Survivors of horrific 1974 Xenia tornado recall twister’s deadly impact as anniversary nears



Mark Howard was cashing in on an annual reward for earning good grades, choosing to spend April 3, 1974 — a school day — at his dad’s business in Xenia, where his family would soon move.

The 10-year-old Mad River Local Schools student didn’t recall many specifics about much of the day, but vividly remembers events after the skies darkened that afternoon.

Within minutes, a horrific F5 tornado — part of a Super Outbreak across several states — would turn the day into Xenia’s deadliest, caused by a twister which Howard described as “the most deafening noise I’d ever heard in my life.”

Fifty years later, he was among several survivors interviewed by the Dayton Daily News, recalling the historic disaster “like it happened yesterday,” he said. “Some things just burn in your memory.”



The tornado killed 32 people, and more than 1,300 sought hospital treatment, according to Dayton Daily News archives. It cut a devastating swath across the city and Greene County, leaving an estimated $100 million in property damage that included Central State and Wilberforce universities.

Three of the deaths occurred in the young Graham family, which lost two boys and a girl ranging in ages from 4 to 8 years. Three more — including two Ohio National Guardsmen killed fighting a fire — died in the related aftermath, bringing the total to 35, according to news accounts.

About 4:40 p.m. that day, the twister that caused wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour tore through the area, DDN records show. It wiped out hundreds of homes, many of which were in the Arrowhead subdivision on the city’s western edge. More than 1,400 buildings — including seven schools — were damaged or destroyed.

“The totality of it is what I just think is so absolutely stunning,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who was an assistant Greene County prosecutor when he shot footage of the damage the next day from an elevated spot.

“It is very, very hard to describe,” DeWine added.

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

The funnel cloud was estimated at 1,000 yards wide, cut a 16-mile path of destruction and local debris was found more than 200 miles away in a Cleveland suburb, DDN accounts show.

Howard said he, his father and company employees narrowly escaped being among the casualties, thanks in large part to a radio report warning of severe weather.

“Dad had us all go down into the basement,” Howard said. “Dad and I were the last ones down. And I’ll never forget this: I turned around and looked up the stairs. And the last thing I saw was the wind blast out the roof. We cut it that close. And he grabbed me and we hunkered down.”

The tornado destroyed John Howard’s business — a remodeled house on the city’s northwest edge — and the next-door home he had agreed to buy as the family planned to move from what is now Riverside.

But his dad’s quick thinking helped everyone in the basement come away relatively unscathed, said Howard, now a 60-year-old financial adviser living in Eaton.

Others across the street weren’t so lucky, he said. Five people were killed at A&W Root Beer on Dayton Avenue, the Xenia Daily Gazette reported the next day.

‘A big black mass’

At Xenia High School, Lesa Taylor DeVond was a sophomore headed to track practice on a “sunny and bright” afternoon that would turn “cloudy, dark, just real eerie” shortly after the 14-year-old arrived at Cox Field.

A group that included her brother and a neighbor walked to a nearby shopping center to make a phone call inside a store to tell her mother a storm was coming.

Credit: STAFF

Credit: STAFF

“But on the way to the store, I heard this eerie sound,” said Taylor DeVond, now director of Central State University-Dayton. “I turned around and saw a tornado coming.”

She described it as a “perfect funnel shape and it would split apart into two and it was whipping around, coming down (U.S.) 35 to Xenia and all I could do was stand there and look at it. It also had lightning bolts coming out of it from the ground up.”

Within seconds, Taylor DeVond said, it destroyed a new restaurant “and that’s when it turned into a big black mass.”

After being pulled into a store by a passerby, she said, “we all went into the back room … We all got together, kind of like chained up and got up under the counters and huddled together.

“And once the storm and tornado came up over the building, it seemed like it took forever,” Taylor DeVond added. “We could not breathe, swallow, nothing.”

When the tornado passed, she added, “we all got out and looked up and the (store) roof was gone. All the appliances and glass and everything were scattered (on) the floor.”

A long trek home

Still dressed in shorts for track practice, they left the store to walk home, a trip that commonly took a short while. But, Taylor DeVond said, due to the destruction on Main Street and concerns of more tornadoes, they didn’t arrive until early the next morning.

“Every time we started to walk out, the police were coming by with the megaphones (in) the cars saying take cover, we’ve spotted more tornadoes,” she said.

“So, we’d go somewhere where they had a shelter and shelter in for a couple of hours and then decide to venture out again and try and go home,” Taylor DeVond added. After being picked up by a neighbor with a car, “we thought we were on our way home.”

Instead, she said, in their path was wreckage of a train derailed by the tornado and strewn across Main Street.

“What we did was walk up and down the tracks and found a place where part of the train fell one way and the other the other way,” Taylor DeVond said. “And we climbed through that debris.”

More police warnings caused them to take shelter at the Greene County Courthouse for a few hours. Red Cross volunteers recommended going to the YMCA, where they were given — among other items — soft drinks, food and blankets while providing their names and where they lived, Taylor DeVond said.

