Niles cemetery restored
1985 storm ripped through county, causing $140M in property damage
NILES — Those who drove past Niles Union Cemetery in the early 1980s might not have even known it was there, as it was so hidden by large, lovely trees.
That changed on May 31, 1985, when an F5 tornado tore through the city and the cemetery, ripping those massive trees out of the ground and toppling gravestones.
The tornado counted nine dead from the Niles area among its victims and caused an estimated $140 million in property damage as it traveled its 47-mile path.
To those who were familiar with the Niles Union Cemetery, now called the Niles City Cemetery, its destruction also felt like a loss.
“It was a beautiful cemetery way back when,” said, Jim DeChristefero, owner of Niles Monument Co., which sits across the street from the cemetery.
Dave Liste, assistant superintendent of the Niles light department, was 22 and working in the department when the tornado came through the city. He was one of the employees sent into the cemetery to assess damage.
“After it went through, there were so many rumors flying around that there were bodies exposed,” Liste said. “So we were sent into the cemetery just to make sure” of the situation there.
Liste said he didn’t see any exposed bodies or caskets, but the roof had been blown off the mausoleum situated at the heart of the cemetery. Stone grave markers were also displaced.
“It took those big, granite stones, and just took them down,” Liste said. “The cemetery was just so gorgeous at the time and it ruined it.”
Cars from a repair shop across the street had been lifted into the cemetery, the paint blown off the cars.
“It was like they were sandblasted,” Liste said.
With Vienna Road and Vienna Avenue blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines, Liste said he saw desperate residents driving into the cemetery, weaving through the graves in an attempt to reach their homes or loved ones.
The state of Ohio brought in a forestry service to start cutting up the trees, and most people were barred from entering the cemetery.
At the time, Liste lived across the street on Vienna Road.
“My house had major damage, obviously,” Liste said. Roof trusses from Eastwood Arms apartments pierced through Liste’s upstairs bedrooms. Clothing hung from trees. Liste found a hole blown in his still-standing garage, and his dog missing, apparently taken by the tornado.
“Somehow it sucked the dog right out of the hole,” said Liste. “We found the dog down at the fire department, alive. He survived it.”
The National Guard “camped out” in Liste’s front yard, he said.
DeChristefero, a teacher for more than 30 years, was celebrating the end of the school year with a golf outing in Garrettsville when the tornado hit. Initial reports came in that “Niles is completely destroyed.” It took DeChristefero three hours to make it back into the city because the National Guard had blocked off roadways.
DeChristefero said he had been planning to remodel the Niles Monument Co. building by removing the front and keeping the back. But he found the tornado had done just the opposite — the front windows still stood, but the back of the store had been destroyed. Some of his stock of headstones were damaged or destroyed. Some time later, a Niles man hiking in Clarion, Pa., found some of DeChristefero’s mail in a pile of debris.
Liste said a city curfew was put in place, except for emergency and essential workers. In the street department, Liste was working 16 hours on, eight hours off in rotations, attempting to restore power to the city — which “didn’t happen for days.”
The Red Cross came around with food trucks and fed emergency workers, or workers would go to the high school cafeteria for quick meals.
It was weeks before the city regained a sense of normalcy, and even longer before the cemetery was restored.
DeChristefero was allowed into the cemetery to start repair work in July, after emergency cleanup had finished.
Then-Mayor John Shaffer asked DeChristefero for an estimate to restore the roughly 800 headstones that had been pulled down or damaged in the storm, but 31-year-old DeChristefero couldn’t guess at the cost of a job so big.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” DeChristefero said.
He ended up taking on customers as they came, charging between $35 and $125, amounts that were often covered by homeowner insurance.
Stones were apparently pulled forward by the tornado, not pushed, and many were impacted into the ground. Others seemed to have been laid down gently in the grass and had little damage, DeChristefero said.
“None of this was damaged beyond repair,” DeChristefero said.
Between June and October, DeChristefero with his father, Jim DeChristefero Sr., then-brother-in-law Duke Dunnigan, Dennis Burke, Chuck Davis and others repaired about 500 headstones, often working six days per week during the summer.
DeChristefero said he was hired to fix about 200 headstones — he put up the others either because there was no family to seek repairs or because unclaimed downed stones were in the way of a paid job.
Diamond Steel donated time and a crane to put toppled spires back up, and a team assembled to right the fallen veterans memorial. DeChristefero said he also got help from his competitor, Warren Marble and Granite Co. and owner Diane Corbin.
In time, new trees were planted, mostly around the outside of the cemetery and along cemetery driveways, and a new roof was put on the mausoleum.
With the trees grown and most monuments restored, the cemetery is once again a beautiful part of the city.
“I think we’re getting back to the way it used to be, the way it was back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” DeChristefero said. “The caretakers since the tornado did a wonderful job maintaining the cemetery.”
Plus, the more than 45-acre cemetery, founded in the early 1800s, has room to grow.
“We’re still moving forward,” Nick Marchionte, current cemetery sexton, said.
A few years after the tornado, the chapel was built at the front of the cemetery. In the 2000s, a large columbarium for cremation burials was installed, and three smaller columbariums were added last year. The cemetery roads recently have been repaved, and next on the list is repair to the bricks in the main gate.
New sections have been added to the cemetery, and there is still ample empty space, according to Marchionte, who added: “We won’t see it filled in our lifetime.”
Still, 35 years after the 1985 tornado, the memory of devastation lingers in the form of salient details and strange stories of pencils driven into trees, holes blasted in houses by Easter baskets and chickens from a neighboring farm found in unusual places.
“Some of it really stands out and will go with me to my grave,” DeChristefero said.