Host: [00:00:06] Imagine being woken from a deep sleep predawn by wailing emergency sirens. Disoriented, you break the darkness by turning on the television, and a meteorologist warns that your street is in the direct path of a tornado. In an instant, you realize that you and your family have only a few adrenaline-fueled moments before the storm reaches your home. For residents of Montgomery, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, that early morning nightmare became a devastating reality. Twenty years ago on April 9th, 1999 homes and lives were lost in the greatest tragedy ever to strike the city.
Host: [00:00:58] What is it like to experience the disorienting panic of a violent tornado arriving in the early morning darkness. How does it feel to realize that in an instant, all of your possessions including your home are gone?
Host: [00:01:16] What was it like to be a first responder at that scene knowing you are in the midst of the most harrowing event in a community’s history and one that no drill or training could ever truly prepare you for? And finally, how does a community attempt to rebuild and heal after being struck by such a horrific tragedy? In this episode and the few that will follow, we’re going to share stories from that tragic day and what happened next in Montgomery. I’m Greg Leader, and this is weathering the storm.
Host: [00:02:13] The tornado caught everyone by surprise. Well, almost everyone.
Pete Delkus: [00:02:37] I don’t remember if, going into the late news at eleven o’clock, if there was a tornado watch specifically for the area, but I just remember that the conditions were ripe for thunderstorms to develop, and some of those were going to turn severe. Some of those thunderstorms given the atmospheric conditions, some of those thunderstorms could rotate, so tornadoes were definitely on my mind.
Host: [00:03:01] That’s Pete Delkus. From 1996 to 2005, Pete was the chief meteorologist at WCPO in Cincinnati. Since 2005 he’s been the chief meteorologist the WFAA in Dallas.
Pete Delkus: [00:03:14] If I remember correctly, a short time after the news ended they issued a tornado watch for the area. Not that I was going home anyway because hey, that’s your job and you stay there, and you do this because you want to help people. But I remember when that tornado watch was issued early on, maybe midnight or one o’clock in the morning, I remember thinking the conditions look like a tornado will be issued.
Pete Delkus: [00:03:42] So really, none of that was a surprise. Back in 1999, we didn’t have Twitter and Facebook and all the different outlets that people rely on today to warn them. For people just to stay up to date, it was just literally you turn on the TV and if the weather guys on the weather guys on if he’s not then everything must be OK.
Pete Delkus: [00:04:05] I remember the conditions setting up and being conducive for severe weather that night and that’s why I stayed all night. It gets till around 3:00 a.m. you’re watching storms develop in southeastern Indiana, and the first tornado warning was issued around 4:00 a.m. for Ripley County. Tornadoes generally travel from southwestern northeast. Well, you look northeast from Ripley County to Cincinnati, and it’s Hamilton County. And so you know, you really have to make sure you’re at the top of your game at that point.
Pete Delkus: [00:04:43] So Ripley County was issued about 4:00 in the morning. About 30 minutes later it’s Dearborn County and then you know about 30 minutes later it’s Hamilton County. I remember that tornado warning for Hamilton County was issued before 5:00 in the morning.
Pete Delkus: [00:05:00] I’m thinking, these people are in bed. If the warning is here, there’s plenty of lead time for people to go to their safe room or go to the basement. But is anyone going to know that the warning has been issued?
Channel 9 News: [00:05:16] From 9 News, this is a special weather report. We now have a tornado warning for Hamilton County until 5:55. Let me take this off the wire. A tornado warning is in effect for Hamilton County now until 5:55. At 4:50. Weather spotters indicated a tornado 17 miles west of Cincinnati or about six miles southeast of Hoven moving to the east at 35 miles an hour. Again a tornado is on the ground. Go to the basement.
Pete Delkus: [00:05:48] You know it was a really strange morning. You’re in the TV studio, and you can see what all the other stations have on their air. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’m starting to do stuff and I look up and the other stations are still in the regular programming and I’m like, man, I’m looking and I know there’s a tornado over there in Ripley and I know there’s one in Dearborn. I’m telling people about what’s happening over there and then all of a sudden it crosses into Ohio. At that point, I don’t know what other stations are doing or not doing because I’m so focused on what’s going on in Hamilton County. Then you think to yourself, I’ve got a responsibility here to help these people. These people are my neighbors, and these people are my friends. It could be my family. I mean they could have been my mom. It could have been my grandparents or something like that. So you want to help them. But I know I got to let them know what street this could be on. I’m looking at this hook echo and on what street and how long, when’s it going to go from point A to Point B. I’m trying to storm track and just let people know, please get to the basement as quickly as possible.
