Former OCSO deputy George Vilardi has vivid recollections of night of tornado.
FORT WALTON BEACH — The Christmas party at The Shalimar Club on Dec. 9, 1967, was a black-tie affair that sailed past midnight and into Dec. 10 within the blink of an eye.
Outside of the party, a pair of Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputies, George Vilardi and Gordon Rhyne, worked the security detail.
Vilardi, hired by the OCSO in 1965, was a former military police officer who would go on to become an FDLE Agent, where his work was once profiled in a 1993 VIBE Magazine article about taking down a gang of transvestite thieves in South Florida.
Rhyne was a local, a Choctaw High grad and Vietnam veteran who became a deputy in 1966. He was also Vilardi’s brother-in-law. Vilardi married Rhyne's older sister, Judi, in 1961.
As they sat outside the party in their vehicles, a call from dispatch came across that sent a jolt through both of them. Within moments, they were inside the club and making a beeline for their boss, Okaloosa County Sheriff Ray Wilson, who was in attendance with his wife, Virginia.
“The call was that a big, terrible storm was headed right for us,” Vilardi said. “(Wilson) didn't even hesitate ... he had everyone evacuate the party and get loaded up on a big bus right away.”
What was headed for Okaloosa County was an F2 tornado that strafed Fort Walton Beach and Ocean City, destroying 35 homes and nine businesses and leaving another 290 homes with some sort of damage. There was also one fatality — 3-year-old Joann Coker died from a head injury when the tornado hit her home.
It was part of a larger outbreak of tornadoes on Dec. 10, 1967 that wreaked havoc on the Fort Walton Beach and Panama City areas, causing $7 million in damage or $53 million today with inflation.
What Vilardi and Rhyne didn’t know at the time was that the tornado was playing a game of hopscotch with Okaloosa County. It touched down in Fort Walton Beach, picking up steam toward Cinco Bayou, where it went airborne again, this time flying over the top of Shalimar and landing in Garnier Bayou and pushing its way into a wooded area on Eglin Air Force Base.
“I heard it coming like a huge freight train,” said Vilardi, who recently uncovered a trove of photos from the hurricane at his home in Ocala. “I told (Rhyne) let’s get down (to Fort Walton Beach) and see what’s happening there. I lived in Shalimar so I went by the house first … I just ran in and told (Judi) a big storm was coming and to take cover and then got back in my car and went over the bridge."
Judi listened, nodded her head, then went back to sleep.
“(Vilardi) came in and was hollering about a tornado and things were awful and this or that and to take cover and get in the bathtub,” she said. “But I was just so used to him coming in and being excited over whatever he was working on that I just went back to sleep.
“Obviously, when I woke up the next morning and saw the damage I realized I should’ve taken what he was saying more seriously.”
Vilardi headed for downtown Fort Walton Beach. Rhyne headed toward Mary Esther and found the road blocked, so he made a detour over the Cinco Bayou Bridge toward Club Continental, a popular nightclub, as the OCSO scrambled to find its other 10 deputies and press them into action.
On Eglin Parkway, Vilardi pulled up to Gibson’s Discount Center, a department store that was leveled in the storm. On the plaza in front of the store, guns, fishing poles and clothes were strewn all over the place.
Now approaching 3 a.m., Vilardi could see one contingent of people gathering on the far side of the plaza from him — a group it was clear did not have good intentions.
“I could see a few of them were starting to root around, kind of feeling things out to see what was there,” Vilardi said. “Thank goodness, there was another group of people that were starting to kind of mingle around behind me that were … I guess you could call them ‘old-timers’ if that makes any sense.”
Vilardi turned to the “old-timers” for help.
“I told them I needed them to guard the plaza from looters and I was going to make them special deputies. So they went to their trucks, got their shotguns and protected the plaza. And they did great.”
At the Continental Club, where 200 people had been partying the night away when the tornado hit, Rhyne was quickly becoming overwhelmed after a local man’s residence had been leveled, and his extensive gun collection had been spread out all over a field next to the club.
“It was a free-for-all,” Vilardi said. “He was trying to arrest people (for looting) and thankfully the Fort Walton Beach police and a few more deputies showed up.”
The scariest moment was still to come.
Vilardi took off from the plaza down Racetrack Road and toward a gas station to fill up his 1965 Ford Cruiser. As he drove, another, smaller tornado came down directly on top of him and sent the car and Vilardi airborne.
“The thing I remember the most was that once I was in the air I kept pushing my foot down on the brake and turning the steering wheel … like that would do something,” Vilardi said. “And then as quick as it had picked me up, it slammed the car back down between two telephone poles.”
Calm wouldn’t come until later that day, when the National Guard showed up and posted a man on every corner around town. Vilardi drove around the scene with OCSO Investigator Marvin Canova that day and Canova took pictures to document the damage.
“I drove over a few days later to where we used to live in Ocean City, before we moved,” said Vilardi, who would be named the County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1969. “And that house … all that was left was a concrete slab. The guys that lived there got tossed into a tree, somehow.
“I remember being grateful that we still weren’t there. Grateful that things hadn’t been much, much worse.”