In 1974, news was not yet “instant.” All but a very few TV news crews still shot their stories on film, which requires time for processing and physical cutting and gluing, and local stations still signed off at night.
In 1974, we were not yet battered daily by crises. Those that did hit us more often than not were weather-related, though anything on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or Mt. St. Helens was as yet unprecedented.
In 1974, I was a 27-year-old reporter for the CBS television affiliate in Cincinnati and found myself in the middle of one of the biggest weather disaster stories in the area’s history—multiple tornado strikes along a line stretching 60 miles.
Now, 36 years later, I don’t recall having documented my experience; but recently, in cleaning out a still-fresh envelope of old papers, I ran across a written account that gripped me upon re-reading. It’s a report on the mounting discovery of tragedy and the state of journalism in those days. It’s a report that may remind us, no matter how much the threats to our country may change or the techniques and technology of journalism may evolve, terror in the air was no less menacing more than three decades ago.
Here’s my report, just as I typed it (on a typewriter) in the spring of 1974:
The exclamation—one of astonishment as much as warning—went almost unheard in the clacking, squawking newsroom. Announcer-weatherman Ron Allen leaped out of the room, running to the front lobby foyer windows where he first noticed the strange drab cloud and had shouted his surprise.
Tornado warnings are not unusual in the Midwest, but generally they are taken lightly. None had touched down here in Cincinnati since 1969, when a limited area along the city’s northeast border had been ruined by a twister.
I followed Ron out of the WCPO-TV newsroom, where writers were busy putting together the script for the six o’clock news, just a little more than an hour away. Film editors were bent over little blue metal sound readers, trying to catch bits of filmed interviews in a cacophony of typewriters and police and fire calls bursting from a wall of twenty radio monitors. The monitors allowed the newsmen to hear calls from all of Cincinnati, Hamilton County and the surrounding metropolitan area extending south into Kentucky, west into Indiana and north further into Ohio.
The monitors were particularly raucous this April afternoon because of the tornado warning issued in early afternoon and routinely broadcast by TV and radio stations. For several hours, the atmosphere in Cincinnati had seemed like a gigantic gelatin mold, thick and quivering as residents pushed through the foreboding heavy air.
Ron and I, along with employees from the engineering and property departments, stood at the station’s main entrance, mystified by the dark mass of clouds extending over the city’s Western Hills area. Three pendants licked at the base of the clouds, like flaming candles on a birthday cake flipped upside down.
I ran back inside and shouted above the normal clatter to News Director Al Schottelkotte, “There are three funnels over Western Hills!”
He looked up from his space in the news desk “slot” with initial bewilderment but immediately darted toward the news studio, ordering a live TV camera to be rolled outside and a video tape machine to be made available at once.
I returned to the front of the building to see that the three small funnels had converged into one huge tube dropping down from the dark mass to a point below the hill tops. The funnel rolled and twisted, edging along the front from southwest toward the northeast. It crept along the ridge of hills, visible for some forty-five minutes from the station downtown.
In the parking lot beside the studio, what likely was television’s first live broadcast of a tornado funnel was being transmitted over the air.
Now phone calls were pouring in, police monitors were blaring warnings, and the newsroom was a rodeo of reporters, photographers and writers trying to piece together the damage reports. The confusion lasted only minutes, however.
Most reporters who were not assembling the 6 o’clock show were still out on assignments throughout the city. One photographer and I, a reporter, were the most immediately available persons to check on the damage being done by the twister.
The photographer, Greg Hahn, drove due west along the Ohio River, where the tornado had reportedly touched down. I drove another news car through the hills that ran between downtown and the funnel’s path to check that highly populated section.
As I meandered through the sloping streets, civil defense sirens were blaring. Ominously, they had just been tested at noon that day, April third, as they were the first Wednesday of every month.
I saw no damage in Price Hill, the area I was cruising, but Hahn had reached Sayler Park, an old community fronting the river where we later learned scores of homes had been destroyed or badly damaged. He radioed back on the two-way unit, with which all news cars are equipped, the first damage report. The two-way was hooked directly into the studio circuits, and the photographer had an on-air two-way radio conversation with Schottelkotte on the 6 o’clock news. It was the first of many such reports throughout that endless night.
I returned to the station with no damage reports of my own. But shortly after six, a call came in that a trailer park along the northern boundary of Hamilton County had been struck by a twister. I knew the location of the obscure park well—it was adjacent to a small shopping center just a few miles from my own apartment home. I was sent on my way there with a photographer.
