Poquonock's Sudden Destruction: The Tornado of 1979

Recent storms have ravaged Southern states. History is able to tell us that such destruction is possible anywhere. In 1979, Windsor was decimated in an encounter with their own sudden, severe storm.

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.

Charles Gidman May 02, 2011 at 11:43 AM
To clarify: I believe Gale Hallet Deming was a "She" and not a "He" the Hallets were my Grand mothers next door neighbor. The Papers from the bank were not "from" the Berkshires, there were found later in the berkshires, as well as New Hampshire. While there was fear of looting, I saw none of this as the police and national Guard immediately initiated a cerfew and patrolled the area as well as barracading the roads in and out of town to control who came and went. And my Grandmother was not a "Grandmother Gidman, but rather a Lang. My Mother is Karen Lang Gidman. My Grandmother was Olga Lang.
Eric Willadsen May 02, 2011 at 11:13 PM
Charles, I appreciate the input and clarification! It certainly helps to gather a clearer picture of those events; especially since I have not been alive long enough to have witnessed such devastation. Thanks!
Pat Lupacchino May 23, 2011 at 03:29 AM
I remember how thankful I was that it was a Wednesday and the Poquonock School only had a half day session. Both my children attended the school, but were home at the time the tornado roared through. I worked at what was Dobbs International Services in Poquonock. It was located next to Poquonock Central Market, and was food service for the airlines at Bradley Field. Part of the roof had been peeled off, but we worked preparing food for all the National Guardsmen posted throughout Poquonock, Windsor Locks, and at the Field. We worked without power using kerosene lanterns, flashlights, and car headlights and with tarps overhead because it rained. I worked third shift and every nite I had to pass through a checkpoint located near my home.
Erin Hitchens May 20, 2013 at 06:35 PM
I remember that day and being in that tornado. I was in the church basement right across from Poquonock Elementary School. I was in brownies. I heard the loud roar and saw the bottom of the tornado. I lost almost all of my friends that day. I loved that school. I remember hanging onto a pole in the middle of the church basement. It is a roar that you will never forget. I remember seeing the lightning inside the tornado and seeing the debris that was in this tornado. I sometimes still have nightmares about what happened. I remember after all was done. The quiet that was almost deafening. I remember coming out of the church basement and seeing my school destroyed. I then looked at the Catholic Church that I just came out of and looked that the church the only thing wrong was the steeple was twisted and bent backwards.I also remember looking over at my school and see nothing but rubble. It was no longer standing. I cried. I remember when people came into the church as the storm was happening and asking where are my friends. People said to me i'm sorry they didn't make it out of their houses. I also remember the firemen taking me and my mom home. I was six years old at that time. I remember also seeing the National Gaurd helping everyone out. I would like to extend a giant thank you to all who helped everyone out including myself and my family.In 1988 my family moved to Florida. I have been trying to find a way since high school. That was a horrible day. I slept on my toy box in the closet with the light on for several years after that when a thunderstorm had rolled through. Now they put me to sleep. I look back at these pictures and they bring back a lot of memories. I pray that everyone who has gone through this in 1979 has been able to overcome their fears. I know I have.


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