“It was hot earlier, before the tornado,” she said. “But later on, as it neared the evening, it got colder and colder — and then it snowed.”

Finally, Taylor DeVond said, her father arrived at the YMCA and took them home, where a power outage remained.

But after “experiencing such tragic devastation and watching what I saw and then being blessed enough to live through it with my brother and my friend,” she was happy to “get home safely in one piece.”

Severe damage, lives lost

Across town, the Louderback family would lose their Arrowhead home. That became apparent, Jeff Louderback said, shortly after he and his parents sat down to a dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes, and peas.

Like the Howards, they were searching for weather updates because it “started getting really dark and nasty out” about 4:30 p.m., Louderback said.



A Dayton television broadcaster advised anyone in Xenia to take cover immediately, he added. Only 5 years old, Louderback said, he didn’t understand the urgency.

But “when you’re that age, and you see your parents panicked, it’s something that you pay attention to,” he said.

Louderback, a former Centerville resident and now a 55-year-old journalist for The Epoch Times, said he has written about the tornado many times.

Arrowhead, he said, was a relatively new neighborhood where many homes were built on concrete slabs and lacked basements.

“So, we got in the hallway and my mom laid on top of me, my dad laid on top of my mom, and not long after that — seconds later — it was like the house exploded,” Louderback said.

His dad, Dale Louderback, was praying “and it was chaos because the noise was deafening and … I saw walls being blown down and the doors blown off and you could hear glass shattering in the house,” he said.

His family was OK, but Arrowhead was among the neighborhoods hardest hit by the tornado. Several streets to the east, in a home with a basement, David and Sandra Graham collected their four children as the tornado approached, according to DDN archives.

They headed to an underground corner of their rented house on Trumbull Street, but half of the family — 4-year-old Sherry, 6-year-old Billy, and 8-year-old David — did not survive.

The twister’s force was so intense that it sheared off the top of a two-story neighboring house, dropping it on the Grahams’ home, DDN accounts state.

Ten years later, the parents told the Dayton Daily News, they had moved at least 10 times before returning to Xenia, where they lived in an apartment on the city’s north side.

David Graham said he didn’t dwell on the past. “But it comes back,” he said in 1984. “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 Grahams, unable to give birth to more children, adopted a baby boy two months after the tornado, the DDN reported.

“Some people thought we were crazy,” Sandra Graham said in the 1984 interview. “But we were just so used to having kids around.”

She later added, “If I didn’t have my two boys, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Both parents suffered from health issues and died more than 20 years ago.

Silence and devastation

The tornado, Howard said, seemed to stop “as quickly as it started … Instantaneously, there was no more noise.”

After a few minutes, “we walked up out of the basement … All those walls were gone, everything was gone,” he added.

What immediately followed, he said, was a profound silence.

“If you go anywhere out in the woods or the desert, you’re gonna hear something. You’re gonna hear crickets or the wind blowing,” Howard said. “It was like being in a vacuum. There was no sound.”

Then the reality of the devastation started to sink in, he said. The house the Howards were a week away from closing on was destroyed.

Within minutes, the sound of emergency vehicles’ sirens was heard as Howard said he and others started to survey the damage surrounding them.

“People started coming out of their houses and some people were injured … I remember seeing some guy walk down the street with his face covered with blood,” he added.

A massive power outage made it impossible for John Howard and his son to let the rest of the family in Montgomery County that they were OK.

“Mom had no idea what was going on,” Howard said. “She was a basket case, and my uncle was there and he was ready to load her up” and head to Xenia.

Finding housing

Eventually, Howard said, he and his dad made it home before nightfall after they “weaved through the debris on the streets.”

But having already sold their Mad River Twp. home, the family faced a tight deadline to find temporary housing, he said.

In the Louderbacks’ case, an uncle who lived in an Arrowhead section that was spared drove them from the destruction, Jeff Louderback said.

Both families — as many Xenia residents did — faced housing hardships.

“It was rough, rough timing,” Howard said, noting later, “We were just about the only people moving into Xenia.”

The family lived in two houses near where they intended to buy before the tornado and John Howard later had a home built, his son said.

“My dad was a wise businessman,” Howard said. “So, we were well insured. And insurance covered living expenses and stuff like that.”

Howard said he lived in Xenia for more than 20 years, moving away after his father died.

After the tornado, the Louderback family would stay in a relative’s basement for a few months before finding a temporary apartment off Woodman Drive near U.S. 35, Jeff Louderback said.

Both of his parents grew up in Xenia and rebuilt in Arrowhead, he added.

An insurance check came “pretty quickly,” Louderback said. While rebuilding, a relative loaned them a camper, which was in the property’s backyard for a few weeks, he said.

Louderback said it could have turned out much worse for him and his parents.

“The older I’ve gotten, the more I have thought about how different it could be if the tornado (hit) just a block and a half away” from where it did, and “our names would have been on the memorial” honoring those who died.

“It just depended on where the tornado hit,” he added.

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