As we hurried north in Interstate 75, the night editor’s voice erupted over the two-way radio to tell us that the Timber Ridge apartment complex near the trailer park had also been hit. That complex was but a mile from the apartment where my wife and eleven-month-old daughter were waiting for me to come home, something I would not be able to do for seven hours more.
We drove to the stricken apartment complex first. The roads around it were nearly impassable. A dozen telephone poles lay broken and splintered across the pavement. After some circuitous steering, we were able to see the complex, set into a valley below the road. Two buildings had been hit.
They looked like old-fashioned doll houses. The roof and one wall had been blown away by the tornado, and furniture could be seen sitting where it had been placed by the residents there, virtually undisturbed while the building all around had been carried away.
The whole top row of apartments in one of the two-story structures had been opened in this strange manner, but a manner we were to find typical in every section of the tornado-ravaged areas. Here, forty-five apartments had been destroyed.
I picked up the microphone in our news car and advised the station of the destruction at Timber Ridge. Immediately the news director interrupted regular programming, went on the air and via two-way radio called for my report. The destruction here seemed, at the time, massive, but we were later to discover it was really only minor compared with the worst-hit neighborhoods.
After shooting some scenes of the damage and interviewing one of the residents, we continued on toward the near-by trailer park. We never made it there. Half a mile from the park, across the Butler County line, we came upon a scene from a Hemingway novel. Everywhere life squads were carrying away wounded; red and yellow winked atop ambulances and cruisers. Power lines and telephone poles covered the roadway. A residential area called Beacon Hill had been devastated by the same tornado that crippled Timber Ridge.
I hopped out of the car with the photographer, quickly hiking the quarter mile to the center of the damage. The setting sun cast a fiery glow on the remains of what might have been a bombed-out European city thirty years ago.
As far as the horizon homes had been flattened and splintered. A few had one or two walls standing. Others simply crumbled. A small carry-out collapsed on ten customers. Incredibly nobody had been killed. But many had suffered injuries from flying wood, glass and brick.
I charged up the road, stopping policemen and sheriff’s deputies along the way to try to get an estimate of the damage. All agreed that at least three hundred homes were destroyed. With the light disappearing quickly, we shot more film of the destruction, again interviews, and scampered back to the news car.
Now it was between seven thirty and eight o’clock. Breathless from the run while carrying a seventeen-pound portable light pack, I turned on the engine to power up the radio and puffed the information I had back to the station.
“That’s 300 homes, as in three-oh-oh?” questioned the unbelieving night editor.
“That’s affirmative,” I responded in the jargon developed to ensure the message would be understood at the other end in case of fuzzy communications.
I was told to stand by, and in minutes I was on the air again via two-way describing the worst tornado damage any reporter had come upon so far that night.
After that broadcast we hurried back to the station to make sure the film we had would be processed in time for our 11 o’clock news. Other reporter-photographer teams were also returning from the stricken areas of Sayler Park; Elmwood Place; Green Township; Brandenburg, Kentucky; and Xenia, Ohio, a town of 25,000 on the edge of our viewing area where we had reports of some serious damage. When the reporter came into the station from Xenia, he evaluated the situation there as bad, but the darkness had obscured the full extent of the damage.
At 11:00 we went on the air with the most unusual broadcast in the history of the station. It led off with the incredible videotape of the funnel cloud scooting across the Western Hills. Then each reporter appeared on the air to describe the film of the damage in the areas where he had been that long, disastrous night. The reports were unscripted. All the film that was shot was put on the air, unedited, a procedure as rare in television as a program without commercials.
Reporter after reporter, scene after scene appeared on the air until, at 12:15 a.m., after an hour and a quarter, the newscast ended. We continued to interrupt programming with tornado information until 1:30 a.m.
I arrived home at 2:00 a.m. to catch four hours’ sleep before I was to set out north from Hamilton County to film the areas we had not had time to reach the night before.
At 7:00 a.m. my photographer, Mack Hunley, and I were on the road again. First stop was Sharonville, the town where I lived. Fifty homes had been destroyed or severely damaged in a densely populated residential district. Miraculously, no one was reported even injured.
We again headed north, across the Hamilton-Butler County line, past Beacon Hill, and along State Route 42, which seemed to have served as a track for the tornadoes roaring up through southwestern Ohio. Much of the little town of Pisgah, which touched on Beacon Hill, had been wiped out. Most of the three hundred homes destroyed in the area were actually part of Pisgah.
