Stories of Survival: ‘I thought I was done. I thought I was going to get swept away.’

Joe Guth spent his entire 45 years on the same block of Troy Street in Old North Dayton but in just 30 seconds, a violent tornado bashed in the second story of his red brick house, snapped the tree his grandfather planted in 1960, blew out his windows and uprooted his life forever.

“It wouldn’t be so hard if I didn’t grow up here. That’s what makes it hard,” Guth said, wiping tears from his eyes in his backyard.

Guth and his buddy were playing pool in the garage “Man Cave” when the storm struck. They dove under the pool table while his long-time girlfriend, Karen, and their two adult children, Kyle and Kaylee, were in the house. “I thought I was done. I thought I was going to get swept away,” Guth said.

Dread gripped him when he emerged from the garage to see the roof gone above what had been his daughter’s bedroom.

“They just made it to the basement in time,” Guth said. “Thank God, everyone made it through it.”

The silver maple tree that had a big canopy to shade the backyard is snapped. Twisted sheet metal and yellowed insulation hang off its remnants like bizarre ornaments. A high tension power line is wrapped around his chimney and draped across his driveway. A chunk of his roof is gone.

“Every minute it sinks in more and more. It’s like a movie,” Guth said.

Guth’s family has been on the block since 1935 when his grandparents bought a one-story frame house next door. His mother bought the red brick house next door and Guth stayed, raising Kyle and Kaylee there as well. Eventually, each house was bought up by a landlord.

Guth remembers when farm houses stood on the land across the street where Frito-Lay now operates an 18,000-square-foot warehouse.

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When the tornado ripped open the warehouse, hundreds of bags of snacks rained down on the neighborhood. Among the broken glass, two-by-fours, branches and twisted sheet metal are Fritos, Cheetos and sour-cream-onion potato chips.

“There are chips everywhere,” Guth said, waving his hand past piles of debris.

Another puzzling oddity from the storm: the smell of dead fish. One property manager said he found several dozen fish along Kelly Street, presumably sucked up by the tornado from either the Mad or Miami rivers.

Guth’s neighbor and long-time friend Eric Stafford lives two doors down with Jennifer Flory, their kids, dogs and cats. Stafford’s mother, Becky Stafford, lives in the rental house between Guth and her son’s place.

Stafford and Flory carried belongings — dressers, fishing poles, tools, anything salvageable — from the two houses, packing it into a large U-Haul box truck. The truck doubled as living quarters after their tent blew down in the rain storm the night after the tornado.

Stafford staged his camp stove at the back bumper, making coffee and soup for the friends and family marshaling to help them clean up and get ready to move.

Turtles and fish from Stafford’s aquarium swam in a blue plastic tub on the back porch steps. They won’t be making the move, Flory said.

Stafford said the wreckage is devastating: his truck is smashed, the windows, doors and roof of his house are blown away. He spits and quickly apologizes, saying he keeps tasting insulation fibers in his mouth.

“I do know one thing: there is only one way from here and that’s back up,” he said.

Like most, Stafford, 44, is grateful that he and his loved ones are alive.

In the hours leading up to the tornado, Stafford’s two dogs — TeeTee and Duke — were acting strangely, which Stafford attributes to the change in barometric pressure. The family kept tabs on the storm on TV but when the front yard flag abruptly changed direction and the metal pole bent, Stafford yelled for everyone to get in the basement. Except him.

Stafford dashed next door to check on his mother, Becky, who had already taken shelter in her basement.

The wind and pressure from the storm sucked the doors shut, leaving Stafford to hang onto a porch railing for dear life as he watched tree limbs tossed about and a red SUV get thrown through a garage and into the vacant lot behind his house.

While Guth and Stafford sorted through the mess, gawkers slowly cruised up and down Troy Street and volunteers offered up sandwiches, water and other supplies. The sound of chainsaws and bulldozers filled the air. Utility workers in bucket trucks worked to restore power.

“The gas smell was overwhelming the first couple hours after the storm,” Guth said. Dayton Power & Light was on scene within an hour, clearing roads for emergency crews, he said.

Stafford and Guth are both looking for new places to rent. While they’re hopeful Dayton will rebuild the neighborhood, they’re not confident it’ll happen.

“I don’t see that happening. I can see all this greened-over and grass growing in six months or a year from now. I don’t see them rebuilding these homes. I don’t care what kind of insurance you have,” Guth said.

This story is part of a special project, Stories of Survival, focusing on the people of the Miami Valley who survived the Memorial Day tornadoes and are staying strong as the region moves ahead. You can read other stories of survival from around the region here.

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