Aerial view looking west, showing the path of the tornado on October 6, three days after it raged through. Sue Banks’ street, Hollow Brook Road, runs horizontally through the middle of the image (Poquonock Ave. is the road toward the top). Her house is not pictured, but would have been just south of here. WHS collections 2019.12.1, gift of the Town of Windsor Town Clerk’s Office.
On October 3, 1979, a devastating tornado hit the village of Poquonock in Windsor at 3 PM. Three people were killed, 143 hospitalized and 350 others were treated in emergency rooms. Fifty homes were severely damaged, and 69 were destroyed completely.
Sue Banks was one of the Poquonock residents at home with her children that afternoon. She wrote down these memories in the days after the tornado hit, and donated the document to our library in 1997. We have edited it for length and clarity.
On the morning of October 3, 1979, five of us sat in Bonnie Evans’ new kitchen discussing Trish Larkin’s newly announced pregnancy and the merits of the building of this new house we sat in. As we sat sipping coffee and chattering, little did we know that by mid-afternoon we would all need builders, and that it would be a long time before life was normal for us again once this day was over.
I was a relative newcomer to the street [Hollow Brook Road]. We’d bought our seven-room raised ranch just 2 ½ years before and were delighted with it. I had visions of growing old in this house.
We didn’t stay long at Bonnie’s as the children were due for naps. Candy Fatemi and her children rode with me for the short drive down the street lined with multicolored autumn trees. I dropped Candy off at her little yellow ranch house and parked my car in my own driveway. A glance at the rich brown color of my house assured me anew of the good decision we had made this past summer to re-stain the shake shingles. [At the time] when the first spray of dark paint had been applied, I had been overcome by a sudden fear that I was seeing a charred wall, a portent that the house would be destroyed by fire. I told myself the thought was silly and dismissed it. I would recall the moment later.
As I made my three-year-old son Gabriel his lunch, I called Marilyn Slipski on the phone and invited her and her daughters Karen and Laurie to spend the long Wednesday afternoon with us. When my oldest son Michael, who was in first grade, came home from school, he told me he had invited Billy Evans over to play as well. Five children played with Legos in the downstairs family room while Marilyn and I sat upstairs in the kitchen.
At about 2:45 PM Billy left for home, putting on his rain slicker and insisting on walking home in the increasing rain. I found out days later that due to the heavy rain, Billy had taken a forbidden shortcut through a back yard. Had he not done so, he would have been caught outside when nature came barreling down our street.
Marilyn said she had to go too but her daughter Karen could stay until 5 PM We stood at the door to my back deck. Not only was the rain denser than I’d ever seen, but the wind had picked up as well. We watched as my redwood umbrella table listed off the deck in the wind, and that’s when I felt my ears pop.
I mentioned the sensation to Marilyn saying I knew that it meant something but I didn’t know what. We commented how it looked like a hurricane outside, but of course it couldn’t be. Hurricanes were always predicted. How naïve we were.
Karen headed for the stairs and closed the front door. Just then the lights went off. From where Marilyn and I stood at the back door, we saw an electrical wire drop, shooting sparks as it descended. Still we were not alarmed. But it was so dark! We called to the children to come to the kitchen as the darkness grew. Little bodies reached us, but we could no longer see enough to tell how many came and which ones they were! It was a moment of complete, utter blackness. I had not known it could get so dark.
My arms stretched out to reach the unseen children, an attempt to reassure them that the electricity was simply off, nothing more serious than that. Then I heard the shattering, tinkling of glass breaking and knew my living room window had blown in.
That was the precise moment of realization that something awesome was happening.
In seconds, the sound of crinkling glass was overpowered by a roar – a deafening roar so loud it was akin to the absence of hearing. At that moment we were deaf and blind. No longer standing and reaching for the children, we were now a jumble on the floor. There was an intense force from behind, and we were screaming. I knew we were screaming because far away I felt a dim echo of sound vibrating in my throat, but I couldn’t hear anything but that massive roar.
I remember first screaming that my beautiful house was being destroyed, and I knew at that moment that it would never be the same, if we lived. If we lived? Suddenly my screams were not for my house but for my babies!
I could feel my arm bent tightly around a child’s head, and I fought to keep that intense pressure from forcing me to crush my own child’s skull. I was so scared I was going to hill him, but I couldn’t release my arm any more than I could relieve the searing pain in the twisted knee of my right leg. I was sure that leg was breaking. Still I screamed and could not hear my own voice. One more ounce of pressure, and I would black out. Was it my fate to die beneath the rubble of my house? Let the storm cease, Lord! Let the walls stop falling.
And the walls did stop and the blackness abated. It had lasted maybe fifteen seconds! An eternity. I don’t know when I knew it had been a tornado but by then I understood.
