Tornado Survivor Recounts Event

Shirley Horvath considers it a miracle that she survived being spun and tossed by tornado winds 70 years ago Monday in what is considered the worst natural disaster in West Virginia’s history.

“I feel God blessed us,” said Horvath, who was 4-1/2 years of age when she, as well as her parents and sister, survived the Shinnston tornado, which resulted in deaths in four states.

The tornado, which occurred June 23, 1944, caused 153 deaths in sections of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio.

Horvath’s mother, Gladys Richards, wasn’t expected to live after being injured, and she was unconscious for three days during an 11-day hospital stay. Horvath, her father, Kenneth, and her sister, Nadine, sustained cuts and bruises, and the Dillonvale woman bears a scar on her finger from the disaster in which their house was leveled.

Clyde Bartlett, who lived with the family, died in the disaster. As Horvath’s mother tried to put down the front window in the living room, Bartlett was attempting to close the front screen door when the wind whipped the door open, pulling him with it and hurling him through the air.

“My mother said he was spinning like a top when he passed the front window,” Horvath said.

Crashing, crackling sounds like a train coming through the house occurred when the window blew out in her mother’s face, Horvath said.

“She had blood on her face,” she said. “I don’t remember her getting back to us (the other three family members), but she did.”

The family lived near Simpson, W.Va., about 25 miles from Shinnston. Their home was down in a little hollow, with hills all around it.

“We didn’t think anything of tornados and heard one wouldn’t go down in the valley,” Horvath said. “It scooped right down … and took everything with it.”

The tornado occurred at about 8:30 p.m., and it had been a hot, sticky day. Horvath said even as a child, she knew something was different. As evening approached, there were clouds and lightning with the clouds. The rolling clouds were different colors, which Horvath’s father called a cloudburst.

Then the wind began.

Her father, fearing a big tree would crash down on the house, suggested they seek refuge in a closet near a fireplace which had a big stone chimney. They didn’t make it into the closet before the winds demolished the house.

“All four of us were picked up and were airborne,” Horvath said, adding her father was holding of her. “He remembered being tossed and turned in the air. I don’t remember.”

They landed in a milkhouse several away. She said the milkhouse had been the lower level of a smokehouse, which was ripped off by the tornado. Horvath said the first thing her father heard was her screaming.

“Mommy was on the bottom, deeper than anyone,” she said. “When he got me, the wind was still blowing. The wind was whipping me back and forth. My foot was caught between the boards. If it hadn’t been for that, I’d have been blown away.”

Neighbors brought blankets and coats for them to lie on; her badly injured mother was carried to a neighbor’s house and laid on a table. There were no emergency cars, and when help was sought from Simpson more than 5 miles away, the rescuers had to fight trees and debris.

“My uncle had a panel truck and took her to a Clarksburg hospital,” Horvath said. “Everybody thought she wouldn’t come out of it. They didn’t have much to work with.”

Horvath said her mother’s head was cut open and clamps were used to close it. Her injuries also included a broken nose, broken ribs and black eyes. Meanwhile, the rest of the family stayed with Horvath’s grandmother after the disastrous windstorm.

“Nobody can believe what it looked like (after the tornado),” she said. “Everything was gone. … It killed all the chickens, but didn’t hurt the cows or horse. I heard a lot of places, it pulled the feathers from chickens. By the time it was dark, the sky was so clear. You couldn’t believe how pretty the sky was.”

Horvath said she and her sister, Nadine Gough, who lives in Pruntytown, are among the tornado survivors still alive. The tornado left her with bad nerves and a fear of storms until she decided she needed to get over it.

“It took me a while to calm down,” she said, adding storms still make her a little uneasy. “It’s just strange. Why did the wind pick us up, take us that far and put us down? I think God saved us for a reason. … He saved mom and dad. They taught us a lot, and they were good people.”

Horvath and her husband, Bob “Dink” Horvath, created a singing ministry later in life

“God knew our future,” she said. “He saved us because He wanted to use us.”