A few miles north, Mason had been hit, its downtown and residential sections heavily damaged in spots, but untouched in several areas. The most remarkable sight: half the main fire station had collapsed in a heap of bricks on top of the city’s fire equipment, fortunately causing only a few dents.
The common denominator to every area hit by the tornadoes was most evident further up Route 42 in Lebanon: broken, uprooted, and splintered trees. The hardiest of ash, oak, and maple had crumbled everywhere the twisters passed. Some streets in Lebanon resembled thickets.
Here, as everywhere else, stately century-old trees had been pried up by their roots, taking lawns with them. Other trees had been chopped in half or fractured, falling on roofs and automobiles by the hundreds.
The last stop on our solemn trip north was to be Xenia, some 60 miles northeast of Cincinnati. As we approached Xenia, we began picking up a radio station on our two-way, a freak electronic signal. It was a station based in near-by Dayton, broadcasting from a remote unit in Xenia. It was sending out personal messages, letting separated members of families know each was all right, advising which churches had beds available, telling residents to boil their water as a precaution.
At one point the remote unit went off the air. The base station announcer explained the unit had run out of gas to power its generator. Virtually no electricity and no phone lines existed in Xenia.
We talked our way through a police roadblock outside Xenia and continued on Route 35 south of the city. We rounded a curve and suddenly found ourselves in the midst of fields of confetti. As we came closer, we noticed people poring over the shreds and realized these acres of shattered wood and brick, stretching out on both sides of the highway, had recently been homes for hundreds.
This was Arrowhead, a massive housing development now whipped into rubble. From the highway slightly above Old Arrowhead to the north and New Arrowhead to the south, it appeared that a hard steel sky had fallen on the community, squashing the houses beneath it.
Infrequently a jagged wall or two poked out from the debris. Residents climbed over their fractured possessions, salvaging what remained. But there was very little left: some mattresses, a few children’s toys. Some people were even piling bricks from their ruined homes, saving them to rebuild.
But the maple and walnut furniture was now inseparable from the pine beams and wallboard scattered from horizon to horizon. This was the heaviest and most tragic destruction from the April third tornadoes. More than 30 persons died in Xenia, many of them where we were standing. Over 2,000 were injured.
Downtown Xenia looked like a battle zone. Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard were bustling over what appeared to be the remains of a holocaust. Whole rows of buildings were wiped out, on the verge of collapsing. On the streets leading to the center of town, businesses were leveled, and again broken trees clogged the sidewalks and roads.
The previous summer I had traveled to Xenia nearly every day for a week. A student strike at near-by Antioch College had led to legal action at the Greene County Courthouse in the center of Xenia. I had driven the main roads of the area until I felt like a citizen there. Now, with few landmarks standing, street signs whisked away, and emergency vehicles clogging the streets, I felt lost.
The massive, castle-like stone courthouse survived with no apparent damage except dozens of missing windows. The towering trees that surrounded it, however, had been uprooted by some menacing celestial hand.
The Xenia Cinema, across from the courthouse, was, on a normal night, the brightest spot within at least ten miles, its huge marquee lighting up the town’s center. Now the marquee hung limp, a few letters dangling from its punctured sides.
Away from the downtown area, the funnels had carried on their destruction. Six schools were severely damaged. Xenia High School was gone, except for a twisted steel frame and a square block of dislodged brick, glass, and metal. Along the side of the school, twisted yellow school buses crowded the lawn like grotesque dandelions.
Forty percent of Xenia had vanished, carried away by the indiscriminate winds. Just three miles away, in Wilberforce, Central State University had been devastated by a tornado that struck virtually every building on campus. Nearly a dozen were destroyed; damage ran into tens of millions.
I returned to Xenia nearly a month after the tornadoes hit. Nothing had changed very much. Plywood had replaced shattered windows downtown, but debris remained everywhere. The most badly damaged buildings had been bulldozed away, leaving gaping basements.
Arrowhead was still a shock. It appeared all the rubble was still there, some of it pushed into mounds of sticks and tar paper. A few people on the edges of the tornado’s path were repairing roofs and walls, but it was obvious that most residents simply had to abandon their lots.
Infants born today in Xenia will spend most of their childhood watching carpenters and bricklayers rebuild their shattered city. By the time the reconstruction is completed, the elements will surely have devoured the newly sprouting bumper stickers reading, “Xenia Lives.”
But for those who lived through the disaster, the memory of that devastation will be reflected in every spring raindrop and will echo in every April breeze that whistles through the new young trees.
© 1974 by Stephen F. Friedman