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Now that tornadoes seem to be more prevalent, it was not like that in 1974. They are mostly in this part of the country.
I remember well that April 3rd day of 1974. I had heard reports of possible severe weather and although we heard thunder and saw lightening, nothing more transpired that day in Hancock County. Later that night I learned about a severe tornado hitting Hardinsburg, Irvington and Brandenburg, with possible deaths.
The next morning I loaded my big camera and flew my plane toward Breck County to capture the damage on film. Ralph Bozarth and Leroy Lamar went along. I flew toward Hardinsburg and saw where the tornado touched down. As we flew along the path of destruction (toward Irvington) we could see the destruction increase with homes completely leveled. As we arrived over Brandenburg we were astounded to see the horrific force of the tornado.
Most of the town was completely wiped out.
I circled the town and began taking photos. We could see Emergency and National Guard personnel searching through the rubble. 31 people lost their lives at Brandenburg that day.
The Meade County Messenger owned by Jim Willis, his wife and daughter, Jane, was located in the hardest hit area of Brandenburg. I made a few prints of the aerial photos and drove to Brandenburg the next day to see if I could give the owners some aid in printing their next edition. When I arrived, the National Guard had closed off the area. I told them I wanted to check on Jim Willis and his family and showed my press credentials. They let me in, but warned me of the dangerous debris and unsafe buildings.
As I walked through the town, it held an eerie silence.
I remember passing an office building that was still standing, curtains blowing out the destroyed windows. It seemed like a movie. The tragedy was so shocking I was flabbergasted to see large trees with all of the bark ripped away. When I arrived at the newspaper office I could see the roof was damaged. I walked up to the door, opened it carefully and shouted, “is anybody in there.” Jim Willis replied, “Come on in.” They were busy trying to salvage equipment as water had poured through the roof damaging the majority.
I showed Jim Willis the aerial photos I made the previous day and offered them to come to Hawesville and we would help them get their next edition out at the Clarion.
They came, and with the help of the Tell City newspaper, the historical edition of the Meade County Messenger went to press on time. They used my aerial photo on the front page along with a photo of rescue workers carrying a victim on a stretcher. Jim said they had very little warning of the approaching tornado. He said it sounded like a freight train.
I had known the Willis family for several years. They were good friends. As a matter of fact, the Clarion had a press breakdown once and when I called Jim for help, they responded and we printed the Clarion in the wee hours of the morning at Brandenburg.
The Brandenburg tornado, also producing F5 damage, touched down in Breckinridge County at 4:25 p.m. CDT and followed a 34-mile (54 km) path. First producing F3 damage at the north edge of Hardinsburg, the storm intensified as it moved into Meade County, producing F5 damage as it swept through Brandenburg, along the Ohio River before dissipating in Indiana. 31 were killed in the storm including 18 at a single block of Green Street in Brandenburg. The vast majority of homes and businesses including the high school, the Baptist Church, the old bank building and the Meade Hotel were either damaged or destroyed.
The radio station WMMG (AM) was also destroyed. Sadly, the citizens of Brandenburg had received very little warning, which may account in part for the tragically high death toll; it has been reported that the only warning received by listeners to WMMG was when the disc jockey on duty looked out the window, saw the twister coming, and shouted at his listeners to take cover, shortly before the twister destroyed the radio station.