Pete Delkus: [00:07:07] I’ve got to tell them as much as possible, and they need to know not just Hamilton County, but what are the towns, and more importantly what are the streets where this could have an impact on and so that was my focus. I’d have to be there and let these people know not only in the town but what part of town what neighborhood. Since I had lived in Montgomery when I first moved to Cincinnati, I was real familiar with the area.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:07:34] So, I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was in probably middle school age, and so that would have been maybe in 1974 or somewhere in the mid 70s, I don’t I remember the year when the tornado came through, it was the big Xenia tornado. I lived in Montgomery at the time in the Winds, and it was the middle of the afternoon. My family was aware of the tornado sirens going off, and we went outside, and we literally saw a tornado going over the Storybook neighborhood. So from that point forward, growing up all through my life I was always very aware of weather-related to tornadoes, and I was just very, not hypervigilant, but I was very aware of it. I even had tornado dreams that really bothered me because it was a very impactful thing to witness. The next day at school you’d hear about all the damage that had happened, so that stayed with me really through my whole life and I was always very aware when I would hear a siren or a weather warning I paid attention to it.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:08:42] My name is Ellen Mavriplis, and I live in the Shadowhill area of Montgomery, and I lived there before and continue to live there now with my husband. We had three boys at the time of the tornado. There was weather happening that night but I wasn’t aware of anything significant that was forecast, and I would have been aware. If there had been something out there, I would have known it. I don’t recall hearing any forecasts before it but sometime in the middle of the night one of my sons came into our room, and he was upset. I think the storm had woken him up. I’m starting to get a little fuzzy on the details that I think you’d never forget but it was my son Ryan who came in and woke us up, and there was thunder. At some point, we went downstairs to turn on the TV just to see if there was there anything more significant happening. Actually, I think we heard the siren first then went down to turn the TV on and turned it to Channel 9 which was actually following the street by street forecast of where a tornado was actually on the ground at that point.
Pete Delkus: [00:10:01] Twenty years ago, people didn’t track street by street. The reason that they didn’t wasn’t that a lot of folks were old school, but a lot of people said it’s just not that accurate. My thinking was, if I can see the hook on the radar and I know where the tornado is going to be in relation to the hook, I can zoom down to a street and if I know that the storm is moving to the northeast at 30 miles an hour it’s just a pretty simple mathematical equation. I can tell you when it’s going to arrive go from point A to Point B. I’m thinking all this through in my head and I’m like, well why would I not do that. But a lot of folks back then didn’t. It’s more information. This is a valuable tool to give people those basic answers. Where is the tornado right now? When is it going to arrive at my house? That’s all you really want to know. If you’re in the path, and I have this technology why not use it. And thank goodness that morning we had it. And thank goodness that we were able to use it
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:11:32] My husband I decided to go get our other children and head to the basement, and we did hear the siren. We saw the tornado coming our way. We got everyone down in the basement, including dogs and cats. We were missing one cat at the time that didn’t make it to the basement with us but we were all down in the basement and it just barely got in the door shut before we started actually feeling the tornado and hearing it. Often you hear people say that it sounds like a freight train coming but we didn’t hear the train coming. It was as if all of a sudden we were under the train. It was very sudden. It is very loud. It felt like a blood pressure cuff on your arm, and you feel it suctioning up and getting tighter. It felt like we were being vacuumed up. It was like the pressure was building up and then we felt water coming down on us from the ceiling of our basement which in this was two stories above us. Little did we know at the time that our roof was gone and the top floor was gone. But we felt water coming down through the basement ceiling. I couldn’t tell you the passage of time because you kind of lose track of that and my concern was my children.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:13:19] I remember going upstairs, we told the kids to stay downstairs at first so we could go up and check it out. We were gonna get shoes and whatnot which was challenging because, even though it’s a short distance from the stairs to where we leave our shoes in the laundry room, everything was covered with glass broken glass and so forth. So eventually, I believe Dimitri got us shoes, and he and I went to check it out a little bit, and then I immediately thought we need to get out of here because we didn’t know if the rest of it was going to collapse on us. The stairway seemed like it was crooked, the walls were crooked. It was hard to process at the time because it didn’t make sense. We look up and see stars and clouds flying overhead, so the tornado had taken the weather with it wherever it went.
