On April 23, 1968, an EF-5 tornado wreaked havoc on the town of Wheelersburg. That was 50 years ago. An EF-5 tornado is the worst of nature’s most destructive events. Words can never fully convey the horror of those events. Photos tell only part of the story.
The result of this savage storm was devastation on a scale rarely seen. Only a few dozen EF-5 tornadoes have ever been recorded. The Wheelersburg tornado was the first recorded in Ohio.
The size of the funnel was huge. A 2,500-foot-wide swath was cut through the town and through rural areas nearly to Galipollis. Sixty-nine homes and 28 other buildings were destroyed, and another 476 structures were damaged in the tornado. Seven people lost their lives, and 100 others were seriously hurt.
Some say it was a miracle there weren’t more deaths. Many were out in the open when the tornado approached. There are stories of people running for shelter and then having the shelter nearly get ripped away after they got there. Some found themselves unable to reach shelter because the wind held them in place. Some of those eventually made it to protection, but others had to take refuge lying down wherever they could.
Major damage also occurred in the Lower White Oak Road area of Kentucky. The National Weather Service lists that strike as a separate tornado, but witnesses report sightings of the tornado along a track all the way into Ohio.
The damage from the tornado was amazingly terrible. Eleven train cars were blown off the tracks in Wheelersburg — 10 of them were overturned. Houses were ripped apart in seconds. Debris was carried for miles and, in some cases, no trace was left behind.
A piano from a local church on Lower White Oak Road in Kentucky completely disappeared. Trees, cattle, furniture and parts of houses were reportedly seen being carried by the winds above the top of Morton Hill just outside of South Shore. And straw was driven through boards like nails.
There were many fantastic events all along the path of the tornado. A South Shore woman saw water being pulled uphill from the Ohio River and running up her street toward the storm. She lived two blocks from the river, and the tornado was nearly a mile away.
Just up Route 23 from South Shore, a young girl was nearly pulled out the door of a local store. She was saved from flying away by the store owner and her mother who pulled her back in the door.
A boy playing baseball in Wheelersburg saw the tornado approaching and started running hard toward his mother. But the wind was so strong that he could make no progress toward his mother for a while.
Yet a tornado can spare some from destruction in almost unbelievable fashion. In Kentucky, a resident of hard-hit Sunshine, Ray Bentley, reported watching the tornado split in two, then each funnel going around opposite sides of his home. It destroyed houses on both sides of his home, yet left his untouched.
Others were able to find protection when it seemed bad for them. A Girl Scout troop was holding a meeting at Sunshine Elementary School. They had just enough time to pull several folding chairs from under the school stage and they took shelter there. None sustained injuries.
Students on the football field at Wheelersburg High School sought protection in a field house. The doors were ripped off the building, but the students were safe.
Governor James A. Rhodes visited the area very quickly, asking for a disaster area to be declared. The National Guard was deployed to protect against looters and to prevent curious onlookers from interfering with rescue and cleanup efforts.
In Kentucky, too, the worst areas were blocked off. From Flat Hollow Road to the Sunshine area, no one was allowed in that wasn’t a rescue worker, a resident or a relative of a resident.
The storm blew through in a matter of minutes. The physical damage was repaired or replaced over time. But the effects on people have lingered on for many years.
Nenna Bayes lived on Dogwood Ridge in Wheelersburg when the storm hit. “To this day, I still get scared when storms come around,” she said recently. “I think my family thinks I’m crazy, but I just can’t stand hearing storms.”
Catherine Norris Allen, who lived in Sciotodale at the time, said, “For many, many years after that, storms scared me to death.”
Debbie Conrad Queen of Wheelersburg lived just off Dogwood Ridge at the time of the tornado. “Almost all of my high school friends lived near Pyles Addition. They are petrified of storms,” she said.
Along Old Gallia Pike, Becky Meade watched a small twister hit her neighbor’s house, removing all the roofing. Her house avoided any major damage, but the effects on her life still linger. “Needless to say, that tornado changed my life,” she said. “For many years after that, I was terrified when storm clouds moved in.”
Tim Armstrong, who lost his mother Anna Lou Litteral Armstrong, described how he was affected: “I definitely had a lot of fear in me for many, many, many years as far as thunderstorms and the potential for tornadoes.”
Armstrong also talked about his loss that day. “As time goes on, the pain and the scared subsides a little bit. I tell people I have a scar in my stomach about five or six inches, and I still have a scar in my heart.”
