XENIA — On the way to saving his own life 40 years ago, former Ohio State Highway Patrolman John “Larry” Davis managed to save the lives of dozens of Xenia residents at the same time.
Davis, 67, was one of two Xenia post patrolman on second-shift duty on April 3, 1974, the day an F5 tornado leveled parts of Xenia. He had just dropped off his uniform at an area dry cleaner when another patrolman radioed the post and indicated a tornado had just hit the Arrowhead subdivision in the southwest part of the city.
“I said ‘Oh my gosh, I better get going,” Davis said. “I had an idea of the path it was going since it was hitting Arrowhead.”
The path it was taking was right at Davis, who was near downtown. He saw stuff “swirling in the air” and made a move for safety. Davis turned onto second street, then made a quick left on North Detroit Street.
“The whole time I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to go,” he said.
But then in an instant he turned into a hero. As Davis travelled on Detroit Street he saw crowds of people lining the street to get a glimpse of the imminent storm. Davis kept going north on Detroit right at the citizens.
“I threw my legs around the steering wheel and I took my arms and (waved for people) to ‘get the heck out of here,’ ” Davis said. He blasted his siren and yelled to anyone who would listen, forgetting, for at least a moment, his own well-being.
“I’m still in the mode of being a police officer,” Davis said. “I see everybody on the street. You can’t go without having a certain amount of compassion.”
Convinced he did his job, Davis turned east on Market Street (by City Hall) and headed toward what was then a grocery store.
“I had no sooner gone by and glanced at the (grocery) store and I saw that thing going up. I knew I was a goner,” Davis said. He saw brick house kitty-corner from the old sheriff’s building (on Greene Street) and went around back to take shelter.
“I had no place else to go,” Davis said. “As soon as I dropped (to the ground) I remember this lady came out and screamed ‘what’s going on?’ I screamed out, ‘there’s a tornado hitting now.’ The last thing I heard she screamed. I looked east and saw houses going up. I’m thinking … this can’t be happening.”
When it was finally over Davis checked on the residents inside that brick home and then walked into town to begin to make sense of what transpired.
“A lot happened in such a short amount of time,” Davis said. “I had never heard that tornadoes came through cities. I’m so full of emotion. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t seem to get my head together. I was running for my life and didn’t know what I was outrunning.”
The scene was post-apocalyptic.
“Stuff was piled up,” Davis said. Trees were uprooted. Telephone wires and poles were scattered. His own police cruiser was inoperable because a tree slammed into it.
Xenia survived and was rebuilt. Those who lived through it told their stories over and over again.
But not Davis. He kept his remarkable story to himself a those close to him until now.
That begs the question, why?
“I asked myself that all the time,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to be bothered at the time.”
But Davis felt with the 40th anniversary today, the time was “appropriate for historical purposes.”