Interview with GCHS Executive Director Catherine Wilson

Xenia tornado survivor: ‘There’s hope 45 years later’

Catherine Wilson still gets chills when she thinks about the tornado that leveled Xenia, killed 35 people and left a lasting impact on the Greene County city.

On this day 45 years ago, Wilson was packed in a bathtub with her family when the F5 tornado ripped the roof off her parents’ home.

Wilson was a fourth-grader at Arrowood Elementary School. She recalls playing with her sister after school in their front yard until it started to rain.

“We saw this big dark storm cloud to the north. And there was lightning and it was staying down a really long time, which was unusual,” said Wilson, the executive director of the Greene County Historical Society.

Wilson said she was at home with her sister and mother in the Arrowood neighborhood when the half-mile wide tornado touched down. After seeing the dark cloud to the north, she looked toward the southwest, from where most storms approach the city, and there she saw swirling gray clouds and asked “Mom? Is that a tornado?”

With no basement, Wilson said they got in the bathtub in the center of the home to ride out the storm.

Wilson said the “huge noise” from the whipping winds sounded to her like a jet engine, similar to the ones her dad worked on at the Springfield Air National Guard Base.

>>RELATED: Xenia tornado devastation experienced in gritty black-and-white photos

“I can’t even watch the video. I still really can’t listen to it without getting cold chills,” she said.

The roof of Wilson’s childhood home was ripped off in the storm, but the home was still standing, unlike the homes on either side, one of which imploded and the other exploded.

“It’s extremely sobering to think, when we came out of the house and there was rubble everywhere. Just wood and shingles and trees sticking up. There was a boat trailer, no boat, but a trailer upside down in the middle of the street. You could kind of hear hissing of gas and there were wires down everywhere,” Wilson said.

Like others who survived the ordeal, Wilson gets anxious during severe weather events. She recalls last April 3 attending a visitation for a friend who had died when an EF1 tornado touched down in Beavercreek and other areas northeast of Xenia.

Wilson said when she heard the tornado warning, she got in her car to head home and found herself driving in a dangerous storm.

“It was stupid. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I was going home, where I was safe and not trapped in a funeral home away from my husband, away from my dogs,” she said.

Alan King, the owner of Kiddie Kingdom Country Child Care on Jasper Road, said in the years following the tornado, people often would get in their cars during severe weather events.

“Any time there was any kind of foreboding weather, people would go and jump in their cars and drive around. They were afraid of being in a structure. They thought if they got in a car they could get away from the storm,” King said. “People who were trapped in the debris, who lost loved ones, a lot of them are very trepidatious. It bothers them when the weather gets bad.”

King said he was working on the roof of what would become the daycare center when the weather quickly turned from pleasant to menacing.

“The whole area above my neighbor’s house was black. There was this dark thing protruding down to the ground,” King said.

King said he and his wife got in the cellar and emerged after the winds quieted down. They drove toward downtown until large, downed trees blocked their way. As they approached on-foot, they saw a Volkswagon bus upside down on the street, pieces of the courthouse roof were strewn about, and a gargoyle from the building was wedged into the ground.

“The downtown was populated by small, privately owned shops and service facilities. After the tornado, the city acquired all of the downtown area,” he said.

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The city gave a long-term lease to a downtown developer, which resulted in the Xenia Towne Square.

By 1975, 80 percent of the homes and 40 percent of the businesses that were destroyed had been rebuilt, according to Ohio History Central.

King said the community rallied around the message “Xenia Lives” from bumper stickers created by a local printing company.

“There’s hope 45 years later,” he said. “Everything is not what it could be, but the ‘Xenia Lives’ bumper sticker says it all. We appreciate that we still have our small town. It’s different than what it was, but it’s still nice.”

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