Tornadoes, explosion claimed Hoosier lives

April 11, 1965, started like many other spring days -- humid with a light thundershower. It ended like this -- widespread destruction form a series of tornadoes.

Twisters brought President Johnson to the region.

By Shannon Lohrmann of The News-Sentinel

Some of the worst disasters – natural and man-made – in Indiana history struck in the 1960s, according to an article wrapping up the decade's events published Jan. 1, 1970, in The News-Sentinel.

As assistant to the governor for several administrations, David Allen saw many of these tragedies firsthand, including wreckage left by the Palm Sunday tornadoes and human suffering caused by a propane gas explosion at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum.

"You never get hardened to this,'' Allen said. "I always thought that death was something that happened somewhere else to people you didn't know.''

A stormy Sunday

The Palm Sunday tornadoes hit April 11, 1965. The day started like many other April days, humid with a light thundershower. However, the clear skies that followed were short-lived.

In the late afternoon, forecasters were calling for severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes.

The storms started around 6:40 p.m., and by 9 that night, 10 tornadoes had torn through the Hoosier State, chewing up homes, farms and businesses along the way.

Allen remembers standing on the porch of his Indianapolis home when he got a phone call about the storms and subsequent damage.

"I then had to tell the State Police,'' he said. "They were one of the agencies I was in charge of.''

Gov. Roger Branigin, with Allen and eight other staff members, had worked out a contingency plan in case of a tornado.

"And it worked,'' Allen said. "We had plans for a number of things. People really pulled together.''

Adams and LaGrange counties were the hardest hit in northeast Indiana. Tornadoes also damaged parts of Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

Statewide, federal records show 137 people died, and nearly 1,800 were injured.

The federal Storm Prediction Center lists 62 dead and 504 injured in Elkhart County alone that day, the fifth-highest single-day death toll of any county nationwide.

Indiana ranks second in tornado damages nationwide – $1.6 billion. Only Texas, with $1.9 billion in damages, is higher. The Palm Sunday tornadoes were responsible for $125 million of destruction.

"I didn't get a lot of sleep for about three days,'' Allen said. He was busy mobilizing the Indiana State Police and National Guard.

Electricity was out, and phone lines were down.

"We could only use the radios in police cars for communication,'' Allen said. News took longer to travel, and emergency procedures took longer to coordinate.

But he didn't see the lack of mass communications as much of a problem when picking up rubble and helping dazed families.

"There was a lot less bureaucracy back then,'' Allen said. "A lot of the decisions were made on the ground. You just did what you knew was right.''

But news of President Lyndon Johnson's arrival in South Bend made it quickly to Allen's ears.

He worked with the Secret Service to barricade a South Bend-area football field for landing the president's helicopter.

They used wooden sawhorse barricades to keep people back, Allen said. He decided to move the crowd back even farther than the barricades – just in case.

"I knew how those Hueys (helicopters) can throw things around,'' Allen said.

And, as he feared, the president's helicopter tossed the wooden barricades near the crowd.

"I was so glad we had moved those people back,'' he said. "I thought, `Here we go: The president lands, and we have a dozen more people hurt!' ''

Johnson stayed in South Bend for less than an hour, Allen said.

"Then we went back to work doing what we needed to do.''

While trying to clean up rubble left behind by the tornadoes, many people simply burned down their homes and other buildings because it was easier and safer than trying to pick through the wreckage.

"I was absolutely amazed at the force of the winds,'' Allen said. "It drove wood through wood just like a knife through hot butter.''

Similar observations were also recounted in the April 13, 1965, issue of The News-Sentinel.

One girl had been torn from her father's arms during the storm. When her family found her face-down in the mud, bits of wood had been driven through her legs by the tornadoes' winds.

Allen was impressed with the outpourings of help and compassion from those not hit, including the Salvation Army, which was there "almost immediately.

"They were doing what they could do to alleviate human misery,'' he said, "not asking for anything.''

Yet Allen is still bothered that he couldn't do more to protect Hoosiers from the tornadoes.

"Many nights I woke up and asked if we could have done anything to prevent that,'' Allen said. "Of course, the answer was no.''

Horrific Halloween disaster

A few years earlier, Allen was the go-to guy in Gov. Matthew Welsh's office when bleachers at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum exploded on Halloween 1963, during the finale of Holiday on Ice.

"I happened to live the closest,'' he said, "and I was the youngest guy at the time.'' He was also the governor's representative on the Fair Board.

He was at the west end of the coliseum in less than 20 minutes that night.

A propane gas explosion in a popcorn concession area under the bleachers killed 74 people and injured 500.

The smaller numbers didn't make this catastrophe any less than the tornadoes in Allen's mind.

"How much devastation we suffered was equally as horrific, but in a more confined area,'' he said.

At the coliseum, Allen met state trooper Frank Love. Love was terribly troubled at the disaster.

"I don't think you want to go there,'' Love told Allen at the entrance of the coliseum. "I've never seen anything like this, and I was in Korea.''

"Charred flesh is not a pleasant odor,'' Allen remembered.

During the explosion, people had been thrown up in the air higher than the lighting booth near the top of the bleachers.

The people who ran the lights saw bodies fly up past them and then come back down, Allen said.

"People had been enjoying themselves just two minutes earlier,'' he said.

Several hospitals sent ambulances, and they tried to treat the injured on the ice.

Allen remembers a newspaper photo taken that night, showing rows of charred bodies, with doctors standing over them trying to identify the remains.

"Those two things – the tornadoes and the explosion – will stick in my mind,'' Allen said. "The sheer magnitude of the loss of life.''
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