Monday, April 13, 2015

50th Anniversary of Pittsfield Tornado Commemorative Program

The scene outside the Pittsfield Town Hall Saturday afternoon
On Saturday, I managed to make it down to Pittsfield for the event sponsored by the Pittsfield Township Historical Society commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado. It was held at the Town Hall at Routes 58 and 303. I knew it was going to be a big event, because the parking lot was already packed when my mother and I arrived, a half-hour before the scheduled start.

The Pittsfield Township Historical Society put on an ambitious program. First was the dedication of a plaque (at right) outside the Hall, honoring those who died during the tornado. The church bell at the nearby Pittsfield Community Church solemnly tolled once as the speaker finished reading each victim's biography.

Next, a documentary produced by Wellington High School students was shown, in which Pittsfield tornado survivors were interviewed about what they remembered from that fateful day. The short film was followed by an entertaining presentation by Roger Pickenpaugh, author of "Night of the Wicked Winds," in which he told the story of the Palm Sunday tornadoes.

As the program drew to a close, people that lived through the tornado and had a story to tell were invited to share it with the crowd in the well-packed room. Some of the survivors still had difficulty talking about it 50 years later, and their stories were punctuated with tears and sobs. For many of the people, the tornado was the defining event of their lives.

Hearing the recollections of the survivors, and the stories of how everyone pulled together to help each other in the hours after the tornado, really drove home the feeling of community that the Pittsfield Township residents share.

Lastly, some rare clips from home movies showing tornado damage were shown to end the program.

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Before the program started, there were tables set up around the room with displays of photos of the tornado damage, as well as yellowing newspapers from the days following the disaster. So I joined the line of people slowly moving past each table, studying each artifact and document.

At one point, I looked down at an old Chronicle-Telegram with an article about a woman who – after the tornado had struck her house – had ended up in a ditch on Route 303, buried under several feet of debris until one of her sons found her. She lived through the ordeal, but was unable to walk after that.

The gentleman next to me saw me reading the article, and pointed to it. "That was my mother," he told me matter-of-factly.

In an instant, I imagined my own mother in such a horrible situation. All I could say to him was, "I'm so sorry."

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