Bill Powers' Story - The April 1974 Tornado Outbreak

April 3rd, 1974 is a date I'll always remember from my years in Huntsville and especially those at WAAY.

The day had passed uneventfully - as had "31 News at 6" with the typical assortment of national and local stories, including the usual accident film and voice-over from Dick Van Valkenburg - followed by weather, sports, and a wrap-up. As best I recall, the team on-air that night included Adrian Gibson, Tony Beason, John Bradshaw, and Dan Jamison. (Editor's note: Sam Depino, Adrian and John Bradshaw did the bulk of on-air work. Bradshaw using our new radar (with weather service help) pointing out the "hook echo" and Sam warning public to take shelter and Adrian in another part of studio) Larry McCree and I were in the control room.

Our new "toy" at the time was an RCA AVQ-15 weather radar. Cactus, Bob Sullivan, and Don Roden had worked feverishly to get our radar on the air ahead of WHNT who had sawed off their 150' tower to install a HUGE Navy surplus radar (we joked about WHNT being able to warn people of ships coming up the Big Spring). Neither system was originally designed for weather duty. Our AVQ-15 was an airborne radar adapted for ground use. It was hard to see much through the ground clutter on the display, but properly "tweaked" it worked pretty well. We made our goal of being first in the market to have one, and it paid for itself the night of April 3rd.

Earlier in the afternoon a tornado had been reported just west of Birmingham, followed by another one east of the city about an hour later. We didn't think much of 'em and they were at best out on the fringe of our viewing area.

At 6:30 PM we switched to "NBC Nightly News" and had begun the routine of shutting down the studio lights, capping the cameras, and pulling the slides and news film for use on a "31 News at 10" that would never come. Hardly five minutes into network news a tornado warning for Lawrence County came over the teletype from the National Weather Service and we were back on the air - with John Bradshaw - white as a ghost - declaring the emergency live to our viewing audience. In a matter of minutes we identified what we believed to be a "hook" pattern on the edge of the radar screen's 20-mile range - indicating a large tornado somewhere out there just beyond Decatur and which seemed to be moving our way. This was followed by another tornado warning at around 7:00 and another sighting on our radar.

The bright skies of only an hour before had turned ominously black as large hail and heavy rain pummeled the building. More tornado warnings followed as the line of intense thunderstorms continued to build over western Morgan and Madison counties. Sometime during the evening the National Weather Service station at the airport was abandoned. Instantly, we became the only operating weather radar between Centerville and Nashville and Memphis and Atlanta. I'm not sure which was greater - our apprehension over the screaming winds around us or the excitement of knowing that at that moment we "owned" the ratings.

Harrowing though it was, it was punctuated by moments that will "live in infamy" - at least for those of us that were there.:

I remember while John was on the air at one point Larry saying, "Look out, he's in trouble!" We had five "hook" patterns on the radar screen and John was hyperventilating! He couldn't catch his breath. We cut away to the radar screen and killed his mike while someone handed him a paper bag to breathe into. I can't remember whether we were shocked or just laughing or asses off (I think the latter).

The storms were so severe that electrical power eventually went off across most of Northern Alabama - taking us off the air just before a tornado struck Monte Sano. (editor's note: This was 10:55 p.m. that night) I remember looking off to the west out the back door of the station and seeing several funnel clouds - glowing green from highly charged ionized gases - coming our way in the vast darkness where Huntsville and the horizon should have been.

We thought we were safe on the mountain - the general consensus being that updrafts would pick a tornado up and carry it beyond us. But around 11:00 PM we knew we were wrong.

I'd never been in a tornado before, but there was no doubt about what was going on outside when we heard the roaring "locomotive" sound we'd been told of so many times. In an act of immense journalistic bravery (a.k.a. insanity) Tony Beason - cassette recorder under his arm - held a microphone out the double glass doors at the front of the building to "capture the sound of the tornado. " No doubt he envisioned how dramatic it would be on the air the next day. I, on the other hand, imagined those glass doors shattering at the moment the building imploded. It went along with my vision of being crushed under our 500-foot tower or channel 19's 1000-footer - or both.

Bobby Gleason lived in a small stone cottage near the southwest intersection of Monte Sano Blvd. and Panorama Dr. I remember him walking into the station about an hour after the power went off. He had a cut or two and had obviously been through a rough time. He related to us how he looked out the window of his house to see his girlfriend's car disappear - vertically. I don't think they ever found it. The home next door belonging to Huntsville police sergeant Bob Owen was completely lifted off its foundation and moved a few feet.

Though the station escaped any serious damage - it was pretty obvious that we were going to have a rough time getting past downed trees and other storm damage. As time went by we would all learn how much more serious the day's events had been. Martial law was declared in much of Huntsville to prevent looting. We had a member of the National Guard watching our street for a day or two.

