Churning clouds appeared on the horizon. Lightning sliced the sky and thunder shook the ground. Wind and rain pounded Ohio like a hydraulic hammer.

Fifty years ago, an apocalyptic storm brought death and destruction to the Fourth of July weekend. The 1969 disaster killed more than 40 people, including 29 in the Akron-Canton area, and caused widespread devastation.

The July 4 forecast had merely called for “scattered showers or thundershowers with a 40% chance of rain.” It was a hot summer day with temperatures in the mid-80s and thick, oppressive humidity.

As holiday celebrants gathered for evening cookouts and patriotic fireworks displays, a freak weather system formed over Lake Erie and barreled southeast about 7 p.m. Friday.

“I had my eye on those storms out there but that squall line developed a lot faster than normal,” Bob Alto, a meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Service at Akron-Canton Airport, told the Beacon Journal in 1969. “The warnings went out to the radio and television stations about two hours before the storm hit most area points.”

Terry Ritter, head meteorologist at the bureau, called it “the longest line of thunderstorms I have ever seen.”

Thousands of people had gathered at Cleveland’s Edgewater Park to watch a fireworks show. Hundreds of boats dotted the water as the dark clouds approached about 8:30 p.m.

“You saw it sweeping across the lake from the west, a real bad storm,” said Cleveland resident Robert Coatman, who had anchored a 16-foot boat off Edgewater Park. “We headed for shore fast and ran right through the barrier the city had just put up to protect swimmers. Twenty boats must have hit it at the same time.”

Weather experts call it a “derecho,” a widespread, fast-moving storm system with destructive winds. This one had gusts topping 100 mph and torrential rain.

People fled for their lives. The winds toppled trees and power lines across Northeast Ohio.

 

Water rises

Then the heavy rain became the danger. Emergency workers began to receive frantic reports about swollen rivers, creeks and streams. Fast-rising water closed roads and washed out bridges and railroad tracks.

Some Ohioans awoke in the middle of the night to the loud crash of rushing water through their homes. They took refuge on higher floors or crawled onto their roofs in the dark as water climbed to their ceilings.

More than 10 inches of rain fell during an 18-hour span in Wayne County, one of the areas hardest hit by the violent storm. In Wooster, the usually tranquil Killbuck Creek, Apple Creek and Little Apple Creek became treacherous rapids.

In the blink of an eye, people were swept to their deaths.

Mabel Frantz, 53, an employee of Apple Creek State Institute, tried to drive to work on Wayne County Road 80 in the Saturday morning darkness. She hit high water at Kidron Creek and her vehicle washed away. She was still clutching her car keys when rescuers found her body.

Wooster Patrolmen Robert Goodrich, 56, and Paul Knisley, 30, were evacuating families on Bauer Road north of U.S. 30 when their boat capsized at 5 a.m. in 12 feet of water on Apple Creek. The rushing current tore away their life jackets, and their bodies were found downstream later that weekend.

Four members of a Wooster family drowned in a trailer home near Bauer Road: Lovina Taylor, 32, Doris Wirth, 26, Sharon Wirth, 4, and Anthony Wirth, 6 weeks.

Perry Township brothers Lyle Joseph Ward Jr., 20, and Mervin Ward, 17, got caught in a whirlpool from a culvert at Perry Drive and Southway Street. Their bodies were discovered in 8 feet of water in a ditch about 350 yards from where they disappeared.

Robert Dickens Sr., 48, of Burbank, tried to rescue his son Robert Jr., 16, from Killbuck Creek in Burbank, but both lost their lives in the raging water.

A Toledo man, 20, was killed by a falling limb at Cedar Point in Sandusky. A 6-year-old Millersburg girl drowned while camping with her parents. A Cleveland man, 50, was electrocuted by a downed power line. A Ravenna woman, 18, died when a tree fell on a car.

Wooster Mayor Paul Tilford wired Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes: “We have a real emergency here. Pray for us.”

“There are a number of civilians missing, but no one knows how many or who they are,” Tilford told the Beacon Journal.

 

The aftermath

The rain finally, mercifully eased that weekend. The Coast Guard and Ohio National Guard searched for victims and offered aid. Crews poked around receding floodwaters and checked muddy homes.

Red Cross operations director Milton Jackson estimated that 21,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Damage was estimated at more than $100 million (nearly $700 million today). Farmers reported another $40 million in crop damage.

Eva Goldstein, a mother of four, salvaged a family Bible from the mud of her wrecked home on Bauer Road in Wooster.

“What can you say,” she told a reporter. “You work 20 years for something and it’s all gone in a few hours.”

Gov. Rhodes spent the next two days touring the devastation. He requested federal aid for 14 counties, noting: “As far as lives, property damage and inconvenience, this is the largest catastrophe in Ohio history.”

Visiting Wooster on Monday, he prayed for “mercy on the souls of those who have made the supreme sacrifice.”

“What can I say to lessen the pain, burden and grief of the loved ones left behind?”

Some cities went more than a week without power, fresh water or sewer service.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, donations of food, water, clothing, cleaning supplies and manual labor poured in to the ravaged communities. Towns dug out and life slowly got back to normal.

As a direct consequence of the storm, the U.S. Weather Bureau at Akron-Canton Airport was expanded to become a major center for severe weather warnings.

The 1969 flood has gradually receded from memory. There are generations today who have never heard of it.

But the lessons from 50 years ago remain current. Always respect Ohio's weather. It can change at any moment.

 

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3850.