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Remembering The 1974 Louisville Tornado, 40 Years Later


-Text: Downtown Louisville, as the tornado passed through, April 3, 1974.
Larry Spitzer

Not long ago I took an afternoon drive through many of the neighborhoods that were ravaged by a violent tornado on the afternoon of April 3, 1974, 40 years ago this month. My deliberate itinerary took me through a trail of tidy, in many cases elegant, neighborhoods — from the Cherokee Triangle north and east through Cochran Hill, Crescent Hill, Rolling Fields, Indian Hills and Northfield. In the wake of the tornado, some of us predicted that we would never see those neighborhoods look quite the same again, and that Cherokee Park, which had been denuded of generations of glorious shade trees, would take a hundred years to return to glory.Fortunately, those predictions were wrong. But how were we to know that the loving hand of Mother Nature, as well as the energetic and dedicated attention of thousands of Louisvillians, would ensure that with the passage of time, the wounds would heal, the scars would fade.How that happened is another story. This is instead a report of how it was, 40 years ago, when we couldn’t see into the future. All we could see was what had happened that very day when a massive cyclone, with winds of up to 250 miles per hour, moved on a path from south of Standiford Field across town — just at the beginning of the late-afternoon rush hour.The weather that week had been unseasonably warm and beautiful. On Tuesday, April 2, it was so balmy that I played nine holes at the Crescent Hill golf course, enjoying the trees that were budding in the 68-degree sunshine. It was inconceivable that in little more than 24 hours, most of those trees would be splintered and fallen like matchsticks across the fairways. On the morning of April 3, it was still warm, but the air had become sticky with humidity and the air pressure was unstable.The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby was only a month away, and in Oxmoor and the Mall St. Matthews (then simply titled “The Mall”) stores were filled with spring finery for Easter, which was coming up on April 14, less than two weeks away. Louisville’s new mayor, Dr. Harvey Sloane, had gone with his family on a short trip to their vacation home in Canada, so the city was being run in his absence by Creighton Mershon, the president of the Board of Aldermen. Downtown Fourth Street, which had been experiencing a decline in retail trade for the past few years, boasted a new pedestrian mall, and crowds still filled Stewart’s, Bacon’s, Byck’s and nearby Ben Snyder’s department stores.In Washington, the Nixon administration, which had been under siege for more than a year with the Watergate revelations, was beginning to crumble. The news was full of the president’s struggles with Congress and with the Internal Revenue Service. On a brighter note, Atlanta Braves right fielder Henry Aaron was poised to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record; he would do so in five days.

  As one of the younger members of the city staff at the Courier-Journal, my hours were unpredictable. Often I came in after lunch and worked nearly until midnight, sometimes later. On Wednesday, April 3, I had an early day and was sent to Jefferson Community College (now Jefferson Community & Technical College) to cover some sort of big announcement. Back at the newsroom, we were all a bit worried about the weather reports; a tornado watch was issued early in the afternoon and it was clear that some rough weather was coming.Late that afternoon, I left the office for an hour or so to take a graduate history course at the University of Louisville, so I was in a windowless classroom building around 4:15 p.m. when a tornado warning was issued and a funnel cloud formed south of the airport. Fortunately, I carried a transistor radio in my pocket; the building (like most in our city four decades ago) had no internal warning system and no provision for tornado alerts. My instincts told me to turn on the radio, and I heard WHAS’ helicopter news reporter, Dick Gilbert, describe the tornado that was forming south of downtown.I jumped up from the desk and left the classroom, no doubt leaving the professor and my fellow students puzzled. I ran down the hall to a pay telephone and placed a call to the Courier city desk. I expected the city editor, Elmer Hall, to pick up. But it was Mike Brown, another reporter, who could be breathless. He said, “Keith? Where are you?” The next thing I heard was Elmer’s steady voice, saying, “Runyon? Where the hell are you? Get your ass downtown now!” Then the phone went dead. I had gotten the last line out.As I rushed from the building toward my car, the sky was an eerie shade of green, and the wind, which had been blustery earlier in the afternoon, had come to a stop. The atmosphere was still sultry; yet not a drop of rain fell. In the distance, there was a roar akin to a fleet of trains roaring from the south. (Later I would realize that what I was hearing was the tornado hitting Freedom Hall and leveling the horse barns at the Fairgrounds, a little more than a mile from the Belknap Campus.) The moment I shut the door and turned on the engine, the clouds opened and rain fell so hard it was almost impossible to see.I pulled onto Third Street and then shifted over to Second for the short drive to Sixth and Broadway. The radio reported the ensuing pandemonium as I drove through the now-empty streets of Old Louisville. The tornado was pushing north and eastward through the Highlands, Cherokee Park and moving toward St. Matthews. I worried. My 85-year-old grandmother was at home near Seneca Park. But the lashing rains refocused my attention on the streets, and before I knew it I was back in the newspaper building, where things seemed remarkably normal on a day when, outside, chaos ruled.The world of newspapers in 1974 was closer to the one Ben Franklin knew than to the one that exists today. Stories were written on typewriters (we had just been introduced to IBM Selectrics a few months before), editors still marked them up with soft-lead pencils, and carbon-paper copies were put on “spikes” — sharp nails embedded in a lead base for record-keeping purposes. Type was “hot,” set in lead strips called slugs and put together by seasoned craftsmen. Banks of linotype operators typed the stories and created the lead slugs. And an intricate system was responsible for putting all the pieces together. (Engraving did the photos; the layout men assembled the pages on heavy steel carts.) An army of copy editors, copy clerks and others were responsible for taking the words we reporters put on paper and transforming them into the stories that would greet readers on their front porch the following morning.Ours was a formidable tradition. Just a year earlier, Time magazine’s survey of publishers, journalism educators and others placed the Courier-Journal third among the nation’s newspapers for its quality and public service — just behind the New York Times and Washington Post. A few months later, Carol Sutton, who got her first job at the newspaper as a secretary, would become the first female managing editor of a major American daily. And we were dependable. Not once in our history had we failed to publish — not even in 1937, when the newspaper pressroom was inundated by floodwater and the staff worked by candlelight while the printing operation was moved to Shelbyville.In 1937 and again when tragedy struck in 1974, it was not only the newspaper but also radio that kept the city together and informed and, as much as possible, unafraid. Helicopter traffic reporters were something fairly new that year, and both WHAS and WAVE had top announcers. Lt. Dick Tong commanded WAVE’s traffic copter, and Dick Gilbert piloted Skywatch 84 for WHAS. Both men would perform valiant service that afternoon.

