50 years after the tornado: Sara and Marty Larson Relive the Day Xenia Changed Forever

By Alan Brads

Sara and Marty Larson, then strangers, now spouses, lived through April 3, 1974, in Xenia, and 50 years later they see how that day shaped the city.

At 4:30 p.m. 50 years ago, 11-year-old Sara Blackburn prepared to leave her home in the Arrowhead neighborhood of west Xenia. She didn’t know the massive implications of living in west Xenia, because she didn’t know a cataclysmic F5 tornado would come swooping down in the next 10 minutes. In fact, she didn’t even know what a tornado was.

Her mom heard the storm before she saw it, but when she checked out the window she saw the funnel cloud in all its morbid glory headed straight for Arrowhead, where it would do its most devastating work.

She yelled at Sara and her 13-year-old brother, Shaun, to abandon their preparation for Shaun’s basketball banquet at the Warner Middle School gym. which shortly would be a pile of dilapidated construction supplies.

Had the tornado struck just half an hour later, things may have ended differently for the Blackburns.

“There was hardly anything left of it,” Sara said. “People would’ve died.”

But their mother’s urgent cry to drop everything and take cover worked.

“She started yelling at us like ‘get in the bathroom now!’ but we had no idea what was going on,” Sara said.

The trio cowered in the bathtub, fearing not only for themselves, but also for their eldest sister, Nena, who was mid-shift at Burger King, and their father, Rufus, who worked in Dayton.

Blinded by the four walls of the bathroom that mercifully held firm, they knew the severity of the situation just by the sound.

“We heard glass and things banging and clashing … it was like a freight train,” Sara said.

If that wasn’t enough, the frightened and confused 11-year-old had never seen her mother in such a state.

“Just by the way she was praying I knew that we may die,” Sara said. “I didn’t really understand what was happening, but my mom was praying a mile a minute so I knew something was seriously wrong. She held onto us so tightly she had bruises on herself afterward.”

Fortunately, their bathroom was placed in the middle of the house with no exterior walls, giving them better protection than most in the neighborhood, which suffered multiple fatalities.

After the noise subsided and they waited long enough to feel safe, they peeled open the bathroom door. They expected to see a wall, but the tornado had stolen an exterior wall and an interior wall, leaving them staring down their own street at the wreckage strewn upon it.

“We were all in shock walking around numb trying to figure out what just happened,” Sara said.

Rufus Blackburn drove home from Dayton but found U.S. Route 35 closed. Seeing the damage done to the Windsor Park subdivision, which is near the Arrowhead subdivision, he improvised. Rufus parked his car alongside the 35 bypass and ran home to find his family safe.

Nena had no way to communicate with her parents and siblings that she survived the event by shutting herself in the Burger King freezer. Sara recalls two or three days passed without knowing if Nena was alive or dead.

The Blackburns slept in a church and the home of extended family until they found an unoccupied rental in their neighborhood. Despite being displaced, they were numbered among the fortunate Arrowhead residents. They were able to rebuild what they lost while they lived in the rental.

Two and a half miles north, 12-year-old Marty Larson had a different experience than his future wife.

“It was a very ominous night,” Marty said, remembering the view from his front porch as the lighting rolled in.

The Larsons fared better than the Blackburns. Their house escaped the monstrous half-mile-wide funnel, but it was no walk in the park outside either.

“My mom told me and my sisters to get in the basement,” Marty said. “My sisters were looking out the window and saw trees just bending over. I was like, ‘I’m not lookin’.’”

Since they had no overwhelming damage of their own to attend to, they dispatched themselves around Xenia to help wherever they could.

Marty’s mom, a registered nurse, saw carloads of people driving to Greene Memorial Hospital and followed them to aid the injured until backup arrived from outside the city.

Only later would she learn the tornado’s original bearing pointed the twister directly at the hospital. It unexpectedly swerved in the middle of town, sparing the hospital and countless lives.

Marty’s three older siblings headed toward the center of town to help however they could, including distributing their mom’s blankets to dislodged Xenians.

His brother Mike searched inside A&W and discovered people who had suffocated while sheltering in the freezer.

Marty also made his way uptown to see the wreckage along with many other curious residents from his unharmed neighborhood.

“I remember seeing a 2×4 stuck through a tree,” Marty said. “It was just mass destruction. … It was like a bomb went off.”

In total, the tornado damaged or destroyed over 1,400 buildings, including five schools in Xenia. The unprecedented damage totaled an estimated $100 million, over $500 million in today’s money, and even garnered a visit from President Richard Nixon. It injured over 1,300 people, and most morbidly, killed 32, making Xenia’s F5 tornado the deadliest of 148 tornadoes in the 1974 super outbreak. It was one of two tornadoes to ever be classified as an F6 before Dr. Ted Fujita capped the scale at F5, dismissing the existence of F6 tornadoes.

Xenia had to build back approximately half of its structures, so unsurprisingly, the rebuild came with change.

“They took away some of the good parts of downtown Xenia,” Sara said. “They took away the downtown feeling.”

Some of the city’s oldest homes stood on West Market Street, which suffered so greatly the ancient homes were scrapped in favor of a large commercial shopping plaza. Empty parking spaces currently comprise the vast majority of that space despite the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts.

“They took away the old town feeling and tried to modernize it,” Marty said. “Which in the ’70s is what people were trying to do. But I look back and I say ‘Why?’ We’d probably be like Troy (Ohio) today. That’s what Xenia could’ve been.”

The schools required rebuilding, but in the meantime, they set up temporary trailers to hold school in. School in trailers was different, but even with rebuilt buildings school never went all the way back to the way it was. Monthly tornado drills took the place of bomb drills, and 50 years later they still occur at least six times a year in Xenia, in Ohio, and across much of the Midwest.

Any Xenian who lived through the worst of it can tell you that fear never quite leaves for good. When Sara was asked if storms and tornado sirens frightened her in the ensuing years of her childhood, Marty answered for her. 

“They still do,” he said.

She agreed.

“If it gets really windy, I’m in the basement,” Sara said.

The fear may stick around for a lifetime, but the story ended well for both the Blackburns and the Larsons.

The Blackburns finished rebuilding their home and moved back in.

The Larsons became just one example of hundreds of the community coming together to weather the literal storm.

Marty and Sara got married in 1987 and live in Xenia to this day, even though some things just aren’t the same around there anymore.

In Xenia, the tornado sirens blast at noon on the first Monday of every month, a harrowing reminder of the past, but a reassuring practice for the future. If the day ever comes when history repeats itself, Xenia will be forewarned, and with any luck it won’t cost another 32 lives.

1 Reply to "50 years after the tornado: Sara and Marty Larson Relive the Day Xenia Changed Forever"

  • comment-avatar
    Tom T April 3, 2024 (10:36 pm)

    Great stories and data of the outbreak.

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