SURVIVOR STORY: Henry W. Armstrong
The date was April 3, 1974, and the time was 2:55 p.m. Henry W. Armstrong recalls what happened on what is now known as Black Wednesday.
"Those are not vultures," I said, "The cloud is turning." As my wife and I were watching a huge black cloud approaching from the southwest, we saw what appeared to be a flock of vultures circling above the cloud. Upon closer observation, we saw that the circling objects were not vultures but debris that the storm had picked up in its path of destruction. We were watching a tornado!
The date was April 3, 1974, and the time was 2:55 p.m. In just fifteen minutes the worst storm in the history of Southern Indiana was to destroy our home near Palmyra.
This twister was on the ground for more than ninety minutes, and during that time it spread its destruction for a hundred and twenty miles killing fourteen people and injuring two hundred eighty-six others. The Southern Indiana communities hardest hit by the tornado were Depauw, Palmyra, Martinsburg, Borden, Hanover, and Madison.
All across the country, from Canada to Alabama, one hundred and forty-eight tornadoes touched down on April 3, 1974, killing three hundred and fifteen people and injuring nearly fifty-five hundred more. In the Midwest, Xenia, Ohio was devastated by a tornado, which killed thirty-three and injured sixteen hundred others. Twenty tornadoes hit Kentucky on this day killing seventy-one and injuring six hundred and ninety-three. Brandenburg, a little country town on the Ohio River, suffered the most loss of life in Kentucky. Twenty-nine of its sixteen hundred and seventy-three residents died that day.
April 3, 1974 began as a nice, warm spring day in Palmyra, Indiana with a gentle breeze blowing from the southwest. Intermittent showers began to fall around 10:00 a.m., and from all indications that we had, this Wednesday was to be just another normal spring day. We had no warning or even an indication that a tornado was impending. We left home around 11:00 a.m. to do some shopping and returned around 1:45 p.m. Still, we had not received any news from the radio, television, or from anyone that we met in our travels, or from any other source, that bad weather was imminent.
It was only by chance, or fate, that we saw the storm approaching. We were in the kitchen preparing to have lunch when my wife opened the front door and saw the storm. "Look at the vultures circling above the cloud," she said. After watching the storm for a few seconds, we realized that the cloud was turning and carried a tornado. The time was 2:59 p.m.
In seconds, the lights went out. Our electricity was off. We tried to get the news on a small battery radio, but static was all that we could get because of the huge volume of electricity in the storm. Suddenly, the sky turned to an orange color, and it began to Hail. Then the hail stopped, and everything was quiet. Not even a breeze was blowing.
This was the lull before the storm.
At this time we knew that we had to abandon our home immediately because it did not have a basement or a place to hide. Five of us: my wife, Mamie; my son, David; my daughter, Jacqueline; my granddaughter, Jennifer; and I got into my car and headed for the open highway in an attempt to outrun the tornado. The time was 3:09 p.m.
When we reached U.S. Highway 150 a half-mile away, the wind became so violent that I considered stopping the car so that we could jump into a ditch that ran alongside the highway. "You had better get going. Its right behind us," my daughter cried. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw the tornado taking the roof from Neal's Body Shop, so I pushed the accelerator to the floor and pulled away from the tornado.
We drove southeast on 150 for three miles and then stopped and prayed that God would have mercy on us and help us. After waiting for a few minutes, we returned to the vicinity of our home, but we were not prepared for what we saw. Seven houses on 150 directly in from of our house had been swept clean from their foundations as though a giant broom had descended from the sky and whisked them all away.
Our new doublewide mobile, which weighed thirty tons, had been thrown three hundred feet and crushed as if it were an eggshell. All of our new appliances and furniture were destroyed except one chest-of-drawers. The side-by-side refrigerator was in two pieces, and the keys were stripped from the piano. The overhead ovens were torn from the electric stove, and the washer and dryer were bent beyond repair. And I saw the remains of the alarm clock. The hands had stopped at 3:10 p.m.
We carried what few belongings we had left out in garbage bags, and at that moment, it looked as if God had deserted us. However, we were fortunate to recover many personal items, including my wife's wedding rings. I was especially thankful we found most of my books without great damage. Ironically, we found my necktie, thermos, and lunch bucket, which I had left on my bed as we were preparing to leave for work in ten minutes.
We found some of our belongings in very strange places. We found our living room carpet in the top of a tree. We located most of our silverware in a hole that the mobile home had dug when it hit the ground after being airborne for three hundred feet. I was thrilled to find two of my brother's saving bonds undamaged in the woods.
Perhaps the most unusual things found after the tornado were a purse and a toolbox, which my neighbor found only a few hundred feet from our home. Miraculously, both were still intact, although the tornado had picked them up and carried them forty miles from Brandenburg, Kentucky. Fortuitously, my neighbor, and honest man, was able to return both items to their rightful owners.
As I look back in retrospect, I can see that God's hand was in that tornado on April 3, 1974. He was watching over us and looking out for our best interests, although it seemed as though He was not around. Otherwise, how can we explain why we took the only avenue of escape, or why not one of us was injured, or why we recovered some of our most cherished personal possessions?
God heard our prayer and smiled on us that April day. He took that which seemingly was bad and turned it into good. God took the tornado that came to destroy and turned it into a blessing. After it was all over, God gave us a house with a basement, a place to hide in case of another tornado. Also, He gave us more land and more seclusion where we can live in peace and tranquility.
We still live in that house that we built after the tornado. Most of the scars of the tornado are gone, but I still dream of tornadoes and vividly remember that day, April 3, 1974, when God reached down with His hand and delivered us from that tornado that destroyed our home.
Henry W. Armstrong is WDRB Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell's grandfather.