It’s been 50 years since the lives of Wheelersburg residents were turned upside down — literally.
It was April 23, 1968 that the first F5 tornado ever recorded in Ohio slammed into the Scioto County town, causing widespread damage and claiming the lives of seven people.
Paige Williams, executive director of the Portsmouth Public Library, recently relived the harrowing events of that afternoon when she spoke to members of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Williams and Carolyn Cottrell, history supervisor at the library, gave a historical perspective of the tragedy, which included photographs and newspaper articles.
In addition, Williams said plans are under way to create a memorial in Wheelersburg — including erecting a memorial in Porter Township Park, where three of the seven victims died — and an archive of memories from survivors of the tornado. She also noted that the project is expected to include the creation of a permanent exhibit to memorialize those who lost their lives, and to commemorate an important part of the community’s history. Williams also said arrangements are under way to interview survivors and first responders. These interviews, along with copies of privately held photos and home movies taken by survivors, are being sought to include in the permanent display.
Those interested in sharing their stories, photos or home movies of the 1968 tornado can contact Williams at the library at 740-354-5688.
The Wheelersburg tornado was the first F5 tornado recorded in Ohio. The F5 rating is found on the Fujita scale (F-Scale), which is used to rate the intensity of a tornado by determining the destruction to structures and vegetation.
There were 14 confirmed tornados that April day, with the most devastating occurring in Wheelersburg. An F4 tornado had touched down in nearby South Shore, Ky., generating a wind of more than 110 mph. Minutes later, at about 4:05 p.m, the monster tornado swept northeast across the Kentucky hills and gained force, becoming an F5 tornado as it crossed the Ohio River into Wheelersburg. In a matter of minutes, the velocity of the winds claimed lives and caused more than $2 million (1968 figures) in property damage, and derailed 11 train cars from the tracks in Wheelersburg.
According to Cotrell, eye witnesses noticed that the clouds appeared layered all day long. The F5 tornado was a half-mile wide, and stayed on the ground for 45 miles after crossing the Ohio River, ending in Gallia County before dissipating in the Ohio River near Gallipolis. Wheelersburg was the only community in that 45 mile sweep with fatalities. The youngest was a 15-year-old girl; the oldest was an 84-year-old man.