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Thirty years is a lifetime to many, but what happened in just a few minutes in 1974 is remembered as clearly today as the day it happened.
There was nothing particularly spectacular about the weather on April 3, 1974. A warm front moving across the area ushered in showers and thunderstorms that morning. By noon, 30 mile-an-hour winds, increasing humidity and temperatures in the upper 70s were forming an explosive weather mix.
Over a 16-hour period, 148 tornadoes touched down across 13 states. That's one every six minutes. A phenomenon so rare most of us won't see it again in our lifetime.
The first storm was the most severe. It touched down in Brandenburg, Kentucky. David Reeves was on duty at the National Weather Service in 1974. He remembers how delayed warning systems were 30 years ago. "So we put out a warning for Brandenburg. By the time it went through the teletype machinery, it was on them. It was right there."
When it was over, 31 people including children were dead. A mass funeral was held at the high school because the storm destroyed the town's church. Within an hour after Brandenburg, five more tornadoes developed, including one in Louisville.
"There was a spot in the radar and it was headed to Louisville so I put out a warning for Louisville; as simple as that," says Reeves. "It wasn't that I knew exactly what the atmosphere was doing and all that. I was just trying to keep up with what had been happening and it headed toward us. That was it."
The National Weather Service had three people on duty that afternoon: a secretary, Chief Meteorologist John Burks and David Reeves. Reeves said, "WHAS radio had called -- this maybe was their second call, because we already had the warning out. He (Burks) happened to be on the phone standing on the roof live looking, and he said something like, 'we're hittin' winds up to...good gracious sakes alive.'" Radio news man Glen Bastin asks Burks, "How high is the wind speed at this time?" Burks answers, "There's 50 right there. By golly, the whole thing's goin'. Hear it? I'm goin'! Goodbye!" (phone slams)
Another person with an up-close look at the F-4 tornado was WHAS radio's traffic reporter, Dick Gilbert. Gilbert was trapped in the air and told all who could hear him about the destruction he was witnessing. "There is no real tight definitive tornado as such. It's still turning. Yes, there's one now. Yes, dipping down from the bottom of the cloud. Now the wind damage hit the roof of freedom hall and it tore three big holes in the roof. The horse barns are no more. It is definitely a..uh..moving up toward the Crescent Hill water tank now."
The other hard hit area of Louisville was Cherokee Park. 2000 trees were ripped from the ground. It looked as if someone used the park as a bowling alley. But despite the mess, people were confident the park would grow back. In 1974, one Cherokee Park groundskeeper said, "25 years from now I think that there will certainly be evidence that this part of the park is less mature than parts of the park that weren't hit. 50 years from now I think it will be a pretty mature looking park so that someone who's in grade school or even high school today has a good chance of seeing it as a mature park."
The tornado is blamed for three direct deaths. Three other people died as a result of heart attacks. There were a total of 225 injuries reported in Louisville and Jefferson County. 77 people died and 1200 people were injured in the Commonwealth as a result of the tornadoes. The super outbreak caused more than $110 million in damage. We look back and realize how lucky Louisvillians were that day. Our neighbors to the south in Brandenburg were not so fortunate.
The first storm to hit Kentucky was right here in Brandenburg. The F-5 ripped through the middle of town and by the time it was over 31 people were dead. 30 years later, residents of Brandenburg still remember that day and the devastation left behind.
A stone marker rests at the front of the Meade County courthouse. The names of the town's 31 victims are listed here; a permanent reminder of a disaster that 30 years later is still fresh in the minds of its residents.
"I was at work and when I left it was rainin' just a little bit," Jimmy Brown remembers. "When I got to the top of the hill where the bank is in Brandenburg it started raining. I mean drops that looked like they were two inches across."
"At the time I drank so I went down, down in town to the beer joint and when I walked in the front door it opened by itself and they both went around and closed it, and it opened again and the awnings in the buildings across the street started up town hill and I said boys we're in trouble," Brown said.
Another Brandenburg victim that day was John Fraze. John said, "My wife, today, if it comes up a bad cloud, she's heading for the storm cellar. She won't stay in the house." Because of technology at the time, Brandenburg didn't get a lot of warning about the storm. Fraze says of his family, "The only thing that saved them, they were in the storm cellar. My wife said when she went into the storm cellar she could see funnel clouds, but the sun was shining. She could see two funnel clouds coming."
Very little of what Main Street looked like was left standing and residents were trying to cope with the devastating scenes awaiting them in neighborhoods.
"My neighbor and her little granddaughter lived straight across the road from me," says Fraze. "One of them was layin' at the end of my driveway dead. And the little granddaughter was layin' over in the field and they had her covered up at the time I got there. "There was candy bars and cigars, and what have ya', fallin' down on my head. When it was all over with it didn't seem to me like it was a minute and when I looked up the sky was shining and everything was gone."
Thirty years later, the town is rebuilt. The rolling hills along the Ohio River are once again populated with homes, but there are still reminders of that day in April. A historical marker sits outside the old courthouse, a building destroyed by the storm, but still standing today. And remember that picture of the Main Street destruction? A white house and the water tower on the edge of the picture are still here today and those who survived the outbreak of 1974, say it's something they will never forget.
"Well, I'm just glad I went down to the beer joint cause if I'd have gone on around I would have run straight into it out there about the cemetery then in Brandenburg," says Brown. "It probably saved my life. it's something I don't ever want to see again."
A total of 39 Kentucky counties were hit by tornadoes. The 1974 outbreak is still considered the worst in U.S. history.
77 people dead
$110 million in damage