It was April 3, 1974. When we left MSFC after work, there was a strange feeling in the air. One that I have never forgotten. In fact, I stll feel if it is there after all of these years. There was no wind, no noise, just a stillness. Nature was waiting for something. As we approached our hotel in Huntsville, there were people on second floor balconies looking towards the southwest. What was that about?
We went straight to dinner that night and knew something was wrong but we didn't know what it was. In the restaurant, the television was turned to a channel that had only white noise. Everyone was watching it. Later, I found out they were using the Weller Method of TV-Tornado Detection. We asked the waitress: what's going on? "Three tornados went north of us and hit Jeff and Toney." Jeff and Toney were small villages just north of Huntsville. We quickly finished dinner and I went back to my room to watch the weather on a local television station.
The guy doing the weather was just finishing his coverage of a tornado that went south of Huntsville. Tornado to the north of us, tornado to the south of us, and the night was still young. As I noticed a storm on the television near Decatur pass over the Tennessee River, the weather guy said the worst was over and returned us to the regular programming. Decatur is southwest of Huntsville and Huntsville is northeast of Decatur. In between them is the Huntsville International Airport. But what about that tornado that just crossed the Tennessee River?
I didn't have to wait long for an answer. Within minutes, the weather guy was back on television telling us about the tornado that was taking aim on the Huntsville Airport. He showed us the hook pattern in the storm that indicated it was a tornado and then reported that the tower at the airport had been evacuated and a tornado was crossing the runway. The weather guy still didn't mention Huntsville and we were directly in the tornado's path. I wasn't waiting for the weather guy. That tornado had Huntsville in its crosshairs and I wasn't waiting for the weather guy to tell me. I looked around the room and saw the bathtub and two sofa cushions I could use. I jumped in the bathtub and put the cushions over my head. Then I waited. Finally, the weather guy said that the tornado was on University Drive. I was on University Drive too! Then the power went out. I slipped down into the bathtub and waited to die. I continued to wait for a few minutes. Then I got tired of waiting and looked out the window. As I looked out, I could see power generators exploding on the top of Monte Sano mountain which was in back of our hotel. The tornado missed me by 1/4 mile but mowed though Huntsville just east of me.
I had survived the 1974 Super Outbreak of tornadoes that stretched from Ontario, Canada to Alabama. One police officer, who saw the tornado that went through Huntsville, said it was one large tornado and two smaller ones on each side of the main tornado. They flew in formation and left devastation behind. All through the night, I heard ambulances. It's not a good feeling. I knew Huntsville had been hit hard but I didn't know how bad it was. The next day, we went to MSFC where some windows were blown out of the Administration building. Some furniture was on the ground and there were long white sheets of what looked like cloth hanging out of some of the windows. After work, we found a place to eat on University Drive and passed by a 1,000 foot-wide path of destruction left by the tornado. It was on both sides of the street. I remember a hotel that looked much like the Tourway Inn where I stayed. This hotel was demolished but a flimsy free-standing yellow wood wall was left standing. The tornado sent several things through the wall that I could identify. For example, I could see the outline of a bathroom sink that passed through the wall. Don't ask, much like the cork-screw sign post, I still can't figure it out.
Over the weekend, I drove up to Monte Sano mountain. From the street, I could see a path cut through the trees. The cut was cleanly done as if the tornado was giving the woods a manicure. It even took the tops of the trees with it.
At the end of April, I drove home to Maryland. I can remember several things about my drive to Huntsville but I cannot remember one thing about the drive home. Maybe, I was just glad to get home.