My wife, Susan, and infant son, Bryan had been safely tucked inside a neighbor's storm shelter along with WAAY Creative Services Director, Hank Price, and his wife, Maria. My house was only missing a shingle or two, but Hank's house just next door had a collapsed front porch. Only a block or two a way the damage was much more severe - bare foundations where homes had once been. And there were the oddities one finds after such events - like the house on California Blvd. where nothing was left standing but an un-touched bookcase (filled with books).

Fourteen states had seen the brunt of this intense weather system. Later studies would conclude the system produced at least 148 tornadoes, 30 of which were classified as F5s (260 MPH+). One F5 had blown away Guin, killing nearly two dozen people there. The towns of Harvest, Hazel Green, and Tanner were also seriously damaged.

Of course the heroes of the storms were the many police, fire, and rescue workers who responded to those in need across all of North Alabama. However, those of us working at WAAY the night of April 3rd and those in the field and reporting over the following days couldn't help but puff our chests out a bit as we relished a behind-the-scenes panic viewers never and as we contemplated the service our station had provided the community. Kids in the business today have no idea.....

Bill Powers (class of 1972 - 1976)

The Main Studio and 31News set before the NBC News Center was constructed (that was replaced when we switched to ABC in December of 1977).

(more from Bill) The mind is a funny thing. A few nights ago I dreamed I was in a plane that had successfully crash-landed someplace. Trying to summon a rescue I kept calling, "KGI-319, this is KFG-925." (The VHF two-way call signs between the station and whatever news crew was out there.) Nowadays I'm given to forgetting important stuff, but I remember those two call signs. Go figure.

I've attached three photos from the early 70s. Television was fun back then and there was a lot of it to go around at WAAY:

The Santa Show (w/Hank Price as Santa). The show closed with dissolves between cameras panning the shelves of toys. At the end of one show the camera panned across to find Ken and Barbie dolls that one of our resident funny men had placed in the "missionary" position - Ken's pants around his ankles and Barbie's skirt hiked up around her waist. I didn't catch it until the camera operator (Mike Howard, I think) panned back to see if that was what he'd actually!...on air! Fade-to-black! Go to commercial! Wait for the red phone in the booth to ring. (Fortunately, I don't think we got any complaints. Either they missed it or the audience size wasn't quite what we thought it was!)

Walton Jones had a habit of coming onto the weather set only seconds before we came out of the commercial break - often leaving us no time for a mike check. One night, fun-loving Bob Trotter arranged a loop in the microphone cable right where he knew Wally would be standing. True to form, Wally walked onto the set only about 5 seconds before the beginning of the weather segment. Just as the tally light came on, Bob - standing just out of camera range - pulled the slack out of the cable, tightening the loop around Wally's ankle. For the entire 3 or 4 minute weather segment Bob kept the line tight and Wally did the weather as a stooped-over guy dragging a bad leg. Thereafter he showed up on the set at least 30 seconds before he had to go on.

On occasion I've been asked, "What's the best way for my [insert relative] to break into the business." After I tell 'em most people are trying to break out I recommend they rent two movies - Weird Al Yankovic's "UHF" and "Broadcast News". If the kid still wants to be in television after those doses of reality - he should go find a small or middle-market station where it may still be possible to learn how things work.

I had many learning experiences at WAAY, and survived at least four career-threatening events: The darkroom enlargement. Decided on my own to connect what had been the old film processor room and my closet of a darkroom adjacent to it. Good idea - badly executed. Didn't think about the dust from that cinder-block wall I took down being sucked into the return air vents - only to be deposited on most flat surfaces throughout the building.

My first encounter with Mrs. Smith, III. I was running master control during the Today Show. She walked into master control one day, introduced herself, and started up what seemed at first to be a friendly conversation. I was thrilled to meet her and made no secret of my appreciation for being at WAAY. Mrs. Smith asked me, " long do you expect to stay employed here?" "A long time," I replied. "Well...young see that sign? ['Keep this door closed'] You won't last until the end of the day if I come back here and find that door to the video tape room open again!" Needless to say, I got the message.

The night I walked through one of the double glass doors by Johnny and Redge's office. Bill Farris drove me down to Huntsville Hospital to get sewed up. Still have the scars. Only thing more painful was having to explain it to you the next morning.

The camera blow-up. Actually, the camera didn't, but Cactus did. I had just finished eating my lunch on the Coffee Break set while watching Cactus - standing on the camera pedestal - try to fish a screw out from deep inside one of the TK-42 studio cameras. I quietly blew up the bag - snuck up behind him..and BOOM! Damn, I thought we were going to have to peel Cac off the ceiling! And man, was he pissed! Fire-breathing - Pentecostal preacher-breathing in-my-face furious! I don't think he cooled down for at least a couple of days, but he left no doubt about his holding the life-or-death of my career in his hands. Thank goodness for the benevolence of the Smith family!

Bill Powers

© 2003 Smith Broadcasting, Inc. [update 6-26-2003]