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Xenia remains determined 40 years after tornado hit

Forty years ago today, one of the largest and most destructive tornadoes in history obliterated homes, destroyed businesses, damaged schools and killed 33 people in Xenia and Wilberforce.

Xenia Mayor Marsha Bayless, who huddled with her mother and sister inside her family’s home when the tornado struck the city, will help commemorate the anniversary with a memorial service at 4:15 p.m. today in the Hudson Meeting Room at the Xenia Community Library, 76 E Market Street. The event was previously to be held at the 1974 Tornado Memorial in front of Xenia City Hall but has been changed because of the weather.

“We’re not celebrating” the anniversary, Bayless said. Instead, the ceremony will focus on the the city’s survival and recovery. “We have made it over these 40 years, so it’s a tribute to the people and what they have done for us to be here today,” she said.

The tornado inflicted physical scars on the landscape of Xenia and emotional scars on the people who survived. But some of those survivors say the tornado also brought out the best in Xenia and its residents, who rallied around the slogan that came to define the community’s collective resilience: “Xenia Lives.”

The tornado hit shortly before 4:40 p.m. on April 3, 1974. Part of a “super-outbreak” that spawned 148 tornadoes in 13 states, the Xenia tornado was one of the largest ever recorded at about 1,000 yards wide, with wind speeds of 318 mph. It carved a swath of destruction through the Windsor Park and Arrowhead neighborhoods in southwestern Xenia, destroying 420 houses. Survivors said their homes seemed to explode from the tornado’s vicious power.

The storm then tore through the heart of downtown and Xenia’s business district, ravaging the 130-year-old Xenia Hotel, and 179 other businesses and commercial buildings that fell victim to the storm.

Moving northeast at about 48 mph, the tornado then slammed into Xenia High School, tossing full-sized school buses around as if they were plastic toys. To some observers, the massive funnel appeared to veer from a collision course with Greene Memorial Hospital. But it destroyed an additional 200 homes in the Pinecrest and Stadium Heights neighborhoods before following U.S. 42 northeastward to the community of Wilberforce, where it heavily damaged Central State University and several homes near it.

Twelve of the 33 dead were children — the youngest, a 4-week-old baby.

Three days after the storm, fire swept through a tornado-ravaged furniture store in downtown Xenia, killing two Ohio National Guard members who had been stationed there to guard against looting. The final death toll rose to 35 — although careful examination of the images of the blocks and blocks of homes turned to rubble and matchsticks in the Xenia neighborhoods would certainly suggest the likelihood of a much higher death toll.

And Xenia parents who witnessed the extensive damage to more than half of Xenia’s schools shuddered to think of how high the death toll might have been if the tornado had struck a couple of hours earlier, when school was in session.

More than three decades before she would be elected mayor, Bayless was in her first year of teaching at Tecumseh Elementary School in Xenia on the day that the tornado struck. Bayless, like many of her students, had already arrived home after school was dismissed for the day.

“You could hear the sound,” Bayless said. “You could hear the roar and see things flying past our window.”

The high winds damaged Bayless’ home and many of the homes around it. Bayless recalls the shock she felt as she walked down the street and seeing debris scattered everywhere.

“It’s really strange when you’ve lived in a city your whole life. You know it like the back of your hand and then you get to a place and you have no idea where you are,” she said.

Xenia Community Schools spokesman and former teacher Mark Manley, who was a sixth grader at Simon Kenton Elementary in 1974, was at home with his family when the storm struck. He recalls seeing the massive tornado form. “It was two or three funnels trying to come together,” Manley said. He and his family huddled in the hallway, and all survived.

“We were all terrified, but we didn’t really know to be terrified like we do now,” he said.

Another former teacher — David Heath, who was teaching drama and English at Xenia High School — was overseeing a rehearsal of the school play “The Boyfriend” after school on April 3, 1974. Students had just finished practicing a dance number when a cast member yelled out, ‘Hey, want to see a tornado?’ A student who had been outside also came in and warned him.

Heath went to the front door and looked out across Shawnee Park. “Way way beyond Detroit Street, you could see this black wall. You couldn’t see a funnel or anything. It was a huge black wall and it was coming towards us,” he said in an interview earlier this week.

Heath and the students took cover after seeing parts of a pavilion roof at Shawnee Park flying into the air and parked cars starting to bounce. He still remembers the sounds of the venetian blinds in the school that day. “The rattling of those blinds was almost deafening,” he said.

One student had minor cuts. Sections of lockers were strewn across the floor. Back in the auditorium, the roof had collapsed.

“We were looking up to the sky,” Heath said. “On the stage where we had been, there was a school bus on its roof with its four wheels pointing to the sky.”

While a warning and swift action saved lives inside the high school, elsewhere in Xenia, those actions were not enough.

David and Sandra Graham did everything they were supposed to do when they learned that a tornado was approaching. They gathered up their four children, ages 4 to 8, and headed to a corner of the basement of their rented single-story frame house at 766 Trumbull St.

But the force of this tornado was so strong that the winds sheared off the top of a two-story brick house next door and dropped it on top of the Grahams’ home. Three of the Grahams’ four children — 4-year-old Sherry, 6-year-old Billy, and 8-year-old David — were killed. The couple and their 7-year-old son Bobby survived.

The Grahams talked about their loss 10 years after the tornado to the Dayton Daily News. At that time, they had moved 11 times in 10 years, even moving to Phoenix for two years, but ended up returning to Xenia, where they lived in an apartment on the city’s north side.

David Graham insisted he didn’t dwell on the past. “But it comes back,” he said. “Sometimes it hits you unexpectedly, and sometimes you know it’s coming and you can think about something else. Other times, you just can’t do it.”

The parents had burdens beyond their grief. David had undergone open-heart surgery, had injured his back at a nearby foundry and nearly lost a hand in a separate incident. Sandra was diabetic and had undergone lung surgery.

The only time their mood brightened during the 1984 interview occurred when they pointed to a family portrait taken shortly before the tornado and still hanging in the corner of couple’s living room, showing the smiling faces of all of their children. Sandra Graham pointed out each child and marveled over the close resemblance between the photo of her daughter Sherry and a young niece of hers.

The couple said they found comfort in their religious beliefs. “I know they’re in a better place,” Sandra Graham said about her late children.

David Graham died in 1999. His wife Sandra died the following year.

The city has suffered other blows since 1974. Many residents did not return after the tornado, and some businesses and factories chose not to rebuild. Two more tornadoes have struck the city, one in 1989 and another in 2000. A Kmart store that was once the centerpiece of the city’s efforts to redevelop its downtown is scheduled to close permanently by the end of this month.

But both Bayless and Manley said the community and its residents remain both determined and resilient.

“There’s so much hope for this city,” Bayless said. “I do believe there are great things that are going to happen within this city.”

Manley said, “I think that people forget that we have within ourselves, as a community, to come together and do anything … If people come together and they’re focused on a mission, they can make it happen.

“The people of Xenia in 1974, 1975, 1976, they came together and solved problems in this community to benefit everybody. … Neighbor-to-neighbor, friend-to-friend, family-to-family, church-to-church — everybody came together to solve problems and make this a better place to live.”

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