The Wheelersburg tornado was part of a tornado outbreak where 14 tornadoes struck from Kentucky to Michigan that day. The outbreak became known as the Wheelersburg outbreak, because that town was hit by the only EF-5 tornado of the day. Also, that Wheelersburg tornado caused the greatest loss of life.
The Wheelersburg tornado touched down on Lower White Oak Road in Greenup County, Ky., just south of the community of South Shore. It traveled through the Flat Hollow and Sunshine areas, at times splitting into two funnels. The elementary school at Sunshine was badly damaged, along with many homes.
Witnesses reported seeing the tornado all the way through a rural area until it descended into the valley along the Ohio River at Limeville. It crossed the Ohio River and increased in intensity to become a deadly EF-5.
Allen watched the twister cross the river. “I saw these long, stringy, dark clouds just swirling around over the river, and I’d never seen anything like it before,” she recalls. “I asked my dad, what is it with those clouds? He looked and then said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a tornado!’”
It struck Wheelersburg hard, starting with 11 train cars that were blown off the tracks, with 10 being overturned, on a Norfolk and Western train.
The Reinhardt Transfer Company was completely destroyed. The Johnda Lou Drive-In theater was seriously damaged. The local skating rink was damaged.
Tony Boll’s Farm Supply Center was in the structure known as the Chez Paree building, which was completely destroyed.
The tornado struck the Old Wheelersburg Cemetery, overturning headstones. The Rockwell Florists greenhouse was completely destroyed. And the tornado continued to get worse.
After crossing Sheila Boulevard, the twister traveled up the Bell Hill area. At the foot of the hill, the house of David Litteral was struck, among others. Houses were demolished and tossed across Old Gallia Pike onto the hill.
Severe damage was caused up the hill to the Dogwood Ridge area. Pyles Additions, which was still under construction, was hit hard.
In addition, another line of destruction traveled toward Center Street in Wheelersburg. Some reported it was a second tornado that veered off from the main storm. After reaching Center Street, the second funnel turned toward Lyra Road, continuing out to the area near St. Peter’s Church. Other smaller funnels were reported, but not confirmed. The tornado also split in two at the Sunshine area of Kentucky.
After passing through the populated areas of Wheelersburg, the tornado continued on the ground almost to Gallipolis. It was mostly rural areas that were hit through the Lyra area and beyond.
According to the Red Cross, 1,074 private homes were destroyed or damaged in the entire Wheelersburg outbreak. In Ohio, 130 homes were destroyed. In Kentucky, 246 were lost. The tornadoes injured 338 people, and 14 were killed. Seven were killed by the Wheelersburg tornado alone.
The names of the Wheelersburg tornado casualties include Walter Ockerman, 68; Linda Underwood, 15; Mary Adkins, 63; George Lambert, 85; and Anna Lou Armstrong, 25, all of Wheelersburg; along with Joe Chatfield, 59, of Franklin Furnace and Clyde Avery, 49, of Ironton.
Linda Underwood was killed when her house was lifted off its foundation, landing across the road. Walter Ackerman died in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital.
Mary Adkins was found dead in her home. Clyde Avery and Joe Chatfield were killed at Tony Boll’s Farm Supply Center. George Lambert died at Scioto Memorial Hospital. Anna Lou Armstrong was killed at her brother’s home.
Two EF-4 tornadoes struck parts of Kentucky and Ohio. The first hit Falmouth, Ky., where 180 homes were destroyed and 380 others were damaged. That tornado continued on up the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, striking towns along the way, including Augusta. It then crossed into Ohio, hitting Ripley, where an 83-year-old woman died when her trailer was lifted up and turned over. The tornado then moved on to the West Union area and into the Lucasville area. That twister was on the ground for more than 78 miles. There is speculation that it was also an EF-5.
An EF-4 tornado struck the Ohio counties of Clermont, Brown and Clinton. One death occurred there.
Smaller tornadoes hit in other areas. An EF-2 destroyed five airplanes and seven others were damaged at the Greater Portsmouth Regional Airport at Minford. A man there was seriously hurt when a concrete block barn collapsed. The Nicholasville, Ky., area was hit with an EF-2. Several buildings were damaged or destroyed there.
The effect on human lives was tragic, but it brings out the best in mankind as well. Neighbors opened homes to anyone in need. Various agencies provided shelter and food. And for years after, support was given to the victims of the storm by the people of the communities that were hit.
Individuals tell of personal loss of the worst kind, yet they also report great acts of kindness and community spirit. Armstrong was one of those individuals.
