Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

'65 twister still packs emotional punch


John Smith and his father, Paul, look over old photos in their home, built on the site of one lost in the tornado.


Paul Smith, a third-shift foreman for the Norfolk & Western railroad, was about to walk out the door of his home when he decided to take a few minutes and reassure his wife and children.

It was April 11, 1965. Palm Sunday. And severe thunderstorms had settled over the area.

"They were afraid of the storm, and I wanted to let them know there was nothing to fear," he said.

Unbeknownst to him and his young family, amid the heavy rain and hail was a tornado that was about to flatten most of the new houses in the Fuller's Creekside Addition neighborhood where he lived on the north edge of Toledo.

"I can still see it from the corner of my eye. The glass in the window shattering and then collapsing on me. I was swept away in a vacuum, and I could feel things beating me, but it didn't hurt," he recalled. "It was very dark, and all I could see were constant flashes of lightning."

He ended up face-down with numerous cuts and bruises in a neighbor's garage. His wife, Shirley Ann Kleinert Smith, 32, was found dead a few streets down from their home at 2215 Terramar Rd.

Forty years later on a warm spring morning, Mr. Smith, 73, teared up as he looked around the quiet suburban neighborhood where he rebuilt his home and still resides today.

Known among Toledoans as the "Palm Sunday tornado," the funnel that cleared a 10-mile path through West and North Toledo was the worst natural disaster in Toledo's history, killing 15 people, injuring 208, and leaving 310 families homeless.

Much of the devastation, totaling $12 million in damage, centered on the area near Suder Avenue and the Toledo-Detroit Expressway - now known as I-75.

The tornado's funnel touched down in Toledo at about 9:30 p.m. and traveled northeast from Monroe Street and Secor Road, along Sylvania Avenue, across Tremainsville Road, down Eleanor Avenue, and across Laskey Road, Telegraph Road, and Stickney Avenue.

It came down hard on Fuller's Creekside subdivision, just off

I-75 at Suder Avenue; the Summit Street, Shoreland Avenue, and Edgewater Drive areas in Point Place, and again on the Lost Peninsula just across the Michigan line before it dissipated over Maumee Bay.

After a brief tour of one of the worst-hit areas, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Toledo a federal disaster area.

The tornado here was one of at least 37 that day. The outbreak of twisters also struck Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Michigan, killing more than 250 people.

In northwest Ohio, the storms ravaged the cities of Lima, Tiffin, Bluffton, and Fremont, and Van Wert, Allen, and Mercer counties. U.S. 68 four miles south of Findlay was closed by a barn blown onto the highway.

Toledo businesses, including 45 farm, commercial, and industrial structures, were damaged. Structures at Bettinger's Farm and Greenhouses, near Secor Road and Sylvania Avenue, were flattened. Three buildings and a smokestack at the E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co. paint factory at Tremainsville Road and Upton Avenue were destroyed; damage was estimated at more than $150,000.

In southeast Michigan, about 20 people were reported killed in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties, including six in one family near Manitou Beach at Devils Lake, a popular vacation area. Manitou Beach Bible Church's new $85,000 building was destroyed as one tornado reportedly was followed quickly by another.

Two rural churches and a score of farmhouses and outbuildings were destroyed in Allen County, where a dozen people were killed. Two young children of Mr. and Mrs. James Imm were killed when they were thrown into a creek bed after their family's car was tossed by the tornado.

In Toledo, many of the bodies were recovered from smashed homes in the Point Place and Lost Peninsula areas near the Michigan state line. Several people, including the driver, were killed when a Shortway bus was tossed upside down while traveling on I-75.

A passenger who survived the bus accident said those aboard the bus were tossed around "as though we were in a box being shaken."

Search-and-rescue operations were made extremely difficult by the fact that two main electric transmission towers serving the area were knocked down by the tornado. An emergency morgue was set up that night in the city fire station at Summit and 116th streets, where people could identify and claim the bodies of their family members.

"The whole place was dark, and you couldn't see anything because all the houses had been flattened," recalled Don Kleinert, Mr. Smith's brother-in-law.

Mr. Kleinert was helping look for his sister, Shirley Ann, and his nephew, John Smith. He identified his sister's body at the morgue.

John Smith, at 2 years old the youngest of the three Smith children, was staying at a neighbor's house that fateful night because his mother was recovering from an operation and couldn't look after him. He was caught in the tornado's fury when the neighbor's house was swept off its base and was hurtled a few blocks away.

"A firefighter heard a whimper in the mud, and it was John," Mr. Kleinert, 66, recalled. He said his nephew was found in a pile of mud under cement slabs and electric and telephone wires on Vistamar Road. His skull had been crushed, and his left leg was severed.

After spending a month in a coma, John had to learn how to walk on crutches and was fitted with a prosthetic leg when he was 3 years old.

"That was the hardest thing for me, seeing how my children's lives were changed by the tornado," said Mr. Smith, recalling how his son struggled to play sports in high school and the pain of his children growing up without a mother. They only know her through pictures and family videos, he said, "but it must have been God's will."

"Life has been weird," said John Smith, now 42 and a nursing student at Owens Community College.

"Everything was twice as hard for me growing up, and I don't even remember anything from the tornado."

Michael Sabomes, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's northern Indiana forecast office, said conditions were ripe April 11, 1965, for such a disaster.

"Every once in a while when all the elements come together, we see families of very large and very destructive tornadoes coming together, and they become tragic disasters," he said.

It takes a few elements like an unstable atmosphere, a lot of moisture, and a pressure system to fuel the thunderstorm. On that Palm Sunday, all the elements came together from various directions to spawn the outbreak.

"We get outbreaks of these tornado patterns every year, but not on this scale," said Mr. Sabomes. He noted that parts of northern Texas, southern Kansas, and Oklahoma are the most tornado-prone regions of the United States.

Another tornado outbreak struck southwestern Ohio in April, 1974, destroying much of the city of Xenia. But Mr. Sabomes claimed the Palm Sunday outbreak was by far the most disastrous to hit the Midwest because it affected more people due to poor warning systems in place at the time. "We do a much better job of detecting tornadoes today," he said.

Mr. Smith, who would have celebrated 51 years of marriage today, now says that had he known a tornado was coming that night in 1965, he wouldn't have reassured his children.

"I feel a bit guilty," he said. "I went into their room and told them everything would be OK, and then the tornado blew our home away."

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at: krujumba@theblade.com or 419-724-6064.

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