Windsor is no stranger to natural disasters. Its close proximity to the Connecticut and Farmington rivers has left it vulnerable to flooding. Intense, hurricane-like storms can find their way up the Connecticut River and damage vulnerable river towns. Unexpected, extreme winters can also do a tremendous amount of damage.
On the contrary, Connecticut tornadoes are often weak, few and far between. As geologist Ryan Hanrahan recounts in his article “Remembering Windsor, Windsor Locks Tornado: 30 Years Later," tornadoes are rare, and strong ones are extremely rare. But in the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1979, mother nature defied the odds and common perceptions of tornadoes in the Nutmeg state when a category four twister touchded down in Windsor just west of the Connecticut River.
While most of Windsor was remained untouched, nearly all of Poquonock was devastated by this sudden and highly unexpected natural force. The tornado continued its rampage through Bradley Airport and eventually dissipated once reaching Suffield.
The damage in Windsor's northern region was profound. And the tornado's fury was quick, relentless and encompassing. Gale Hallett Deming, a contributor to the Windsor Historical Society's The Windsor Storytellers, gave her account of the storm in the simply named essay “The Tornado – October 3, 1979.” Deming describes the scene immediately before twister touchdown. In it, she describes the sky as suddenly becoming “very dark as the storm intensified and there was this horrible, deafening noise. Windows through the house shattered, the dog was hiding and suddenly insulation was falling all around me...of course, I was not expecting a tornado...who would?” Deming's horror came quickly but lasted for awhile.
And how could it not? Any person's sense, often compiled by normalcy and daily ritual, can become severely disorientated by such an event. It was no different with Deming. She even admits that he was “obviously in some state of shock.” One of her first reactions was to carry a bucket upstairs to collect dripping water “from what I thought was a leak.” Yet upon arrival she found that this proved impossible as the leak proved to be a missing roof, and the bucket “was not going to cover it.” She then realized that she was trapped in his house, only increasing the “panic and fear [that had] begun setting in.”
After screaming for help, the fire department eventually showed up and helped Deming out of her wrecked house. Finding her way around town she noted that society had come to a standstill. Poquonock School was being used as a shelter, and most “people already there all had the same look of disbelief and shock. The traffic on the road consisted only of emergency vehicles.” Continuing, Deming explains that “Poquonock looked like a war zone in some respects.” This included Poquonock Community Church, which was “severely damaged. The tornado ravaged the neighborhood in a zigzag fashion.” Deming also describes a scene in which several individuals were able to flag down emergency vehicles as if they were taxis.
Tornadoes often do more than damage everything through their path. More often than naught, buildings are not only brought down, but also become mixed up. Through this entire process, personal stories find common meeting ground. Karen Lang Gidman also took the time to recount her experience in “Losing Touch – The Hidden Horror of the '79 Tornado in Windsor.” After the storm, she went to check on her mother who had survived by what Gidman describes as a miracle: “Shortly before the storm hit she had felt tired and had gone into her bedroom to lie down. Flying bricks from the church across the street were soon crashing through her front window, bringing jagged pieces of glass that land in the chair she had been sitting in.” The same Poquonock Community Church that had been wrecked had ended up in Grandma Gidman's house. If it had not been for afternoon naps, the church may have landed in her lap.
Gidman also helps to paint a fuller picture of the destruction. She describes the “papers from the bank up the street were from the Berkshires. Six huge old maple trees that lined the boundary between our house and the next had toppled like toothpicks.” And this was only a small stretch of Poquonock street. Like most emergencies, a large volunteer crew helped to clean up the town. Yet recovery took time, and many took advantage of the disheveled community. Gale Deming claims that looters were running rampant but Gidman makes no mention. Some of this historical interpretation will just have to be left for others to speculate.
This article was written utilizing resources provided by The Windsor Historical Society. The Windsor Historical Society staff was not involved in the fact checking process of this article. Any opinions within this column do not reflect the viewpoints of The Windsor Historical Society or its staff. You can visit the Windsor Historical Society at www.WindsorHistoricalSocety.org.