Shirley Horvath’s family had heard about tornadoes from a relative who lived in Nebraska but they had never imagined a twister could touch down in West Virginia.
What happened June 23rd, 1944 surprised not only Shirley’s family but the entire Mountain State. Tuesday marks the 71st Anniversary of the deadliest string of tornadoes in the history of West Virginia as a series of twisters ripped through the Appalachian Mountains.
“It happened in 1944, I was 4 1/2 years old but I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Shirley Horvath. “When you go through something like that, you don’t forget.”
Shirley was playing outside 71 years ago near her home in Simpson, West Virginia when something just didn’t feel right.
“I can’t really explain but you could just feel something. Even as a little kid, I could feel that it was unusual.”
Shirley’s parents Kenneth and Gladys Richards grabbed her and her older sister Nadine and headed inside their home just as the weather started to turn.
Clay Bartlett, who owned the Richards home and lived with them. The Richards were trying to close up the house and we’re gathering in a closet. When Shirley’s mother was closing the last window, she saw Bartlett near the front door.
“Finally the wind hit that door, just as she was ready to put that window down, it hit that door and she saw him got out that door, it just sucked him out that door,” said Shirley. “They found him up the holler a day or two later and every bone in his body was broken.”
Shirley and her family were thrown from the closet and went flying through the air before landing in their dairy cellar next to what used to be their home. Her father then brought Shirley and her sister to an open field when they were tending to the wounded including her mother.
Her mother was knocked out for 3 days and stayed in the hospital for almost two weeks. Shirley, her father, and her sister had scrapes and bruises that healed but the storm did have some lasting effects on Shirley.
“There were years when I would have nightmares and my mom would find me climbing up the walls. I’d jump out of bed at night and cry and scream,” said Shirley. “I was so scared of storms that I would get sick, I’d get cramps in my stomach. When there would be a cloud in the sky that looked like it was going to storm, I’d get sick.”
Seven people died in Shirley’s hometown of Simpson, West Virginia in Taylor County including Clay Bartlett. The string of storms killed 104 people throughout West Virginia and remains the deadliest tornado outbreak in the Mountain State’s history.