[3 Parts] "Death Out Of Darkness" is a public safety documentary about the deadly tornadoes of the 11-April-1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak, which affected portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The film primarily focuses on the devastation across Northern and Central Indiana. Produced in 1966 by the Indiana State Police and WISH-TV in Indianapolis, narrated by Lt. Dave Levendoski. Video from visualarchivist on YouTube. There were 47 tornadoes in less than 12 hours. This was the 3rd deadliest tornado swarm in U.S. history. See Also: Ted Fujita
Just Another Weekend
Submitted by Jim Stewart
Just Another Weekend
(C) 2009, Jim Stewart
When you are young, time passes slowly, and sometimes it’s a monotonous routine. Monday moves into Tuesday, the week passes, and another ordinary weekend comes and goes. But then there are the times and events that bring change, shaping our lives, our thinking, and our emotions. Such was the Palm Sunday weekend of April 1965.
I grew up as an only child in and near Lima in Allen County, Ohio. Thunderstorms, wind, blizzards, droughts, and the like were commonplace in the Midwest. But what was brewing on that fateful weekend was different.
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On Saturday morning, I was taken to the doctor to be checked out. The weather was partly sunny, and cool enough that a jacket was necessary. After being treated for the virus, apparently contracted at school, I spent the rest of the day convalescing on the living room couch. That afternoon my father and I watched a Reds game live from Cincinnati that was played under mostly sunny skies. Everyone in the Great Lakes area was totally oblivious to the terror that would move though the region in just over twenty-four hours.
Sunday dawned in a very strange way, at least to me as a young child, as a heavy thunderstorm raged outside with all the ingredients you would expect in the afternoon or evening of a spring day. It was actually a strong warm front pushing its way northward, ushering in very warm, moist, and unstable air to the region along with an unusually strong jet stream high above, a harbinger of the main event now just a few hours away.
The remainder of that morning is rather sketchy. My parents went to church, and I was left at home with my Great, Great Aunt May, who was living with us at the time. I remember that the weather cleared, and by afternoon the sun was shining. My father and I again watched television, the Master’s Golf Tournament from Augusta, Georgia, with bright sunlight streaming through the western windows of the living room. I never ventured outside that afternoon due to my illness, but I do know it had warmed considerably from the previous day.
In the early evening I was feeling better. My parents went to evening church services and my Aunt May looked after me as we continued to watch television. At the time there were no severe weather watches or warnings broadcast, although tornadoes were already occurring to our far west and northwest.
We were watching local channel 35 WIMA-TV as the Wonderful World of Disney came on at 7:30 P.M. and darkness fell. As the program continued, I noticed a strobe-like flashing in the southwestern sky. The flashing was nearly constant and becoming brighter as time passed. Aunt May, who was setting next to a window, became very nervous as she moved to another chair in the interior of the room for fear that the lightning was going to strike her. Strangely, the thunder had yet to be heard, indicating that we were observing a very strong electrical storm still a distance away but moving our way.
By 8:30 P.M. the storm was more to the west-northwest still putting out a large lightning display, but not quite as intense as earlier. There were still no severe weather statements on local television.
Just before 9:00 P.M. my parents returned home from church in time to watch Bonanza. They did not say much about the approaching storm other than that there was a lot of lightning going on in the northwest. Soon after Bonanza began WIMA-TV finally broadcast a vague weather alert from the weather service in Toledo that called for “…severe thunderstorms with a tornado or two till 10:00 P.M.” No references were given to any specific counties as tornadoes raged in several locations at that moment; unfortunately this lack of warning likely caused many fatalities.
Around 9:15 P.M. the storm suddenly seemed to explode just to our north in a way I had never seen before nor have seen since as vivid lightning of green, pink, white, orange, and blue lit the sky. I did not realize that the blue flashes were likely not lightning, but rather, power line flashes and transformer explosions as the tornado bisected Allen County just eight miles north of our home. Even the reception from WIMA-TV, located about five miles north-northeast of us, became so bad that it was unwatchable as the storm passed by. We had to switch to another station from Dayton, some sixty-five miles to the south, using our VHF roof antenna. During the time we watched this station, it came in unusually strong, as if it was local. There were some very strange atmospheric phenomenons transpiring for these few moments as the storm traversed the area.