[00:14:24] So we didn’t go up there at the time, we decided to take our shoes and get the kids out of the building at that point. I took the kids, and there was one of the houses across the street from us looked like it was not badly impacted. Most of the houses around us were totaled, but one across the street from us looked like it was only missing maybe a corner of the roof. So we went there, and the neighbors asked us to come in, so we went in their basement and from there made some phone calls to family and we’re trying to figure out a way for some family members to come and get us. Meanwhile, Dimitri was trying to help some other neighbors. I know that we’d heard people screaming next door and it was chaotic, but my concern was to get three very young children out of the way and safe.
Jill Cole: [00:15:16] My name’s Jill Cole. I lived at 7583 Lakewater Drive at the time of the tornado.
Jill Cole: [00:15:24] It was a very mild night that night so we had our windows open and we’d gone to bed and then sometime in the early morning hours we heard the sirens go off. I grew up in California, and I think if the sirens go off, you pay attention. My husband grew up in Ohio, and when the sirens go off, you just roll over and go back to sleep. So, fortunately, I prevailed that morning. We got up and, at the time, we had the three youngest children at home. They were in preschool and elementary school, and our two oldest sons were away at college. So we went upstairs to get the kids and the middle one, his name was Trevor, he was already awake because he had been studying whether.
Jill Cole: [00:16:04] We took our dog and went down to the lower level and you know, at that time you think, this is a silly thing to do probably. The basement was pretty much unfinished. There was an area of carpet and an old couch and so forth. We were just sitting there, and we turned on our little teeny tiny black and white TV to see what was going on. The phone rang, and my husband walked up the steps to answer it, and the dog followed him up, and as soon as he got upstairs, I started hearing this sound, and it was loud, louder, and louder and as he turned around, the time it took him to walk up the stairs, the phone had quit ringing. I guess the power was out. He started walking down, and by the time he was halfway down, we knew that the tornado was coming and it was coming right at us
Jill Cole: [00:16:57] I grab the kids, and we have blankets and pillows, and we had a big metal weighted workbench there, so I had to the children in my lap with blankets hanging out at the table. My husband had the other child, and then it hit us, and it’s just hard to describe how loud it was. It’s like what you saw in the movie Twister. That’s really what it was like. It was just the loudest noise that I’ve ever heard in my life, and the only thing else I could hear was my kids crying, I love you, Mom. I told them it’s gonna be fine. Don’t worry we’re going to be just fine. And it seemed like it lasted for a very long time, but I’m sure the statistics will tell you it was a minute. Then, all of a sudden, it was dead quiet except for water dripping through the ceiling.
Jill Cole: [00:17:46] I thought, you know that’s probably not a good thing. So we sat there for a minute and regrouped because we really had no idea, you know is there one tornado is something else going to happen? Is it safe even though it was quiet? Is it safe for us to go out and see what happened so we can collect ourselves for a little bit? Then my husband Steve went upstairs to check the damage. He opened up the basement door, we did still have a basement door, and it was open to the sky above that and it smelled like pine trees. We kept all of our shoes in the garage at the time just like we kept our keys in the cars in the garage. The garage had collapsed onto the cars and the shoes, so we had to go around trying to find clothes for people to wear because we were in our pajamas and I think Steve had work shorts and his work boots. I happened to have a load of laundry dry in the dryer at that time. What are the odds that that could happen? We had something for everybody but me. We stood there for a moment and the dog, I may have mentioned to you that he followed him up when the phone rang, and the dog didn’t make it back down. As soon as he opens the door, the dog comes running down. He’s in my lap, this big golden retriever with my three young kids. My husband stood there for a moment, and he slowly walked down the steps, and he came in, and he put his hand on my shoulder he said it’s gone.