In a split second, everything was
GONE WITH THE WIND
Saturday, March 29, 2014 5:00 AM
It was nearly dinner time at the Walston household in Bear Branch, Ind. Alice and Halbert Walston's four children had settled inside for the evening. The daily chores were almost finished. And alerts of a severe weather system aimed at the small community just north of the Switzerland County border had subsided.
But that day, April 3, 1974, would be anything but a normal day for the family. Just 30 miles southwest, a mammoth twister had slammed into Hanover and Madison, eventually killing 10 residents.
The storm brought gusts of more than 200 mph and hit tornado classifications of F4 and the most severe F5.
The storm's next stop would be the Walstons' home, where the family thought the night's highlight would be the feast Alice had whipped up.
"I had just fixed a big supper of pork chops," said Alice, now 79, easily recalling the exact menu for the evening.
As the rest of the family prepared for dinner - it was almost 5 p.m. - Halbert peered out the window. A television weatherman from Cincinnati had recently reported that the storm had dissipated, but Halbert continued to stand watch.
With his eyes focused on the southwestern horizon, Halbert soon discovered the weatherman was wrong.
First, the wind stopped.
"You could hear a match break from 100 yards off," Halbert, now 86, said, noting the calm before the chaos.
Then came the fast-approaching system and a swirling, dark cloud of destruction, which Halbert briefly gawked at in awe as it engulfed water from a nearby creek before tunneling straight for his home.
"It was a granddaddy tornado," Halbert said. "It was awful wide and awful high. I expect it was a mile wide."
Halbert quickly warned the rest of the family, who had rushed into the bathroom for cover. The children - May, 16, Michael, 15, Dolly, 13, and Amy, 5 - piled into the tub hoping the storm would take a sharp turn. The Walstons' oldest children, Vanessa and Valerie, had already moved away from home.
Just as Halbert crossed the threshold of the bathroom, everything and most everyone went airborne.
"It took (the house) away," Halbert said. "It was plum gone."
The Walstons' story is just one from April 3 and 4, 1974 - a 24-hour period that Reader's Digest would later call the "day of 100 tornadoes."
The moniker was fitting. The massive storm system produced countless tornadoes and stretched from Illinois to New York, claiming more than 320 lives. The string of storms is the second-largest outbreak of tornadoes on record for a 24-hour period, second only to a three-day system that slammed the Southeast and killed more than 350 people in 2011.
In Jefferson County, the storm ripped through Hanover and Madison's hilltop, creating extensive damage at Hanover College. The damage at the college was estimated at $10 million following the storm, which would be about $47 million today based on inflation.
The Walstons suffered the loss of their home - which was a rental - and found themselves in serious need of medical attention.
When the twister had passed, everyone was in disarray. The house had collapsed into the basement. Halbert's Plymouth Fury had been launched into a tree. And to make matters worse, the outhouse - and the contents in it - had sprayed all over the backyard and the family.
"I had a dump truck. It went up in the air about 800 feet, come back down head first, and (the tornado) folded that thing up like an accordion," Halbert said slapping his hands together simulating the action.
The storm hurled the family of six into the backyard, sending some of them into the air more than 70 feet. The system, which included two tornadoes, lofted the Walstons' youngest daughter, Amy, into the air and over a tree only to lightly escort her to the ground. A piece of tin gently fell on top of her.
"There were nails and two-by-fours all over that, but it missed her," Halbert said.
When the family assessed the damage, everyone except Dolly had significant injuries. Michael was in the worst shape. His left arm was partially severed at the elbow and he was at risk of bleeding to death. In fact, Halbert had to hold Michael's arm in place for about two hours while pinching off the artery before finding help.
"I was afraid not to do that because he would have bled to death," Halbert said.
Halbert himself had an ankle injury, five broken ribs, a torn rotator cuff and a punctured lung. Alice had injuries to her legs and arms.
"I had a pair of boots on. ... That suction pulled that boot right off my leg," Halbert said.
Amy had a smashed arm, which needed weeks of medical attention. Rescue workers also would later discover that a piece of glass was lodged into May's head dangerously close to her brain.
Once the storm passed, neighbors soon ascended on the home, assessing the damage and hunting for survivors. Amazingly, no deaths were reported from Switzerland County.
Halbert and Michael were found and taken to the hospital.
By the time Alice received medical attention, the destruction had created such a need that all the local ambulances were occupied. She waited at a nearby house - which was spared by the storm - and eventually made the trip to the hospital in the back of a hearse - of all vehicles.
"When I saw that hearse coming, I said 'uh oh,'" Alice said.
At the hospital, Alice found out she had no broken bones but was severely bruised and battered.
Halbert, Amy and Michael all were in the hospital for about one month recovering from their injuries. Halbert said he still has trouble with his ankle 40 years after the incident.
On top of the injuries, the family lost several hogs and cows and a freezer full of fresh pork and beef. The meat had been labeled and signed by Halbert, who later was told the neatly wrapped food had been carried into the Ohio River.
The Walstons later received a small sum of $5,000 to rebuild their lives, but that was "just the tip of the iceberg," Halbert said.
"That didn't last very long," he said.
They bought some clothes for the kids and some furniture and lived in a government trailer while rebuilding their lives. They also talked to a government psychiatrist about the shocking incident.
After the tornado, Alice briefly worked at Swiss Villa in Vevay. The family later made it through a terrible house fire, eventually losing what little possessions they had salvaged from the tornado.
Prior to the tornado, Halbert had a number of jobs, including a stint as the marshal for the small Switzerland County town of Patriot. He's seen his fair share of injuries, too. He has been struck by lightning twice while working on a road crew, suffered serious injuries after overturning a semi and has also survived a fuel truck explosion.
But unlike those brushes with death, the tornado put the entire family in peril, not just Halbert. He admits that it took years of healing and faith to get over the trauma.
"What all it had done to the kids ... that really did a number on me, " Halbert said.
The Walstons have been living in Vevay for the past 28 years. Once in a while, a big storm will pop up and those memories will return.
Alice sometimes gets nervous when a big system shows up in the forecast, but Halbert has a different theory: After that day of chaos almost 40 years ago, he's hopeful the worst is behind him and the community.
"After you go through a tornado like that big one, you kind of have an instinct that it's going to be better the next time," he said. "And it has been."