From the Archives: Terror in the Fruit Cellar — ‘Where there’s water and electricity, you’ve got problems’

Terror in the Fruit Cellar
A 2019 aerial image taken of the house — still standing today — by officials at Perkins Township, Ohio.

Fifty years ago, on the night of July 4, 1969, stormy weather was brewing in the city of Sandusky, Ohio. During this particular electrical storm, 70 m.p.h. gale winds persisted through the night and 11 inches of rain fell. Residents of the city that bordered Lake Erie were busy coping with the heavy rainfall, which caused many basements to flood.

LoRene Limbird, a 66-year old housewife, lived in Perkins Township, a suburb of Sandusky. Around 10 p.m., she asked her neighbor, 29-year-old machine shop technician, Larry E. Smith, to take a look at her basement because she was worried that the freezer was broken. Smith, outfitted in hip waders, moved through the 1 foot of water that covered the basement floor, into a separate fruit room, where the upright freezer was located. He inspected the freezer and believed everything was working properly, but told Limbird that the delayed relay switch might be causing the freezer to struggle when being turned back on.

When he was in the basement, Smith also took a look at the sump pump. It was working at the moment, but wouldn’t be able to handle the extra volume of water coming in. A neighbor and friend, 19-year-old Harry Kresser, was also present. Based on experience dealing with the ill effects of a storm back in 1966, both men suggested Limbird leave the basement window open and allow water to enter. This would alleviate pressure and prevent the concrete block walls from being pushed in by the relentless rain water. Limbird decided against it.

As Smith and Kresser were leaving, Smith told Limbird that if she had any more trouble that night and couldn’t get to the telephone, to turn her front porch light on to signal him.

On their way back to the Smith residence, the men stopped by the home of Larry’s mother-in-law. Firefighters had arrived and were helping salvage articles from the basement.

By now, the weather had worsened and the water outside was deeper. When the duo returned to the Smith residence, Smith’s wife, Vicki, had more news about the state of Limbird’s basement. A neighbor and retired printer, Edward Bender, had called to notify Vicki that more water was entering their neighbor’s home.

As the men readied themselves for another trip to Limbird’s house, Smith decided against driving his truck because he didn’t think it would clear the water. Instead, he and Kresser took a tractor. On the way, they stopped at another neighbor’s house. The family was away so they located a spare key and went down to the basement to check that the sump pump was in working order and place valuable objects on higher surfaces. After the neighborly check, the duo continued on to Limbird’s.

Earlier that evening, Limbird had gone to bed around midnight, but after she realized the severity of the storm, she couldn’t sleep. She put on a dress and stepped into her galosh boots to check the basement. At this point, the water was getting out of control and she wanted to make sure her valuables were okay. As she made her way into the fruit room, Limbird saw that a block about halfway up the concrete wall, was beginning to be pushed into the basement. She stepped over the threshold of the fruit room and the entire south wall collapsed inward. Suddenly, a wave of water, mud, and blocks surged against the opposite wall, closing and jamming the door shut.

In a matter of seconds, the water was level with Limbird’s shoulders. She was a short and stout woman of just over 5 feet. According to the notes of Hero Fund case investigator, F.R. Inglis, she couldn’t swim, float, or tread water.

Terror in the Fruit Cellar
Scene sketch by Case Investigator Fred R. Inglis indicating the obstacles that Larry E. Smith encountered as he moved through the water filled basement in Sandusky, Ohio, to save LoRene J. Limbird from drowning, The sketch was part of the 1970 report submitted to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

Limbird realized that getting the door to the fruit room open would be impossible and that her only chance of escape was through the single window in the fruit cellar. As she passed by the deficient freezer, it toppled over in the water behind her and floated door-down in the rapidly rising and swirling muddy water, further trapping Limbird and blocking any exit by the closed door.

When she arrived at the window, measuring 1 foot high and 30 inches wide, the water was even with the sill. She opened the window by removing a section, but couldn’t remove the screen because it was fastened from the outside. The water had reached the height of the outside ledge. LoRene became very alarmed and started yelling loudly for help.

Back on the tractor, Kresser and Smith were driving through 18 inches of rain. Above the noise of the wind, thunder, lightning, and tractor engine, Kresser thought he could hear cries for help. At this point, they were 150 feet away from Limbird’s house. Smith stopped the tractor and they listened carefully. Hearing someone faintly calling for help, Smith noticed Limbird’s porch light was on.

At the same time, 14-year-old neighbor, Patti Rausch, was in bed when she heard screams for help. She woke her father, Richard Rausch, who dressed himself in a swimsuit and raincoat, and took off barefoot to check out the situation.

Kresser and Smith got off the tractor and began walking toward Limbird’s house. Smith, remiss of the pond-like depression near the home, fell into the water and was briefly submerged. After resurfacing, both men continued on to find Limbird, calling for help through a basement window.

Limbird explained that the south wall of the basement had caved in, but Larry said he didn’t believe her. He used his flashlight to inspect the scene and realized then, that Limbird, standing in 4-5 feet of water up to her neck, was in danger of drowning.

Rausch arrived to the scene and asked if anything was wrong. Smith replied, “Yes,” but expressed uncertainty of what to do.

