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Articles / 3 April 1974 Tom Wills Interview

3 April 1974 Remembered

This interview is copied from Scott Koerner's former website dedicated to the Super Outbreak of 3-4 April 1974 (www.april31974.com). The website appears to have gone offline sometime in late 2013; I grabbed this copy of the page as archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. His page was formatted differently, but the content here is unchanged.

Tom Wills WAVE 3 Chief Meteorologist Remembers the day.

Living in Southern Indiana, I grew up watching Tom Wills on WAVE 3, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky . On TV, he always appeared to be the true professional and a gentleman. After interviewing him, I can truly say he is twice as nice in person as he is on TV. He not only treated me like a king, he helped me "stumble" through my first interview. I had only asked for fifteen minutes of his time, and yet we talked for over a hour! Thank you Mr. Wills and the whole WAVE 3 staff! For more info on Tom Wills, click here.

Tom Wills Interview April 9, 2003

SCOTT KOERNER: Please describe your experiences on April 3 ,1974.

TOM WILLS: It was a strange day, a very long day for me. It started off with a school appearance in Seymour, Indiana. I had to get up very early in the morning. I was working night shift then. I went up to Seymour to talk to the school children, and then I was to come back to Louisville. That evening was to be the Kentucky Colonels’ first playoff game in the championship series. They were supposed to play at Freedom Hall that night against, I think, the New Jersey Nets. The Bellarmine University girls’ basketball team had just won the state championship. They had put together a little fun thing-five sports guys and me versus the Bellermaine University girls. The five guys were sportscasters around town, like Bob Domine, Van Vance, Dave Conrad, and, of course me the weather guy. We were going to play the game before the Kentucky Colonels game. We had a “practice” to get familiarized with Freedom Hall. It’s a vast place. I came back from Seymour and had my stuff with me, so I changed and was ready to practice. We shot around from about noon to one o’clock. I got cleaned up and ready to head downtown to take a little nap before the rest of the day started. Then I heard on the radio tornado watch issued for southern Indiana and the Louisville area. So I decided to make a “short” stop at WAVE.

From that time on, for the rest day until about seven pm, the warnings were non-stop. By about seven pm, it had all moved east of our viewing area. An incredibly hectic afternoon! I had given out tornado warnings for 5 years to that point, but your never see repercussions like this. F4’s and F5’s are very uncommon for this area. Even to this day, when you look at a radar, you can’t tell if anything is on the ground.

We had the only live radar in town on television. At that point it was an ancient thing. It had been taken off an old Delta airplane and reconfigured for television station weather radar. It had already lived out it usefulness at Delta. It was the first and only time that I could clearly see a hook echo on that radar - and not just one! The early afternoon storm that went across southern Indiana that ending hitting Madison and Hanover produced a hook all the way back towards Marengo. Then the next super cell started popping up to the south. That one ended up going through Brandenburg and into Louisville. Then there was another one just a little farther south and east of us that ending up hitting the Frankfort area. The Madison tornado eventually reformed and hit the Cincinnati area.

Following the warnings from county to county and different sequence of super cell’s popping up made the afternoon wild. Until the one hit Louisville, we didn’t know the extent of what was really going on. We had some minor warning with the power going out, but that was not that rare of a case back then even for a severe thunderstorm. The weather service got the hint that this was very bad when they found out that Brandenburg had blown away. That’s the reason why the tornado warning was issued in Louisville early enough for people to take cover. Because the warning went out early it is believed many lives were saved. People had almost half an hour before the storm hit. In those days that was almost unheard of. From that point on, a tornado warning was issued with every super cell that appeared on the radar. We were in the middle of it, here in southern Indiana and Kentucky, but it marched across from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan .I think in Windsor, Canada which was the only one outside of United States. They finally ended early in the morning on the 4th.

It was just a hectic day around here, but I did take the time to look out the backdoor. I had never seen a tornado. As in the famous Courier Journal photograph from their building downtown, I did see the big black column handing down from the cloud. That was not the actual tornado itself. The tornado was embedded in that. To this day, I can still say that as well, but I did not see the funnel itself. There was so much debris and dust floating around the outer circulation of that system that the actual funnel was largely obscured from a lot of people. Many people thought that they saw the tornado, but Dr. Ted Fujuita, Dr. Tornado as he was called, said that was not the tornado but just a big dust cloud circling around the parent circulation.

SK: What your feelings? Were afraid that day?

TW: I was too busy to be afraid. It was just warning, after warning, after warning. Of course, when the one went through Louisville, it was gone by the time we realized how much damage had been done. There was no sense in being afraid at that point. We were more interested in getting warnings out to people in the path of the storm.

This is the my most vivid memory of that day. I can’t remember who was the reporter-it may have been Ferrel Wellman -- but we heard reports that Cherokee Park was really devastated. So we sent out this reporter to go and check it out. We hear him back on the two-way radio

“Okay, What’s going on out there?”

He was in shock at that point. He just said “It’s gone!”

“What do you mean? The Photographer? What’s Gone?”

“It’s Gone!!” He just repeated it several times. “It’s Gone!!”

“Terrell, what’s gone?!?”

“The PARK! IT’S GONE!!!”

He saw in shock because he saw those tree’s down and all the incredible devastation along the Eastern Parkway and Cherokee Park. It was the same kind of feeling that I had when I drove later that evening past some of the area neighborhoods. It was like a surreal world. As a researcher, you look at from the scientific point of view. You don’t look how they affect people often enough. That night was a rapid awakening in that respect.

Me: The equipment has changed so much over the years since that outbreak:

Oh my, oh yes. Back in those days nothing was computerized. Computers were those big, huge things in locked down rooms at Universities. Now everyone has a either a laptop or a PC at home. We have dozens of them at the weather office performing various functions. Everything is computerized. We now have much more sophisticated radar instrumentation than we had back then. The National Weather Service Doppler Radar, compared to what was use back then, is like a Mercedes Benz rather than old Volkswagen Beetle. It’s incredibly much more sensitive.

Ironically, what it’s done is lead to more false alarm tornado warnings. We catching the circulations up in the sky, but not all of them make it down to the ground. When we catch those circulations, tornado warnings are going out. The most important feature is giving time before anything happens. When we start seeing these circulations and we suspect that it might be fifteen or twenty minutes before it hits the ground, we get the warning out to prepare those people who might be in it’s path. Now if it hits the ground, then the system worked. If nothing hits the ground we need to go back and figure how we can tell the difference between what will hit the ground and what won’t. We’re not quite to that point yet. Since the advent of the Doppler Radar System, we have definitely increased the lead time for tornado warnings. But this has lead to the increase of “false alarms.”

SK: What was the lead time back in 1974? Were warnings based on hook echoes or actual sightings.

TW: Hook Echoes, when you saw them, were indications of a tornado. If you had any lead time at all, in this part of the country, it was considered to be a real bonus. They had a lot more experience in Okalahoma, Texas, and the Great Plains states, basically ‘Tornado Alley.” There they can usually get lead times, because they were able to identify the cells that could cause tornadoes. Even then it was just a few minutes lead time.

In today’s world, out in the Plain states, people are getting twenty to twenty-five minutes lead time. But trying to lead or anticipate doesn’t always work out. But it works out often enough that it’s a benefit to have the longer lead times.

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