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Medic recalls the April 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak

In a single day 148 tornadoes killed 330 people and injured 5,484 in 13 states


By John Hultgren

The morning of Wednesday, April 3, 1974, began with a forecast of warm air with a chance of rain, maybe thunderstorms, for the eastern half of the United States.

By noon, temperatures had reached the upper 70s, winds were blowing at 30 mph, humidity was high, and an explosive mix was brewing as a jet stream blowing about 100 mph out of Texas was meeting with a cold front from the Rockies and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.

Streets littered with the debris of shattered homes and trees severely hampered travel, including rescue operations. (©1974 John Hultgren, Louisville, Kentucky)
Streets littered with the debris of shattered homes and trees severely hampered travel, including rescue operations. (©1974 John Hultgren, Louisville, Kentucky)

Hardly anyone realized that the United States was beginning to experience what is still our country's worst natural disaster. Over a 16-hour period, 148 tornados touched down in 13 states at a rate of one every six minutes, a phenomenon so rare that most of us won't ever see this again in our lifetime.

By the time it was all over, destruction stretched over 2,500 miles, leaving 330 people dead and 5,484 others injured.

Six of the day's tornados (including one in Xenia, Ohio had an F5 Fujita rating, meaning winds may have blown over 300 mph with enough force to debark trees and turn cars into missiles.

The 13 states struck by twisters during the 16-hour super tornado outbreak includes Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

I captured images while assisting with rescue and relief operations in Xenia over the days that followed. I was a student at Ohio University in Athens at the time. 

Searching leveled homes for survivors or victims was an arduous process. Even funeral homes were obliterated, making it difficult to determine if a body was new or old. (©1974 John Hultgren, Louisville, Kentucky)

Xenia, population 25,000, was literally devastated. 33 people were killed, over 1,600 were injured, and 1,600 buildings were destroyed. Property damage was estimated at $80 - $100 million. The width of the tornado was up to a mile wide and winds were 340 - 380 mph. A 52-car train moving through Xenia was derailed and scattered by the tornado, dividing the city literally in half and hampering rescue efforts. Two National Guard members were killed when a fire broke out in a building where they were seeking shelter during the rescue operations.

About the Author

John Hultgren is a Kentucky licensed Paramedic who began his EMS career over 46 years ago as a volunteer while in high school. A photojournalism major in college, he joined the first generation of paramedics and has worked both as a paramedic, educator, supervisor, manager, and director for public and private EMS, Fire/EMS, and air medical ambulance services, currently working in relationship management for Air Evac Lifeteam.

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