  It would not be until days later that I heard the story about what happened on the rooftop of the newspaper building as the storm approached. A few of our photographers had clambered out to a rooftop deck to witness the tornado’s approach. Larry Spitzer, one of the C-J’s best photographers, was poised with camera ready as the black cloud approached from the south, moving behind the 800 apartment building and First Unitarian Church. His colleague, Bill Luster, stood beside him watching the scene along with Richard Nugent Jr., another staff photographer. But Larry seemed to freeze. The enormity of the situation seemed overpowering, even for a cameraman who delighted in rushing off to fires and other calamities. “Push the button, Larry!” Rich called out. “Shoot the S.O.B.!”And Larry did. He rapidly pressed the shutter several times. The photo he captured is perhaps the one iconic image everyone now remembers from April 3, 1974.That night my assignment was to find out the extent of damage and the number of deaths in Kentucky. Colleague Howard Fineman was responsible for Indiana. Our jobs were simple: Call down the list of correspondents and funeral homes in the state and ask how many deaths have been reported. And find out the names, and whatever else you can get. I remember my ominous list. Every death confirmed got a line. At five, it went through the center, like this: IIII. By night’s end my total would be 71 for the Bluegrass State. The Indiana toll would be 44. The Kentucky total included the devastating toll at Brandenburg, where 31 people perished.

  At about 9:45 that night Howard and I both took a break as the “four star,” or early Kentucky edition, went to press. It had been so intense. But in all of the years I was in and around the newsroom, I never knew such a quiet and reverent moment. We were surrounded by tragedy. Many of the other reporters were sent out of the office to explore the devastated city, but we simply worked away through the evening in the safe confines of the newsroom. Outside, our staff battled all sorts of problems, including downed trees, difficult security and a new element: cold. A cold front passed through the city with the storm, and afterward temperatures plunged and snow flurries followed.Occasionally there were moments of levity. Logan Shaw, the veteran “cop shop” reporter, called from his office at City Hall, where he pronounced: “The wind she blew up; the town she blew down. Santa Maria!” Around 10 p.m. big trays of sandwiches, platters of cheese, pickles and vegetables and so forth arrived. Although downtown had been spared any damage as the twister missed it by a few miles, there was no time for the workforce to break for supper.Before long, we had the early edition of the Courier-Journal (Vol. 238, No. 94; 72 pages; 10 cents) on our desks and were hard at work updating, adding and taking dictation over the phone from reporters and others who were calling the news by phone. The result was a masterpiece, one that still looks powerful 40 years later.In time we would realize the full scope of the storm that we experienced here. It was up to that time the largest outbreak of tornadoes in American history. Between April 3 and 4, 148 tornadoes were confirmed in 13 states, ranging from Mississippi all the way to upstate New York and Canada. The storms produced by that giant system remain the most powerful ever recorded. In modern dollars, the damage well exceeded a billion. Hundreds of people in Louisville were left homeless or experienced severe damage. Thirty years later, Louisville publisher and writer Bill Butler collected many of their stories in a book published in 2004 called Tornado: A Look Back at Louisville’s Dark Day. These accounts remain every bit as vivid today as they did 10 years ago. (Butler Books is reissuing the book in softcover this month to mark the anniversary.)On a recent afternoon I was playing an online recording of the WHAS coverage. A young woman was working in the next room and, although I didn’t realize it, she was listening intently. “That’s not happening now, is it?” she asked with more than a touch of fear in her voice. I reassured her it was not, but in the process became fully aware of how these vivid radio reports, which helped save lives and prepare people for unimaginable hardship, keep the moment alive so many years later. There is no better way to commemorate Louisville’s darkest day than to listen to those broadcasts.This story appears in the April issue of Louisville Magazine, which is available now. Keith Runyon will be part of a  panel discussion on the tornado on Thursday evening at the library.