Raymond Lee : Tornado Oral History


Submitted: May 30, 2005
Raymond Lee
Wooster, Ohio

Twenty years ago I was the City Editor of the now-defunct Niles Daily Times, working in our office on W. State St., Niles.
It had been a beautiful day, although extremely hot and humid. The type of day water-lovers thrived in for a holiday.
Shortly before 7 p.m. I noticed dark clouds in the western sky and also the sunroof on a reporter's car in the parking lot was open. After going outside to close it I glanced at the western sky and thought it odd that the dark clouds moving in seemed to be isolated into a corner of the sky.
I went back into the second floor office to a wire machine and glanced out the western window again, in time to see the oil storage tanks about 1/2 mile away lifted into the air like tin foil. A giant twister was making its way into the city.
Chasing the few workers in the office to the basement, I grabbed photographer Bruce Palmer from the darkroom and we jumped into my car. We drove down to Robbins Ave and with the tornado about 2 blocks north of us, we continued down Robbins toward McKinley Heights where we lost the twister. We started working our way back to downtown.
I vividly remember as I watched the spinning monster speed through neighborhoods, you could actually identify some of the debris begin sucked into it. Wood from houses and garages, large pieces of furniture...it would be easy to be mesmerized by the sight.
From the length of time this destructive storm had been on the ground, the amount of damage was unbelievable. Houses lifted from their foundations, others gone with only the basement as proof there had once been a house. Houses stood with one entire wall gone while the remainder stood untouched – complete with pictures on dressers still standing.
As we continued our walk, we stopped to help people from their basements. Through debris-ridden yards amazing stories of survival began to emerge. Stories of heroism began to be told and then stories of how vast and complete the destruction of the storm began to unfold.
As news from other parts of the city began to filter in, it quickly became apparent this would be the storm forever embedded in the minds of the residents. From Newton Falls to the west to as far east as Wheatland, Pa., the storm had been unerring in its path and in its intent to destroy any challenge it confronted.
Storm victims were also interested in how much damage there was in surrounding areas. As they emerged from what remained of their homes, first accessing injuries and then damages, their thoughts were from helping their neighbor to can we ever get back to normal?
We also believed they would want to know what happened to their town as well as who, what and more importantly when, they might get some help dealing with the aftermath.
We returned to our office. Like the entire city, we had no electricity and no telephones. We realized that if there was to be a paper published for the next day, it wasn’t going to be from here.
Bruce was able to process the several roles of film he had taken on our excursion, but printing them wasn’t going to happen.
By driving out of town, we were able to find a payphone that worked. We contacted a sister-newspaper in Massillon and arranged to have the paper published there. With out Sports Editor Mike Tenney and reporter Jim Flick returning from the girls softball tournament in Columbus, we packed them, photographer Bruce, Fred Kearney and a couple of folks from our production department and headed to Massillon – about a two-hour ride.
The people there gave us a brief course on their newer, updated equipment and we set out to put together a newspaper. This small group of employees of Phoenix Publications pulled together and we finally made it back to Niles about 9:30 the next morning with 10,000 copies of what would become known as “The Tornado Edition.”
We relied heavily on conversations with various members of the Niles Police Department along with continuous reporting from radio stations while we traveled to gain a better understanding of the widespread nature of the damage and realized quickly that now that we had an edition dealing with the destruction, we would spend what turned out to be months following up on the city rebuilding. From the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the local Interfaith Relief Council, we would provide people with information as the recovered from the property damage and grieved over their personal losses. The close calls with death and the ability to reach deep inside to find strength to deal with what occurred was a constant reminder of the danger the city faced that day.

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