Tim is the son of Major Hart Armstrong. His father was serving in Vietnam at the time of the tornado. His mother was Anna Lou Litteral Armstrong.
Tim, who was 4 years old at the time, was visiting his aunt at the bottom of Bell Hill along with mother and his older brother, Jeff. It was the home of David and Mary Lou Litteral.
Tim recently described his experience, saying, “My mother said there was a tornado coming from the direction of the old Johnda Lou Drive-In. I remember my mother and aunt scurrying to get my cousins, getting under — there was a table, some furniture, a couch or something.”
Tim was placed against a wall on the floor in a hallway. His mother shielded his body with her own. “I remember being up against the wall kind of crushed between my mom and the wall and the floor,” Tim said. “I can remember the sounds, a real loud rushing wind — the closest thing it sounded like was a train. Just the steam sound, like a steam locomotive.
“I don’t remember being picked up and tossed around or anything like that. But I do remember being picked up by my uncle, David, sometime later.” Tim became unconscious during the tornado. After being rescued by his uncle, David Litteral, and a neighbor, he was taken to the hospital where he spent the next two days.
“And my understanding is that they lifted a refrigerator off of my mother and I, and we were kind of unresponsive, but alive. My uncle put my mother and me in a truck. I’m unconscious this whole time. He took us to the hospital,” Tim recalled.
“What I remember was being picked from stuff being on top of me, then blacking out again and not remembering anything until I came out of surgery some time later. I sustained broken ribs and internal injuries. I had my spleen taken out — it was ruptured.”
Tim went on to say, “My mother, Anna Lou, went through surgery, and she passed two days later. My brother had broken an arm, and my aunt (Mary Lou Litteral) had broken her lower back.”
Tim’s father was in Vietnam at the time, but he managed to make the long journey home in time to see his wife before she died.
David Litteral, who rescued his wife and his sister and their children, was driving home after getting a phone call from his wife about the tornado approaching. He got within a few hundred yards of home when his truck was slammed into a brick wall, followed by a tree falling on it. He was unable to see his home because of the debris flying in the air. When the tornado had passed, he continued on to his house, but he was unable to locate it at first. The damage was so great, he could not determine where his house had been.
He recognized the location when he saw his son Mark and the son of Mary Lou Armstrong, Jeff. They were standing in the rubble of what was once his porch, basically unharmed.
David was not the only person trying to make it home, only to see their home destroyed a few seconds before they arrived. Up on Dogwood Ridge, in the hard-hit Pyle’s Addition, the Underwood home was picked up and moved 50 feet across the road. A young girl, Linda Underwood, was killed, and her sister, Brenda, was seriously hurt. Brenda spent 74 days at the Children’s Hospital in Columbus recovering from her injuries. Their mother, Mrs. Richard Underwood, was driving away from the house when she saw the tornado. She turned to return home, and saw the house tossed across the road and demolished.
The human toll was devastating to the communities that were hard hit. But the resilience of the residents was strong, and they rebuilt. They also took care of each other.
Tim Armstrong talked about the way his town rose up to support him, not for a short time, but for years to come. “Wheelersburg was just extremely gracious to us. They were family after that. There was a huge, huge outpouring from the whole community for my mother and for the rest of them, too. It was really appreciated. They are to be commended for that.” He lost a great deal that day. He also gained something.
Nenna Bays remembered how her family helped the Armstrong boys. “The Armstrongs — Anna Lou and her family — were very good friends of ours. We all went to church together. After she passed, her sons and our family just kind of became one. Still love those boys.”
Along with the great losses of that day there were acts of courage and survival. The Sunshine, Ky., Elementary School, which was just across the hill from South Shore, was hit hard by the tornado. Students were all gone at the time, but a group of Girl Scouts were holding a meeting there at the time. Shelley Mercer Nickels of South Shore described their actions: “The Girls Scouts, who were only third through sixth graders and a seventh-grade helper, pulled the chairs out from under the stage area where they were stored, and crawled under the stage, and all were kept safe. But the school was destroyed.”
Neighbors took in paperboys on their routes, store owners protected customers any way they could and, sometimes, people saved the lives of their friends and family.
Linda Percell, the daughter of Ed Pyles who was the developer of the devastated Pyles addition, told how her father was a great help to many. “The winds started. Daddy was getting everybody in the furnace room in the basement of their house. Daddy heard a knock at the door. He opened it. It was my mom’s sister with her children, along with her neighbor and her two sons. I think we had over 20 people in the furnace room. We heard wind, things breaking, horrible noise like a train.”
