Walston family and memories of the 1974 tornado: ‘God was with us’

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On April 3rd, 1974, tornados ripped across the Midwest, leaving all sorts of devastation in their wake. Here in Switzerland County and surrounding areas, tornados destroyed homes and turned over lives, but in the midst of the tragedy, the strength of the human spirit responded by rising up and beginning life again.

Such is the story of the Halbert Walston family.

Halbert and Alice Walston sit in their apartment on Vineyard Street in Vevay and recall the events of that day 33 years ago as if it were yesterday. Removed by time, the couple is reflective on the horrors of that day and the impact that it had on their family.

“We lost everything we had physically,” Halbert Walston said, “But spiritually, we still had everything.”

Ask Halbert Walston about April 3rd, 1974, and the simplest details come immediately to mind.

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Halbert Walston remembers that he was hauling some corn with his daughter, Amy, then just five years old. Alice Walston was at home doing some laundry, and remembers thinking how windy the day was. After loading another truck full of corn, Halbert Walston remembers that it was about suppertime, so he and Amy backed the family truck, still filled with corn, onto a ramp by the barn and headed to the house.

After a day filled with high winds, Alice Walston remembers that suddenly everything got very calm. The family had been hearing about tornados that had been hitting communities around the Midwest, and they had heard that severe weather was coming toward the Fairview and Bear Branch areas, so they kept an eye toward the sky as they wrapped up their day.

The family lived back a lane on South Fork Road near Bear Branch, and Halbert Walston says that earlier that day two of his daughters, Vanessa and Valerie, had called home to make sure that everyone was all right with all of the storms. Vanessa was stationed in Connecticut in the Navy, and Valerie was there for a visit.

“I told them that we were all right, but to call back later than night, because if the storms hit, the house and us might both be gone,” Halbert Walston says. “I guess I hit it right on.”

Halbert Walston says that when he and his dog “Poncho” went into the front yard to watch the weather, the tornado that he saw coming over the hills directly at South Fork was like nothing he’d ever seen before.

“It reached from the top of one hill to the other,” Halbert Walston said. “It looked like a big, dark wedge coming at us. It looked like a black sheet covering the sky. I saw it just roll the water in the creek up like you’d roll up that carpet there. I told everyone to get in the other room and lay down.”

The tornado then hit the nearby barn, a sight that Halbert Walston compares to picking up a handful of dust and blowing it into a fan – “It just disappeared,” he said.

For some reason the family didn’t try to make their way into the small basement below the farmhouse, and after the tornado passed, the utter devastation of the basement makes Halbert and Alice Walston believe that no one would have made it out of that basement alive.

As the family laid on the floor, everything got very calm and very still and quiet.

It was 5:16 p.m. on April 3rd – and the next 90-seconds would change the Walston family’s lives forever.

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Halbert Walston says that the farmhouse looked like it took a deep breath, as the walls bowed in from the pressure outside. Then, almost instantly, the entire house was gone as boards and glass and dirt and dust flew through the air.

The vaccuum-like suction of the tornado was pulling against the family, and it was then that Halbert Walston recalls one of the most traumatic moments of his life.

“The tornado sucked Amy and Dolly Ruth, our two youngest children, right up into the air and out of sight,” Halbert Walston says quietly. “I saw them going up into that tornado and out of my sight, and I thought ‘what a horrible way to die’.”

But they didn’t.

Halbert and Alice Walston aren’t exactly sure what happened, but their strong Christian faith tells them that God intervened and saved their daughters. They say that a smaller tornado impacted the larger one at that moment, and it sucked the two girls into it, but then wasn’t strong enough to keep them in the air.

“Amy said she floated down to the ground like a leaf falling from a tree,” Alice Walston said. “All Dolly had was a sprained thumb from the whole thing.”

Alice Walston says that she can’t walk without shoes, and after the main thrust of the tornado hit, she only had one tennis shoe on – so she couldn’t go to find and help her children.

“I remember I closed my eyes and prayed to God for a shoe,” Alice Walston remembers. “When I opened my eyes, Halbert’s work boot was laying right in front of me in all of the mess. I put it on and went to find the kids.”

Alice Walston found daughter Amy lying under a sheet of aluminum on the ground.

