‘I lived through that’: Gov. DeWine shares memories, own video of 1974 Xenia tornado

Many years before Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, as a statewide elected official, started surveying sites ravaged by tornadoes, he was among the survivors of a horrific one.

The Greene County native last month declared a state of emergency for 11 counties — including Miami — north of the Dayton area after tornadoes rated from EF-1 to EF-3 caused significant damage.

PHOTOS: 25 must-see images showing the destruction of the 1974 Xenia tornado

But 50 years ago, DeWine — like thousands of others living or working in Xenia on April 3, 1974 — found himself seeking safety while working as a 27-year-old assistant county prosecutor when the F5 twister that killed 35 people in total rapidly approached about 4:40 p.m.

In an office near the Greene County Courthouse, the wife of another assistant prosecutor — Tom Rose, now a federal judge — said there was a tornado warning, DeWine said.

“And we didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that,” but soon walked outside and saw the tornado coming their way, he told the Dayton Daily News last week.

“We can see this funnel coming at us from the west. And so, we then got down into the basement. And the tornado went right through there,” DeWine added.

“The roof of the building was taken off and there was other damage in the building. And then when we walked out, we started, of course, to realize what the devastation was in Xenia. So, you know, I lived through that,” he said.

At least two funnels were reported in the area that day as part of a Super Outbreak, according to the National Weather Service.

Up to 30 tornadoes rated as F4 or F5 were reported within 24 hours, with the deadliest hitting Xenia, which experienced “the most violent tornado outbreak ever recorded,” according to a History Channel video.

‘Scared to death and flying blind’

In addition to the fatalities, more than 1,300 people sought hospital treatment, according to Dayton Daily News archives. The tornado’s path was 533 yards wide and 20.4 miles long, causing $250 million in property damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s storm events database.

The twister that caused wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour wiped out hundreds of homes, as more than 1,400 buildings — including seven schools — were damaged or destroyed, DDN accounts show.

Weather service records state “about one half of the entire city” of Xenia was damaged or destroyed.

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Central State and Wilberforce universities both closed for several days after dozens of buildings — most of them at CSU — were damaged or destroyed.

In the tornado’s aftermath, Xenia roads were blocked and power lines were down, causing those stuck in the city — DeWine among them — anxiety about the status of their loved ones.

“Everybody was trying to find out where their family was. And I knew my family was back at Cedarville. But I didn’t know how they were doing,” he said.

Finally, DeWine said, he was able to borrow a vehicle from someone who had to abandon his car to walk into the city and find his wife.

En route to Cedarville, DeWine said, he drove through Wilberforce and saw the devastation there.

“And everything I’m seeing all the way home is just horrible. So, I’m just scared to death and flying blind to get home,” he said.

“I pulled in the farmhouse that we lived in. And there’s a massive tree that was down,” DeWine said. “But then, pretty quickly, I saw that (his wife) Fran and the kids were OK. So that, I was obviously very, very relieved to find.”

As the week moved on, he and Fran helped co-workers, “a number of them who actually lost their houses.”

Credit: Dayton Daily News archive

Credit: Dayton Daily News archive

Surveying damage: Then and now

When the tornado came through, DeWine said, the wife of a co-worker “put the kids in the bathtub and mattress over them. And that’s the only thing that saved them. Basically, the house was pretty much all gone.

“Seeing our friends and people we knew — obviously that tornado stands out — because I was directly in it and people that we’re close to lost their houses,” DeWine said.

After gaining access to a truck through a family business, “we were helping people move some of their stuff and salvage what they could salvage,” he added.

The DeWines were also able to capture a broad view of the damage in Xenia by finding a perch west of the city on U.S. 35 to record footage.

“We did actually look at those the other day,” he said last week. “And just the totality of it, the size of it. It’s just frankly, very, very hard to describe.”

Experiencing such a devastating event before being elected to public office, DeWine said, makes it easier for him to understand what to expect when he surveys areas hit by tornadoes, as he did last month in Logan County.

“I don’t mean to say I understand how they feel. I don’t mean that,” he said. “But I have been through a tornado, a bad one. And I have seen how, you know, what it does to communities.

“I’ve seen what it does to individuals, particularly those who have lost their homes,” DeWine said. “So, I think it’s easier for me to relate, I think, because I’ve actually seen it. And I’ve had people close to me who have lost their homes and lost all their possessions.”

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

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