Sirens and storms are synonymous with springtime. Yet in Scioto County, it was not so long ago when the sirens sounded in Wheelersburg, signaling an approaching storm — a once-in-a-lifetime storm — that forever changed the community.
It was Ohio’s first-ever F-5 (what is today called an EF-5) tornado.
The devastation that lone monster tornado caused is still fresh in the memories of those residents who experienced it firsthand — and lived to tell about it.
It was with that time in mind that about 30 people attended the dedication Monday of the 1968 Wheelersburg Tornado Memorial at the Porter Township Community Park. The date was the 50th anniversary of the devastating tornado that changed the Wheelersburg community forever. There were family members present who lost loved ones on that terrible afternoon, as well as neighbors, friends and others who wanted to pay tribute to those the tornado killed that horrible day.
The dedication began with the sirens of the Fire Department, then there was a moment of silence.
Portsmouth Library Director Paige Williams opened the dedication. She spoke of the devastation the tornado caused as it tore through northern Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River and bore down on Wheelersburg, one of a reported 14 tornadoes that day from Kentucky to Michigan. Williams also noted that there are people in the area who do not even know what happened in Wheelersburg on April 23, 1968.
“Today’s memorial dedication is a culmination of the efforts by Porter Township trustees, Pioneer Village and the Portsmouth Public Library,” Williams said. “I believe this memorial stone behind me will forever show future generations that Wheelersburg, although it suffered a tremendous loss of lives and property, the community had the will and the strength to come together.”
Williams noted that photographs and film have been given to the library, and that the project to document the tornado will continue to grow.
Porter Township trustee Dave Hayden spoke of the location of the memorial, pointing out that it is very close to the actual tornado path after it crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky. It went up over a nearby hill and into the cemetery, then set its sights on the newer part of Wheelersburg. Hayden then read the names of those lost on that horrendous day: Mary Adkins, Anna Lou (Litteral) Armstrong, Linda Underwood, Clyde Avery, George Lambert, Walter Ockerman and Joseph Chatfield. He also noted that there were many others who were injured and who suffered loss of property.
In the aftermath of that powerful tornado, many didn’t immediately realize how tragic the funnel had truly been. In 1968, there was no Internet, cell phones or social media for people to obtain information quickly.
George Lambert’s granddaughter told the gathering what she remembered from that time. She remembered being a high school junior, and that after the tornado passed, she and her mother drove down to see her grandfather. When they got to where his house was supposed to be, nothing was there anymore. She said someone helped them carry her grandfather to the car, and they drove him to what was then General Hospital in Portsmouth.
“It was so scary, and I was scared of storms for a long time then. I miss my grandfather, but he was 85 and lived quite a life.” She says that from what she remembered, the Red Cross gave them a trailer for her uncle Arthur, who also lived in Wheelersburg at the time. She thanked the people for remembering 50 years ago, for her grandfather and everyone else.
Tim Armstrong, whose mother Anna Lou was among those who died during the tornado, spoke of how he felt he never had the opportunity to thank the community for the outpouring they gave to his family. At the time, his father was serving in the military in Vietnam, and his brother was away at college. He said he knew there were hundreds and hundreds who attended his mother’s funeral, even those who did not even know her. “She was a God-fearing woman, and I know that some day, as the Lord as my Savior, I will see her again.”
Connie Ison, who has been working with the library on the remembrance of the tornado, reminded the assemblage that there were others who were injured in the tornado and then later died from those complications.
On the hill right above the park shelter house is a bench that has etched in it: “Tuesday, April 23, 1968 4:05 pm, ‘Lest we forget’.” Beside it is the monument that reads: “IN MEMORIAM: On April 23, 1968, the first recognized F5 tornado in Ohio history descended on Wheelersburg, Ohio and shook the soul of this community. This monument is dedicated to the memory of the seven people who perished that day and to celebrate the community that found the courage and will to rebuild.” The names of the seven lost on that tragic day are also included.
Reach Kimberly Jenkins at 740-353-3101 ext. 1928