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Memories of that horrible day in 1974 haven't faded
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Friday, April 04, 2014 11:00 AM
The April 3, 1974, tornado swept through Jefferson County, leaving 10 dead and causing millions of dollars in damage. (April 1974 Courier file photo)
BETTER PREPARED: John Gordon of the National Weather Service, discusses how weather technology has changed in the 40 years since a tornado swept through Madison. Gordon spoke at a memorial service Thursday on the 40th anniversary of the tornado. (Staff photo by Steve Dickersonemail@example.com)
Ann Weber and her three children had plans to spend time with Weber's terminally ill mother the afternoon of April 3, 1974. But before they dropped in at the Madison hilltop home to say hello, the family was delayed by a doctor's appointment at King's Daughters' Hospital.
The delay might have saved their lives.
Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of tornadoes that swept through Jefferson County, killing 10 residents and leveling portions of the hilltop, Hanover and surrounding areas.
Weber joined local officials, National Weather Service representatives and fellow community members at City Hall to remember the storm and the victims.
Ann Weber's mother, Mary Ann Niesse, was killed at her home on Cragmont Street - the place the Webers had planned to visit before getting stuck downtown.
"Their house was totally destroyed, and the roof of the house behind them hit their house," Weber said.
Weber's father was badly injured, suffering a fractured skull which needed more than 150 stitches. Weber said the doctors at KDH laid her father on the floor and administered the stitches using a flashlight to see.
Her mother was transferred from Madison to Indianapolis where she succumbed to her injuries. Niesse was 64 and had served three terms as Madison's clerk-treasurer.
Well before the storm, Niesse had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just months to live.
"Of all the people that died, my mother only had six months to live," Weber said.
Niesse's story is just one of many from the destructive day. Several local dignitaries gave personal accounts of the storm and aftermath, focusing on charitable organizations and eager, often chainsaw-welding neighbors who diligently worked to cleanup and rebuild the county.
Commissioner Mark Cash was 12 years old the day of the storms. He was riding the bus home from school when the twisters smashed into Hanover. His grandfather was the bus driver.
When they saw the system move over Hanover, everyone took shelter under the seats as softball-sized hail pounded the vehicle, which sat idle on a gravel county road.
"We sat there and watched the black cloud hit Hanover," Cash recalled.
Cash wasn't aware of the scope of damage until he finally made it home, where he found out his sister was unaccounted for. She was actually picked up from Southwestern schools by a relative, but in the chaos of the evening, the message could not immediately be relayed to the rest of the family.
Cash ran through several miles of downed power lines and destruction - noticing that most landmarks had been wiped out.
"The high school was completely gone. There was no sign of it at all. At the elementary school, there were only a few walls still standing," he said.
Much to his relief, someone at the school told him that his sister was fine and had been picked up. Even after knowing his sister was unharmed, Cash said he carried a "heavy heart" until he saw her later that evening.
The 1974 storms are known as the Super Outbreak, which is considered the second largest tornado outbreak on record. Nearly 320 people were killed and entire communities like Guin, Ala., were wiped off the map.
"Anything that went up that day, rotated and immediately became a tornado," said John Gordon, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Louisville.
Gordon said 1974 fundamentally changed several aspects of weather reporting, response and preparedness. There was no weather-spotting training then, he said, and things like Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster kits and weather radios now exists because of what happened in 74.
"That all started because of this event," Gordon said.
PHOTOS: Heavy Hearts
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