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
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.