Memories of 1974 tornadoes remain vivid for many Stamping Ground residents

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 3, 2014 

  • 1974 tornadoes by the numbers in Kentucky

    Dead: 77

    Injured: 1,377

    Dwellings destroyed: 1,522

    See accounts of 1974 tornadoes on YouTube:
    The Day of the Killer Tornados, Associated Press News Reel.
    The Most Violent Outbreak of Tornadoes in History, a National Geographic documentary

Edna Jones was in third grade when a tornado hit Stamping Ground on April 3, 1974, and for months she slept fully clothed, waiting for it to come back.

Jones' family lived 3 miles outside of Stamping Ground, between Stamping Ground and Frankfort.

"It hit at 6 o'clock," she said. "We had gotten home. My brother was five years older than me, and we had no idea that anything was going on."

Jones' parents had gotten home from work in Lexington. Their house didn't have a basement. The family sat in a truck while the storm passed.

"I had never seen a tornado, didn't know what a tornado was," Jones said. "The wind was horrendous, and here we sat, four of us in a pickup truck. I was petrified for months afterwards anytime it got dark. For two months afterward, I slept with my clothes on, with my shoes by the bed. I knew we were going to blow away."

Fortunately they did not, and neither did anyone else in Stamping Ground, a fact that residents of the Scott County village consider remarkable because Stamping Ground was the hardest-hit community in Central Kentucky.

Forty years ago, on April 3 and 4, 1974, the greatest tornado outbreak in U.S. history took place, stretching from the Deep South to the Great Lakes. A weather system that included 148 tornadoes spanned 18 hours and struck 13 states. It killed 315 people and injured 6,100. The total damage reached a half-billion dollars.

Then, tornado conditions were not a surprise. In America's "tornado alley," treacherous weather is expected in the spring and summer. But their path could take surprising turns.

Although tornado warnings were issued, no one could predict the severity of the storms. An AP newsreel showed a recreated sequence based on a true incident in Brandenburg, in Meade County, where a radio announcer received a phone call telling him a tornado was coming. He looked outside his door straight into the coming disaster and provided the only advance warning the town received in the seconds before the twister hit.

In 1974, National Weather Service forecasters had only green blobs on their radar scopes to indicate storm movement. The first of the day's multiple tornadoes hit Indiana at 7 a.m.

The first tornado that hit Kentucky was the most severe. It touched down 5 miles outside Hardinsburg, in Breckinridge County, in the late afternoon, then crashed into Brandenburg. Particularly tragic was that children, having just been dismissed from school, were playing outdoors. The tornado was rated F5, the strongest rating possible.

An hour later, five other tornadoes touched down at locations around the state, from Louisville and Boone County, in Northern Kentucky, to Simpson County in the south, near the Tennessee state line.

After 7 p.m., the storm turned its fury on Pulaski, Wayne and Rockcastle counties.

Before midnight, at least 26 tornadoes struck Kentucky, the worst disaster in the state's history, killing 77 people, injuring 1,377 and causing damage then estimated at $110 million.

James Barber still lives on Locust Fork in Stamping Ground. He was 14 on April 3, 1974, but the day of the tornado is clear in his memory.

He, his parents, three sisters and a niece tried to get away in a car. One tree fell behind them, another in front of them. Barber saw the tin from a barn fly past him. Nearby he saw smokestacks break away from a building.

"Our house was blowed away. Everything," Barber said. "My dad had four houses. All four of them was torn to pieces.

"The tornado jumped through and wiped the whole town out," Barber said.

Calvin Smith was 19 when the tornado swept through. He lived in a trailer on Woodlake Pike. He had heard about tornadoes but had never seen one.

"I was in the shower when I first heard it rumbling," Smith said. "At that time our anchorman was Billy Thompson (on WLEX). He said it hit Jett down in Franklin County. I hadn't seen a tornado, so I wasn't scared enough."

Smith looked out across Elkhorn Creek and saw "just a big black cloud. I saw it when it took a house."

The tornado picked up Smith's trailer and threw it against a tree, opening a gash on his foot that required 18 stitches.

His mother, Mary Smith, who lived nearby, broke her pelvis and back. At the time, she lived in a trailer. After the tornado, she built a house. She lives there today.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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