“She said. ‘Mommy, something’s wrong with my arm’,” Alice Walston said. “She had a broken elbow.”

Alice then found Halbert lying on the ground. Nearby, son Mike had a serious arm injury, but Halbert remembers that he couldn’t get up to get to his son.

“I reached around and discovered that I had a big plank of wood with the nails still in it and it was driven through my hip,” Halbert Walston said. “I used my fist like a hammer to knock the board off of my hip, and after Alice rolled me over, and crawled ‘Army-style’ over to Mike.”

The Walstons remember that Mike’s arm was dangling at the elbow, nearly severed in the storm. Halbert Walston remembers that everytime Mike’s heart would beat, blood would spurt from the wound. His nose was also broken.

“I decided to stay with Mike, and I told Alice to get the kids and go for help,” Halbert Walston said. “I also had a deep cut on my arm from crawling to Mike and I was bleeding pretty bad. I thought we were both going to bleed to death before we got help.”

Halbert Walston remembers that he laid over Mike and held his son as the heavy rains pummeled the ground. The rain then changed to hail and sleet, and as the two Walston males laid on the ground, they were covered with a blanket of ice.

“When we got to the hospital later, the doctors said that the ice cooled both of us and slowed down our heart rates, which made us bleed slower,” Halbert Walston said. “The doctor said that without that ice, we would have bled to death.”

Alice Walston gathered children Amy, Dolly Ruth, and Bonetta Mae and began to walk through the rain storm toward the road. At one point she decided to put the girls under a bridge and out of the storm, but after walking a short distance alone, she realized that she wasn’t going to make it out to help and returned to find the girls.

“It’s a good thing that I went back, because with all of the rain that creek flooded, and the girls would have been washed away by the water,” Alice Walston said.

With Dolly Ruth having sprained thumb, Amy with a broken elbow, and Alice covered with cuts all over her head; the Walstons didn’t think that there were injuries to daughter Bonetta Mae.

“When help finally got to us, a state policeman was putting Bonetta Mae into his cruiser, and he laid his hand on the back of her head,” Halbert Walston said. “When he did, he cut himself, and as he looked more closely, the trooper discovered that Bonetta Mae had a large sliver of a glass mirror driven through the back of her head and near her brain.

“The doctor said that had she bounced around a little, it might have gone on into her brain, so she was very lucky,” Halbert Walston said.

Halbert Walston suffered five broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a crushed ankle along with other injuries in the tornado, and it would take him more than a year to recover.

“When you’re right in the center of a tornado, it’s like you’re in a big vacuum cleaner,” Halbert Walston said. “You lose all of the air in your lungs. When I gasped for some air, I breathed in all sorts of things that were flying through the air. I had to spend extra time in the hospital just getting all of that cleaned out of my lungs.”

Helped arrived and emergency workers began the process of getting the family members out and to medical help. Mike and Halbert were taken out in the back of a pickup truck; and Alice was the last one to be taken out – and she went in a hearse.

“I guess everything else was being used other places,” she smiles. “I can say that I know what it’s like to ride in the back of a hearse.”

The Walston family lost everything in the tornado, with the exception of the truck filled with corn that was still parked on the ramp where the barn used to be. The family dog also survived, but the Walstons found the family cat dead, its claws buried into the bark of a tree.

“That truck was still sitting there when I got out of the hospital, just like I left it,” Halbert Walston remembers.

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Now 33 years after the tornado, the Walston family is healthy and happy, according to Halbert and Alice.

Son Mike is a welder and is married and lives in Hardy, Virginia; while daughter Bonetta Mae works for the U.S. Government at Fort Lee, Virginia. Dolly Ruth works for the Homeland Security office in Indianapolis and lives in Fortville, Indiana; and daughter Vanessa lives in Indianapolis as well.

Daughter Valerie lives on Big Doe Run here in Switzerland County; and youngest daughter Amy lives on Markland Pike with husband Rich Lay and works for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Halbert and Alice Walston also have 12 living grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They have been married for 55 years.

After the tornado the Walstons lived in the parsonage of the Methodist Church in Patriot for several years until it burned down one day – with the family again losing everything. But the Walstons don’t live in the past and their misfortunes, instead preferring to look ahead and count all of the blessings that they have received.

“God was with us,” Halbert Walston says simply. “And He continues to be with us today.”