I knew we were in the house and yet suddenly I could see the outside, the clouds, the rain, a brightening sky. Where seconds before there had been kitchen counters, windows and ceiling, now above me was sky.
We were wedged underneath my butcher-bloc kitchen table top. It was slanted like a lean-to and enclosed us in a triangle. On top of it was the sodden, collapsed plasterboard wall, and on top of the wall was the sodden, wet sleep-sofa. The cumbersome piece of furniture was braced on one end by the kitchen stove. Had it landed six inches shy, the full weight of that heavy sofa would have crushed us.
I was trapped and unable to move. But Marilyn, with a strength that she later explained as the adrenaline-induced ability of a terrified mother, used her back and shoulders and lifted debris to free herself. As she crawled out, I straightened my cramped body, unbent my twisted knee, and raised my weight off the crying children beneath me. Their terrified cries reassured me they were alive. I tried to calm the children by saying repeatedly, “It’s okay. We’re alive.” Then I couldn’t help but quip, “This is Connecticut! This isn’t Kansas!”
My house was sheared off at the floor line. The roof was totally gone, and 80% of the main floor walls were gone. Where my dining room/living room had been was a clear, clean expanse of wall-less hardwood floor. The wall-to-wall carpeting was gone. Wood and crumbled wallboard jutted everywhere in havoc.
I saw Marilyn jumping off the back of my house, a full story off the ground at that point. When I asked her where she was going, she said she had to find her missing daughter Karen. That was the first time I’d been aware that only three of the four children were caught with us in that tiny space. I sat huddled in the debris, sheltered from the still driving rain as I hugged the three children. I heard them crying but did not acknowledge it until Marilyn returned a few seconds later with Karen in tow.
The six-year-old had been trying to get into their van. Only a miracle had prevented Karen from being swept away by that violent wind. Karen had been coming up the basement steps to the front door when the tornado hit. Later she told us she saw the wall come down on Marilyn and I and thought we’d been killed. Her instincts had taken her outside to get help! She said she saw trees flying around and had been flung to the ground. She even claimed to have seen the funnel!
Gingerly I handed the three children one by one down to Marilyn, avoiding the water shooting upward from the severed kitchen pipes, some of it very hot. Days later Marilyn figured out that water had burned her. We waded through what looked more like the set of a war movie than a suburban street. As we rounded the house to the front, I saw across the street to where houses still stood intact, although scarred by flying debris . The Martin house, directly across from mine was still there, but to the left nothing remained of the Pihel house nor to any others in the cul-de-sac.
Every house on my side of the street was flattened. Trees remained only as stumps or twisted trunks bereft of branches. One hardly knew it was autumn. All the big beautiful trees were gone. The house on the other side of mine was a foundation only, swept was clean of the building as if it was freshly poured cement. Just as little remained as far as the eye could see. Not a clear stretch of grass or pavement existed. The street sign that had stood in front of my house was later found in Agawam, Massachusetts!
I saw Trish Larkin handed used her hip and shoulder to give the front door of the Martins’ house a powerful shove. By the time we crossed the street, Trish had raided our neighbor’s house for blankets and was wrapping everyone up. Had it only been just a few hours ago that we’d all chatted blithely over coffee? Even in this emergency, I felt like a trespasser. How could I be invading the privacy of someone’s home?
With regularity I kept checking my boys to assure myself they were fine, however I was incapable of sitting still. I was up and pacing, wandering, going to the front door to look at the awful destruction of my side of the street , feeling constantly guilty about dripping water and mud all over the Martins’ carpets.
Husbands began arriving before ambulance or police. My husband, Allan, had parked his car a half mile away on the bridge over the Farmington River and hiked over debris, fallen trees, and downed electrical wires to reach us. What a sight to have greeted the poor men who rushed home to reunite with family! He found us at the Martin house and shed tears freely.
I was too numb to weep, too stunned by the miracle of my boys being alive and unscathed. In the months that followed I never cried. Not even lying awake in the wee hours of the morning could I cry, not that real uncontrollable bawl that would have been a blessed relief. It took over five years for it to come, as I sat watching the Sally Field movie, Places in the Heart. I did not know beforehand that the movie had a tornado scene. And when it came upon me, I wept. Wept and wept, finally able to release the emotion.
Although these details were written down within weeks of the tornado, my remembrances of October 3, 1979 are still crystal clear nearly twenty years later. And it will be with me forever.
May 26, 1998
You can hear more of Sue’s story, along with many others, at our screening of the documentary Windsor Phoenix: Remembering the 1979 Tornado, produced by WIN-TV and supported by Windsor Historical Society, Thursday, October 3, 2019, 7-9 PM at Poquonock School. Afterwards, the film will be available on WIN-TV’s YouTube channel.