The Big Wind

Julie Weindel still has the two tickets to the Xenia High School play she bought for her parents 39 years ago. They never got to see her perform.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in April and Julie — then Julie Smith — and a handful of fellow cast members of “The Boyfriend” (described in the playbill as “A musical comedy of the 1920s”), had finished their mid-week rehearsal after a successful opening of the play the weekend before.

One of Julie’s classmates, Ruth Venuti, had left the auditorium to get a drink of water, and the cast was just “goofing off,” Julie recalled.

Suddenly Ruth came running back in. “There’s a tornado across the street,” she yelled.

“Well, we were all thinking, you know, a little itty bitty tornado across the street,” Julie reminisced.

“So we all ran out into the hallway to look at it,” she continued. ” And when we got to the hallway, you could see just a solid wall of black. I saw the roof of the gazebo (at Shawnee Park) go up. I remember a green pickup truck going up — like something out of the Wizard of Oz.”

The kids ran away from the front door and dove for cover. “And as soon as we hit the floor the lights went out and it hit the school. And, um, with us in it.”

I had spoken with Julie several years ago about that day in 1974 when the infamous F5 tornado destroyed most of her hometown. It was part of the second largest and most violent outbreak of twisters on record killing more than 300 people in 13 states, 32 of them in Xenia.

I was reminded of our talk this morning after reading about the horrific tornado that devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Now living in Tulsa and working for a television station there, Julie alerted her friends on Facebook that she and her husband were OK. She had spent the past 20 hours helping the station with its coverage of the disaster.

Nobody better than Julie to cover a storm. She lived through one of the worst.

What was that like? I asked when we had talked about it earlier.

“Oh God. Well, it was incredibly loud. It was a deafening, well, for me, literally, but a deafening sound – almost like a wall of sound.”

She was referring to her deafness in her left ear. The bones in her ear were literally wrenched out of place by the wind that swept through the school.

As Julie and her classmates endured the tornado’s rampage, “I accepted the fact that I was going to die.” she said. “I’m going to die in a tornado. Not a disease. Not a car. I’m going to die in this.”

The tornado sucked the second story off the high school and hurled debris down the hallways.

“I remember getting hit by tree limbs. The hallways became wind tunnels. I could hear the lockers being sucked out of the walls and going down the hallways. We were so lucky we were in the only hallway in that entire part of the building that didn’t have lockers in it. You were getting hit by birds. You were getting hit by tree limbs. You were drenched with water.”

Suddenly it was quiet and the students thought it was over. “We all got up. I remember one guy looking around the corner. And then it hit again. That’s when it kind of slammed us and I ended up halfway down the hallway.”

Finally, it ended.

“It got incredibly quiet,” she remembered. “You know we were all pushing tree limbs off of ourselves and getting up and trying to see who was alive, who maybe wasn’t. We were all incredibly lucky because nobody was seriously hurt. We were all pretty shredded up with glass, but nobody looked like they were that hurt.”

It took a while for the students to fight their way out of the debris. “We kind of pulled things out of our way. It took us a little while to claw out of that.”

What was it like when you finally managed to get out? I asked.

“The whole second floor (of the high school) was gone. I mean it was gone! And the water pipes – like little fountains where the toilets used to be. And we looked over to the theater where we had been. The school buses were right on the stage. I mean we could see the stage because the roof was gone.”

Then what?

“Well, everything in that area was pretty well demolished. And homes behind the high school were demolished; homes in front of the high school were demolished. It took about every tree in Shawnee Park. It was very disorienting to be standing in the middle of that.

“We all started thinking about our families and how far did this go, you know? Did it go all the way out to north of town where my family lived? You could smell gas and stuff like that, so it wasn’t exactly a safe place to be.”

Julie made her way on foot toward home along Route 68 not knowing what she would find when she arrived.

Meanwhile, her father, having arrived home from work in nearby Beavercreek, had driven back into town to pick Julie up from school, unaware of the extent of the damage.

“The closer he got to the high school, the more devastation he saw,” she said. “Then he got about three blocks from the high school and couldn’t drive any further because of all the trees and debris in the street. But he could see the high school wasn’t standing. The way he described it to me was he left the car running and got out and ran. He ran up to a police officer and said, ‘What about the kids in the high school?’ And you could just see it was trashed. He saw the buses on the stage and knew that’s where we would be and the police officer said, ‘No one got out of the high school.’ ”

Stunned, her dad tried to cross the police lines, but was turned back. Finally, he returned to his car and headed home.

“I was stumbling down 68 and he drove past me. And he stopped the car, got out and ran towards me. And he was crying and that’s when – when I saw my dad cry – then I cried. And he thought he was seeing a ghost. He thought I was dead. He and I were close before then, but we became very close after that. Very, very close.”

Julie confided that even after all these years those moments are still difficult to talk about.

“I remember when Dad got me home, he asked my Mom to take my little sisters to the neighbors because I was a mess. He tried to figure out where all this blood was coming from. And it was, at that point, I realized that not all of it was mine. That leaves me questioning, you know. Some of it may have been some of the other kids I was next to. Some of it may not have been. That, when you’re covered in blood and realize it’s not all yours — that leaves a mark.”

Among the events that come easier to recall, though, is Ruth Venuti’s heroism.

Had it not been for her warning they all would have been killed, Julie is convinced. “She saved our lives. No one would mess with Ruth after that. They’d have to go through all 12 of us. She was incredible.”

President Nixon gave her a citation in recognition of her bravery.

Julie shared with me her collection of memorabilia from that fateful day. Included were a copy of the playbill, autographed by her classmates. And the tickets she had bought for her parents that were never used. And a color photo of Ruth Venuti that Ruth had signed with two messages on the back. One was to Julie, the other was this:

“Hey, Big Wind. I hate you and love you. You destroyed our old lives, so we’ll start again. Some in one place, some in another. But you can’t destroy the love of a friend.”

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