The storm began to move out to the northeast as strong west southwest winds began to buffet our home. The cold front that generated the storm had arrived ending the severe storm threat. I went to bed having no idea of the destruction that had been and was still taking place all around our region. What is now rated as the third largest tornado outbreak in history had left in its wake over 250 dead, thousands injured, and an untold number of homes, businesses, and churches reduced to rubble. The wind howled most of the night as I lay in my comfortable bed, but we didn’t even lose power. We were blessed.
Monday morning dawned bright and sunny. My mother was listening to a local radio station as it ran continuous reports about the tornado that ripped Allen County in half the previous evening. The radio station even had a news correspondent in an airplane reporting live on the damage as he flew over the storm’s path, a rather innovative feat for the time. Feeling better as far as my illness was concerned, I stayed home from school just to be sure I was totally over the virus, but I was feeling rather strange about this unexpected event that was unknowingly affecting my life.
Many stories began to surface after the tornado blew through. My father, a pipe fitter and welder, was working in Toledo at the time and made an early Monday morning drive to work each week. On the morning of April 12 he saw damage from the storm as he drove up Interstate 75 between Beaverdam and Bluffton, with overturned trucks and cars as well as other debris on the highway for nearly a mile. The husband of some relatives who lived just east of Lima observed the storm’s passage from a patio door as the rest of the family huddled in their basement. He said as soon as the storm passed to his northeast the stars came out and he knew it was all over, everything would be fine.
It appears this particular supercell of the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak, which generated the Allen County tornado, originated more than two hours earlier southeast of Lafayette, Indiana, and moved, under the influence of unusually strong upper level jet stream wind, east-northeast at speeds of over sixty miles per hour. It appeared to be what is now termed a cyclical supercell that generated many separate, strong, multi-vortex tornadoes. Its nearly 275-mile path ended near Cleveland, Ohio. Across Indiana it leveled the towns of Russiaville, Alto, southern sections of Kokomo, Greentown, southern sections of Marion, and areas near Berne before crossing into Ohio. Once Ohio was the target, the twister passed just north of Rockford, south of Van Wert, and just south of Delphos as it entered Allen County. At that point the storm reorganized, producing a new F-4 vortex just northwest of Elida. This corresponded to the explosive increase in lightning intensity we observed as the storm was passing to our north. Moving along at nearly sixty miles per hour, the tornado destroyed everything in its path, with the little village of Cairo its next pending victim. Mercifully, the tornado lifted just west of the town and set down again just to the northeast, sparing the community major damage.
Relentlessly, the funnel pressed on toward Interstate 75. A railroad parallels the highway between Beaverdam and Bluffton with a deep ditch between the road and tracks. It appears this ditch caught or disrupted the tornado’s circulation enough to divert it to the northeast, where it wreaked havoc with any vehicle on the highway for about a mile. Finally it jumped the road and, reassuming its east-northeast path, moved out of the county.
I observed firsthand the damage two weeks later, when the public was finally allowed into the storm track area. Our family took a Sunday drive following the damage path from west to east. I saw things that were both frightening and fascinating. Many homes were totally destroyed; some still had walls but no roof; vehicles of all types lay scattered across fields, along with bits and pieces of people’s lives. High-voltage transmission towers lay twisted flat on the ground, and an electrical substation was totally wiped out; these were likely the sources of the blue flashes I saw to our north the night of the tornadoes.
I was most impressed with the foundation of an old farm house, wiped clean by the wind, with an upright piano still standing in the open air. Once part of a family fixture in a living room, now the piano was the only a remnant of the home that had once stood there.
It is interesting how a single event can be pivotal in our lives even at a young age. So it was for me with the Palm Sunday Outbreak of 1965. At first my fear of thunderstorms increased. Every year I felt a dread of April and springtime; I imagined that each storm that came up could be like that evening, except this time the funnel would get us. Time passed, and my fear evolved into a great respect for weather in general and deep interest in severe thunderstorms and hurricanes in particular—how and why they form. Still, after nearly forty-six years, there are times when I think back to that weekend and recall the feelings and emotions, remembering those who were adversely affected by the events of that weekend in April, 1965.
(C) 2009, Jim Stewart