dropped over the next few days, and all the fish in the aquarium died. She remembers those fish.
Chris Collini was 10 when the storm hit his parents' home. First the hail came, then his father, a firefighter, looked up at the sky and told everybody to get down in the basement and under the pool table. The home was picked up by the tornado, moved 18 inches and dropped again, ruined. Collini never spent another night in it. That night, at Sayler Park Elementary School, Collini and his best friend Dennis figured they would probably never see each other again because their community was so badly damaged.
They made a vow that they would return to the school six years later on April 3 because they would be able to drive by then. "Of course neither one of us moved, we saw each other practically every day," Collini said. He remembers the pact.
Sallie Brandabur lived in Xenia when the tornado that changed the town forever touched down. Brandabur's daughters were watching a rerun of "Leave it to Beaver." The boys were down the alley playing basketball. She saw something scroll across the bottom of the television screen but didn't pay it much attention. Her husband had stopped at the fish market because it was Lent and she was trying to decide if she should freeze it or put it in the refrigerator. Friday was in two days.
Then the birds stopped chirping, she said, and the tornado hit. Brandabur's home was damaged, but not destroyed. The town's lovely old trees were down nearly everywhere she looked. In the weeks after, Brandabur would sit on her porch with the women on the street while their children played. Every afternoon she saw large dump trucks rolling down the street. "They were carrying away our town," Brandabur said. "You knew it was homes and churches and schools and trees. It was all being carried away." She remembers the dump trucks.
The Xenia tornado and the Sayler Park tornado were both F5 on the Fujita Scale, a measurement of a tornado's damage potential. An F5 is the highest ranking, meaning it is capable of tearing strong frame houses off foundations. The winds of an F5 can surpass 300 mph.
The Sayler Park tornado was one of three that touched down in the Cincinnati metro area that day. Two of them had twin funnels, making them even more dangerous, according to the National Weather Service. Four people died here that day.
The National Weather Service called April 3 and 4 "the worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history." The storms raged for 16 hours and covered more than 2,500 miles.
Most devastating was the strength of those tornadoes. That storm created 30 tornadoes ranked as F4 and F5. The national average is seven of those types of tornadoes per year, according to the weather service.
That day also represented a turning point for the weather service. Ken Haydu is the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Wilmington.
He joined the weather service in 1978, and knows how many changes happened after the Super Outbreak.
"We were still using hand-me-down military radar in 1974," Haydu said. Forecasters with the weather service could see only blobs on radar screens and had to wait for visual confirmation of a tornado before issuing a tornado warning.
And communication with the public, to warn people of imminent danger, was far slower.
"In 1974 we were feeding paper tapes into a teletype machines," Haydu said. "Those messages would go to newsrooms and you hoped people would see them."
He said Congress started appropriating more money to the weather service immediately after the storms, which meant better forecasting technology and more advanced communication. "I cannot say that happened because of the 1974 tornadoes," Haydu said. "But it might have been."
Now, technology is vastly improved and the communication systems are significantly enhanced.
And for good reason.
"This type of storm has happened before," Haydu said. "It will happen again."
Bev Eiding still lives in Sayler Park. She and her husband lost their house that day and had to move for a couple years, but they came back and she now lives just three blocks away. She was 25 when that tornado hit and is 65 now, but she still remembers every bit of it.
It was the first warm day of the spring, she said, so she wore a maternity smock for the first time in her pregnancy. She can recall the suddenly dark sky and the violent hailstorm just as she was setting dinner on the table.
"Hail that was so big, it was breaking windows, it was terrifying," Eiding said. When the hail stopped, her husband, Ed, went outside to check the damage. That's when he looked across the river and saw the tornado.
The Eidings were just starting out, so they rented the upstairs to a couple with a small child. Ed Eiding yelled for everyone to get to the basement. The two couples, with their two small children, ran to the basement and then into the coal storage room.
"We went in there and I prayed and I prayed," Eiding said. The room had just one light bulb, it started swinging back and forth and then it went out. "It felt like a monster was shaking our home."
And then it stopped and they went outside when it was getting light again. The roof was gone, most of the second floor was gone and all the trees were down. Six weeks later, 6626 River Road was torn down.
Chris Collini remembers running around his front yard picking up hail like he had never seen before when his father's voice changed and he told everybody to get to the basement. They were all under the pool table when they made their dad run upstairs to try to save a stray dog that had been hanging around the house, an idea that can only be described as ill advised. "We were on him pretty good, I guess," Collini said.
Charles Collini went up the stairs and then turned right around; the tornado had arrived. "He dove down the stairs head-first, like Pete Rose," Collini said. The stray dog did not make it. Neither did 6840 Parkland Ave.
The Brandabur's home survived. Sallie can still remember walking up from the basement after the tornado. She thought she would see some damage. It was far worse than that.
"I walked outside. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. It was so much. I'll never forget all those trees," Brandabur said. That night all six children slept in their parents' bedroom because Sallie did not want to let them out of her sight.
Half her town was gone. One thousand homes destroyed. Seven of 12 schools in Xenia and nine churches were beyond repair. Looking back now Brandabur says she knows how lucky she was that day. Her daughters were home, her sons were close and her husband was dropping off fish from the market.
"To this day I am so grateful that the children were nearby," Brandabur said. "And that they came when we called them. It was a miracle."
Contributing: Matt Frassica of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
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Read the original story: 40 years ago, tornadoes ravaged Midwest