Tornado Hits Xenia, Ohio, Leaves 33 Dead, 1000 Hurt
Xenia Daily Gazette photos
A tornado that cut a swath of total destruction about 6 miles long and 3/4 of a mile wide through Xenia, Ohio, left 33 persons dead and an estimated 1000 injured.
The water system was disrupted, gas lines were broken, communications to the outside were cut off, and the movement of vehicles through the streets ranged from difficult to impossible.
The weather last April 3, a Wednesday, was dark and ominous. The southwestern area of Ohio had been under a tornado watch since about p.m. and a tornado warning was put into effect at about 3:15 p.m. At about 4:35 p.m. a tornado was reported southwest of Xenia in the area of Bellbrook.
Tornado hits city
At 4:40 p.m. a Xenia police officer on patrol reported a tornado approaching the city from the southwest. It hit the city at 4:41 p.m. The tornado proceeded through the city from southwest to northeast, never leaving the ground.
Xenia has a paid fire department of 36 men and officers assigned to two stations. The city has a population of 27,000 and an area of about 6 3/4 square miles. When the tornado struck, 10 men were on duty, manning two engines, one truck and one ambulance. Station 2 was almost in the center of the storm’s swath. The station received heavy damage but remained standing. Station 1 was at the edge of the swath and received minor damage (mainly the loss of roof membrane).
The storm destroyed both radio antennas used by the police and fire departments. Although the base station was operable, it was rather ineffective without the antennas.
Twister derails train
Another incident that compounded the problem was the derailment of a passing train by the tornado. The train blocked all the major east and west streets. The police department lost 11 of its 16 vehicles, which greatly hindered their initial operations. The homes of many firemen and policemen were damaged (13 homes were destroyed) and yet all the off-duty men were back to work within half an hour.
The normal procedure for firemen on a recall is to report to Station 1. However, because it was impossible to travel by car as the tornado damage extended from one end of town to the other, most men started working in the areas nearest their homes and joined with emergency units working in the areas.
The fire department mobilized both ambulances and a station wagon in addition to its two engines. However, it was immediately apparent that the operation was beyond the scope of the city fire department. A request was put out for all available ambulances in Greene County. This request was met with an immediate response of 13 ambulances from surrounding areas.
Phone service knocked out
Many departments from other areas learned of the disaster and began responding. We did not have any telephone communications, and it was impossible to directly request help from neighboring counties. We estimated that within two hours some 30 fire departments and rescue squads had units on the scene and working.
Although Station 2 remained standing, Engine 2 was unable to respond because of debris on the ramp and in the street in front of the station. The debris included many cars and trees, as well as pieces of buildings.
The three men assigned to Station 2 went across the street and removed one man from the rubble of a bowling alley and then started working in the residential area adjacent to the station. Many injured persons were brought to the station, treated by returning fire fighters and then transported to hospitals.
The men assigned to Station 1 left the station as soon as the storm passed, and worked into the downtown area. Although there was heavy structural damage there, the casualties were amazingly light. As we worked farther west, it became apparent that the train blocking the tracks and other debris severely limited our ability to get to the western portion of the city. At this time, another request was put out for more help for the western sections of the city.
The search and rescue operation continued throughout the night. However, to the best of our knowledge, no victims were found in the rubble after about midnight. At 7 a.m. Thursday, a second search was organized and every section of the city was searched again. This brick-bybrick search was completed by about 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
Fhoto by Al Wilson, Dayton, Uhio, Journal tteraia
From then on, searches were conducted only when citizens reported suspicious circumstances in destroyed areas. The fire department performed about 30 searches in the week after the tornado, but no more victims were found.
Because of the lack of communication, both telephone and compatible radio frequencies, the early search efforts were somewhat disorganized. However, since all victims were located and removed within 7 ½ hours after the tragedy, we feel the effort was successful.
The biggest problem early in the disaster was in getting incoming units to report to the disaster control center. This was especially a problem with units coming into the western sections of the city, as they were physically cut off from the rest of the city by the derailed train. In retrospect, we feel a second command post should have been set up in the western section of the city, as least during the early search and rescue operations.
One thing we did not feel would be affected by the storm was our water system. The pumping station was in an area unaffected by the storm, and there was never any interruption to the supply to town. However, as soon as the storm went through town, the pumping station pressure dropped from a normal 125 psi to 75 psi with all pumps working.
It soon became apparent that we were losing large quantities of water, and that we had no water in most areas of the city. We estimate that at least 10 hydrants were completely gone or damaged to the point where they leaked excessively. At least 800 to 900 buildings were damaged to the extent that their water systems were leaking. Also, as least six major buildings, which had automatic sprinkler systems, were destroyed, and as a result, large sprinkler supply mains were leaking.
It was about 32 hours before water pressure was restored, and fortunately we did not have any major fires during that time. We were also fortunate in having neighboring communities, supply us with tankers during this period.
Just as the water lines were broken when buildings collapsed, so were the gas lines. The odor of natural gas was strong throughout the damaged areas, and only a miracle kept us from having major gas-fed fires. One thing in our favor was that all electrical power to the city was disrupted when the storm hit. Initial attempts were made to shut off the gas in affected buildings, but it soon became apparent that this was an overwhelming task, and a decision was reached to turn off the gas to the entire community.
It took two days for the local utility company to restore gas service to the majority of the city. This included first shutting off each service and then going back and turning them all back on after the gas mains had been turned on.
The major city streets in the tornado swath were all filled with debris. Movement during the hours immediately after the storm was extremely difficult. In many instances, it was necessary to walk two to three blocks or more with victims to get them to an ambulance. By Thursday morning, most major strees streets were passable. This was made possible by the combined efforts of the city, county, and state highway departments and many private contractors who donated time and equipment. Also, the train that had blocked all main east and west streets was removed from Main Street at about 10 p.m. Wednesday. All streets were clear by Thursday evening.
Two deaths in fire
Many buildings received heavy structural damage but remained standing. It was our feeling that any fire in them would have to be handled with large lines from outside the buildings. On Saturday at 5:30 a.m., our luck ran out when a fire was reported in the remains of a three-story furniture store. The building, in the center of the downtown area, had been extensively damaged by the tornado and was fully involved upon the arrival of the first-due companies.
Again, help was requested from nearby communities, and at the height of the fire, five engines and a truck were used. Three more engines stood by in our main fire station. Because of the condition of the building, our attack consisted of one ladder pipe, two deluge sets, and five 2 ½-inch hand lines. We had no problem with the water supply.
Unknown to the fire division, the National Guard group assigned to guard the downtown area had been using the building as a shelter. Two of the guardsmen were trapped in the building and died in the fire. It is believed the fire was started either by candles used for light or by careless smoking and that the fire originated in the basement. Both of the trapped guardsmen were reported to have been in the basement.
Action for the future
It is our feeling that we must take steps to improve the dependability of our communications. Also the proposal to have a county fire dispatcher has emerged from this disaster. The city’s disaster plan had been set up with many buildings designated as aid centers, etc. In almost every case, these designated buildings were destroyed. It is apparent to us now that any disaster plan must be flexible to allow for both missing personnel and many alternate sites for command posts, aid centers, etc.
We are now working on a disaster plan that will provide the flexibility the previous one lacked. Also, we feel that a point can be reached that planning alone cannot cover and it is then a problem of having capable welltrained people. No one could have imagined or planned for a disaster of the magnitude that struck the City of Xenia. We had just about every complication imaginable occur when the tornado struck.
We felt that under the existing conditions, our reaction was acceptable and that all assisting units did a tremendous job in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.