Using his flashlight, Smith broke the screen so Limbird could stick her head out the window and breathe.

Smith was becoming increasingly nervous of Limbird’s trapped status and feared for her life. As the group discussed their options, she remembered that she had locked the back screen door from the inside. He told her not to worry and that he’d get inside somehow.

With no water rescue training, Smith forced his way into the home wearing his regular clothes, rain jacket, and boots. Kresser started to follow, but Smith suggested he would be more help from the outside.

When Smith surfaced, he found Limbird in a state of panic, floating face up, holding onto the window ledge and a rafter with one foot braced against the wall. On the outside, Rausch was removing the screws from the window screen. Smith kicked his legs until he found something solid to stand on. He went under Limbird and supported her head and shoulders in the still rising water.

Before Smith descended the stairs to the flooding basement, Rausch warned him of the electrical dangers of this rescue and encouraged him to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Commission Case Investigator Fred R. Inglis interviewed an Ottawa hydro inspector. “He stated that there is always a possibility of shock hazard where water is involved with electricity; that if [the rescuer] had tested the water with his finger for shock and got a tingle, he might not have recognized it, or in his desperation to reach [Limbird], would probably have ignored it and gone in anyway; that if the water were not charged when he entered it, it could be made so by rising water as it reached electrical outlets or equipment as he swam through it, making it lethal; that escaping gas could be ignited by arcing equipment and cause an explosion … His final opinion was ‘where there’s water and electricity, you’ve got problems,’” Inglis’ notes stated.

Outside, Kresser took his position at the window while Rausch went to fetch a screwdriver and hammer to remove the screen.

Inside, the basement stairway was completely dark. As Smith walked down the steps, he tripped, and fell into 6 feet of water. He immediately began to tread water to get his bearings.

Smith inspected the scene. From the outside of the fruit room, the door was closed shut. Smith shouted to Limbird, indicating that he couldn’t get the door open. She informed him that it was shut from pressure on his side of the wooden partition, separating the rest of the basement from the fruit room.

Feeling around in the dark, Smith could tell that the wooden boards of the partition went as high as the rafters that supported the ceiling. Bracing himself, he pulled as hard as he could and broke off several boards until the top one was just below the water level in the basement.

Smith swam and crawled over the partition into the fruit room, but he encountered another obstacle in the floating freezer. Its uppermost side pressed against the rafters and there was no space on either side for him to swim around. In that moment, Smith decided to dive under the freezer and swim to the other side to reach Limbird. In the muddy, swirling water, he was surrounded by baskets, boxes, bottles, papers, and other objects.

When Smith surfaced, he found Limbird in a state of panic, floating face up, holding onto the window ledge and a rafter with one foot braced against the wall. On the outside, Rausch was removing the screws from the window screen. Smith kicked his legs until he found something solid to stand on. He went under Limbird and supported her head and shoulders in the still rising water.

It took Rausch almost two minutes to remove the screen, which allowed for about 2 inches more of precious space, but no more than the 1 foot height of the window. Smith looked around and noticed that the water was now almost level with the base of an electric light that was mounted on the wall.

With time running out, Smith briefly thought about other options to get them both out of the basement safely, but the only other exit, the door, was blocked. So as not to frighten Limbird, Smith decided to remove Limbird from the position he found her.

Smith hoisted Limbird up on his shoulders to get her feet started out through the window. Outside, Rausch and Kresser each grasped a leg and pulled her carefully through the window while Smith supported her head above water until she made it out safely. Limbird was okay, but still very upset by the whole ordeal.

Smith remained in the water-filled basement. As he looked around, he noted that the water was almost halfway up the sizzling light bulb. Smith didn’t have enough time to swim back toward his route of entry. With the water rising rapidly, he knew his best option was exiting through the window as Limbird had done. He pulled himself through the window and reached the outside.

A few minutes later, Smith and Kresser went to the south basement wall and discovered that Limbird was right, the wall had collapsed inward. As they assessed the damage, they also noticed a small gas main had been pulled down with the wall.

Rausch and Kresser helped Limbird into her kitchen and she changed into dry clothes. She stayed at the Rauschs’ that night. Luckily, neither Limbird nor Smith suffered any injuries as a result of the incident. In all, Smith swam about 26 feet to reach Limbird and the rescue took 5 to 6 minutes.

The severe weather that occurred during the afternoon and evening of July 4, 1969, came to be known as the Ohio Fireworks Derecho, according to historical records at the National Weather Service. The derecho storm ripped through Michigan and moved across northern and eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The rapidly moving showers, thunderstorms, and powerful winds of up to 104 m.p.h. resulted in 18 deaths in Ohio. The flat Sandusky area where this case took place experienced severe flash flooding, heavy rains, and powerful winds that knocked over trees and flooded houses.

Looking back, Smith told Inglis that he realized his life might have been in danger the next morning when he inspected the scene and saw how much of the wall had collapsed. After further processing the event and considering the broken gas main, electrical shock hazard, fast rising waters, and Limbird’s panic, Smith realized the full magnitude of his act.

Smith was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1970, along with a grant of $750. At the time, he and his wife, Vicki S. Smith, were raising a 2-year-old girl Melinda and were expecting their second child.

—Abby Brady, operations and outreach assistant/archivist