Xenia Tornado: 50 Years Later – ‘As soon as you heard Gil Whitney;’ Lives were saved that day

XENIA — It was 50 years ago today that an EF-5 tornado destroyed part of the city of Xenia, leaving more than 30 people dead.

WHIO-TV weatherman Gil Whitney broke into programming to warn people in the city to take cover. To this day, people in Xenia say Gil Whitney saved lives. They also said April 3, 1974, is a day they will never forget.

Melissa Caserta, who lives in Xenia, said, “It was a week before my birthday. I heard this kid outside. He was screaming. I looked out the window and he was running down the street and pointing the other way yelling ‘tornado, tornado.’ So, I went to my parents’ bedroom and looked out the window and there it was, and it was huge.”

Caserta, her mom, her dad, and her dog took cover from the twister in the lowest part of their house, but it found them.

“It picked up my mom and me and threw us across the room and slammed us onto the floor. It was really violent.” She continued, “I could hear glass breaking, wood splitting, carpet ripping. I could hear the roods from the tree being ripped out of the ground, I could hear people screaming. I landed in the doorway, then my mom landed on me. She was holding onto the door frame, and the basement wall caved in on us, and we both got hurt pretty badly. They carried us out of the basement window on doors. They used doors as stretchers.”

At the same time, Caserta and her family were riding out hell in their basement.

Retired Fire Lt. Darrel Doyle said, “As soon as we heard Gil Whitney, as soon as he said, ‘If you live in Xenia, take cover immediately.’” Doyle was hiding in a closet with his family.

“It had me, her, Doug, and a 100-pound Irish setter.” The tornado missed the Doyle’s house. He said, “I gave her a hug and kiss and away I went.”

Doyle left for work. He would not see his family much for the next couple of weeks.

“Went to Station 2 and it was chaotic,” he said. “We were putting people in the bedroom. We were going back into the bedroom – unconscious, conscious, bleeding anything or anything we could do. A truck or station wagon, anything that could take a mattress. We’d put the mattress in the vehicle and send the person to the hospital in Dayton because we couldn’t get to Greene.”

The Ohio National Guard locked Xenia down. Doyle said, “They opened it up after two weeks, and all hell broke loose. It was a traffic jam. You couldn’t go down Main Street. You couldn’t go down Second Street. You couldn’t go down any street. It was a traffic jam, People coming to see – sightseers. It was unreal, you just can’t imagine.”

Fifty years later, Doyle thinks emergency equipment and response plans across the country are better because of the 1974 Xenia tornado.

“We learned the hard way, but we learned,” he said.

But many survivors like Melissa Caserta are still dealing with the trauma of that April day.

“When the wind blows, I’m not good. I’m not good at all,” Caserta said. “I was a victim. I became a survivor and as the years went on, I became a warrior. Because nothing or no one could hit me as hard as I got hit that day and I’m OK. I’m alive.”

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