She described how a “dog came through the window of the office, but was not hurt. When Dad thought it was ended, he told all of us to stay in the basement, and he was going to see how much damage was done.”
What Pyles found was amazing. “Their house was on top of Mom and Dad’s house. So dad came and told us, and he and Jack (Riggs) immediately went to Underwood’s house to check on their girls. They found them underneath the flooring of the house. Everyone knows what happened to Linda. So my dad flagged down a car to get Brenda to a place where she could get the help she needed,” Percell remembers. “It was a horrible day. We came out with what we had on. No cars to drive, nothing.”
Pyles Addition, also known as Ridgewood, was almost completely destroyed. Linda Underwood died there. Pyles was hurt financially in the tornado, losing his home and many homes he was building. Percell said, “He lost several houses that were under construction, plus his house, cars and furnishings. He built for everyone else first, and his house was last. Thar’s the kind of person he was. The house he lived in was already sold, so that came before his, too.”
The sense of community was strong in Wheelersburg. People did great things for their neighbors.
Photos taken of the devastation tell only part of the story. The scope of a tornado is hard to capture in a single view. Catherine Norris Allen, who lived at Sciotodale, described her experiences. “Seeing the photos is bad enough, but seeing it all in person is another thing. I saw most of that right after it happened, and knowing it happened to people I knew made me sick to my stomach. The photo of a school bus was my school bus that I had gotten off of maybe 30 minutes before. My bus driver had to hang onto a tree to keep from getting blown away, and was hit by a bathtub.”
Another person, a young girl, was nearly picked up by the wind that day. Diana Hayden Traylor, of South Shore, told this story. “I remember coming home from school that day, and Mom wanted to go to Oak’s Market. The sky was strange, but we had no clue of what was coming. We made it to the store, and just as Mom was checking out, I turned to look out the large glass windows that spanned the entire front of the store. Suddenly, I saw a large tree uproot, and debris flying through the air.
“One of the double glass doors swung open. As I reached to close it, the wind was so strong I was sucked out. But Mom and Mr. Oaks grabbed onto me and pulled me back inside the store. It wasn’t until the winds subsided and we could walk outside that we realized that telephone poles, trees and damage to homes could be seen. I never saw the funnel, and it was only afterward that I learned it was a tornado.”
At Sunshine, Ky., young Connie Adkins survived by hanging onto a barbed wire fence. She wasn’t able to make it from her school bus to her home in time.
Others described trying to make it to a neighbor’s house, which had a basement, only to have to lie down through the high winds because they couldn’t reach the house.
There were aspects of the tornado that bordered on the fantastic. Karen Antis Griffith, of South Shore, recalled, “I remember it well. I was attending a choir practice at the Methodist Church in South Shore, which is right over the hill from Sunshine. We were sent home before it hit, and since I lived two blocks from the river, I remember watching the river water being sucked up the street right in front of my house. Terrifying!”
Ray Bentley, who lived at Sunshine, described the tornado heading directly toward his house, but at the last second, the twister split into two funnel clouds. A funnel went around both sides of his house, leaving it untouched. Houses on both sides were heavily damaged. The tornado came together again just past his house.
Rozella Stith, also of Sunshine, saw the tornado go around the Bentley house. “I was in it — we lived by the Sunshine School — and, yes, it split into two. One hit the hill, and one hit the school. I watched it all. Then it came back together. We were lucky no one died.”
Local residents described seeing debris flying high above a hill. Pieces of houses, furniture, cattle and trees were at the top of the tornado. Cattle were found in trees. A piano was lost from a church, and no trace of it was ever seen again.
David Williams watched from the Tygart Bend area in Kentucky. “It was like the finger of God writing, and sounded like 100 freight trains pulling in at once,” he described. “Straw was driven though 2 by 4s like nails. An old tree behind our house, maybe six foot wide at its base, was twisted like a twig about 5 foot up and twisted completely apart.”
The day of the Wheelersburg tornado was a bellwether for so many people. Like the great flood of 1937, it will be remembered for generations to come. It was the day Mother Nature showed her awesome power. Few things rival the terrible destruction of an EF-5 tornado. It was a half-mile-wide and 45-mile-long exhibition of terrible force.
There are many stories to be told from many area residents who lived through and witnessed that day. And the loss of loved ones that day lingers on in the hearts of their friends and family. Few things could ever affect the area in a worse way. But in the light of destruction, the resilience of man shined through as well.