Most folks who weren’t kept awake by the howling winds or the ominous warnings that severe weather was marching towards the Cumberland Plateau had turned in for the night. But at 11:50 p.m., just 10 minutes before midnight, a funnel cloud developed from the rotating, swirling clouds of an increasingly violent storm that was marching across the region. Just after it crossed the Big South Fork River gorge, a tornado touched down in West Oneida. 

It was April 3, 1974. By the time dawn broke some seven hours later, the full extent of damage across the eastern United States — caused by what was at that time the largest tornado outbreak in recorded history — was just beginning to be realized. Hundreds were dead, thousands more were injured, and a significant number of homes from the Deep South to the upper Midwest had been damaged or destroyed by well over 100 tornadoes.

In Scott County, that Black Oak tornado — which touched down just south of Coopertown and trekked 13 miles to near Isham Road in Winfield — bore witness to the largest number of casualties ever associated with a tornado in this area. Twenty-one people had been injured. Miraculously, no one had been killed.

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the April 1974 “Super Outbreak,” the first time in Earth’s history that more than 100 tornadoes had occurred in a single 24-hour period. In total, 148 different twisters caused death and destruction in 13 different states. In the U.S., it would be 37 years — the 2011 tornado outbreak across the Deep South — before a larger tornado outbreak occurred.

In Scott County, it had been 42 years since a confirmed tornado had occurred. On March 21, 1932, an F2 tornado injured 13 people in Helenwood. But that storm had nothing on the series of thunderstorms that marched through the community on the evening of April 3, 1974.

It had already been a violent start to April. Deadly tornadoes had occurred in Tennessee and Kentucky on April 1 and April 2 — a total of 23 twisters had killed four and injured 72 others. As April 3 arrived, more bad weather was expected. The National Weather Service warned of severe thunderstorms; schools canceled classes in anticipation of the weather. But no one could have foretold what was about to happen.

‘It was scary’

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of the wind,” said Elva Chambers. “It sounded like a dozen trains coming through Coopertown that night.”

Chambers lived in West Oneida. She remembers watching from the window of her home as the supercell crossed the gorge, following the river.

“My mother knew exactly what it was because she had been through tornadoes when we lived in Florida,” Chambers said.

The weather had been bad throughout the day, long before the tornado-producing thunderstorms arrived on the Cumberland Plateau. A powerful low-pressure system had developed in the Great Plains and collided with warm, moist air surging north from the Gulf of Mexico as it crossed the Mississippi River. That combination of strong elevated winds and warm lower-level air produced an environment ripe for disaster. 

At 7:30 p.m., the small town of Tanner in northern Alabama was severely damaged when an F5 tornado passed through, killing 28 people. Rescue workers and volunteers rushed to the scene, searching for people trapped in the rubble, when a second F5 tornado formed and passed through the same town, destroying what was left and killing 22 more.

The first tornadoes of April 3, 1974 had occurred. But they would be far from the last.

It was more than four hours later when the tell-tale sound — like a freight train that had left its tracks and was barreling along Coopertown Road — reached the ears of residents in West Oneida. 

Ironically, the old classic, “Gone With The Wind,” had been on television earlier in the evening. High winds had already killed the power in much of Scott County when the first tornado came through — there was no warning for those who did not have battery-powered radios. But, by that point, many were already huddled in their basements and other safe places, patiently waiting out the storms.

Karen Davis Duncan’s father worked at Plateau Electric Cooperative, where all hands were on deck after power outages began to be reported. Her mother took her and her sister to her grandmother’s home near the intersection of Coopertown Road and Toomey Road, were Joan Cotton now lives. 

“I remember I looked at the night sky; it looked like someone turned a red signal light in a sky,” she said. “It was scary.”

The tornado passed by less than a mile away, traveling along Smith Road near New Haven Baptist Church as it continued toward Winfield.

The Black Oak tornado was listed as No. 89 — it was the 89th tornado that had occurred since that first tornado touched down near Tanner, Ala., four hours earlier. In all, it destroyed 10 homes and numerous other mobile homes. It was 400 yards wide — as wide as the length of four football fields placed end-to-end.

Bobbie Anderson remembers that her family had completed a move to a new home just that day. When the sun rose on the morning of April 4, the home they had just moved out of was destroyed.

Second and third tornadoes

At almost the same time as the F4 tornado touched down in West Oneida, another F4 tornado touched down in northern Morgan County. Labeled No. 95, that tornado was 350 yards wide and trekked 12.2 miles before lifting. It began northeast of Sunbright and traveled to near Winona, tearing apart two trailers and damaging other buildings. A dozen other homes were damaged or destroyed. 

Another tornado had actually developed about two hours earlier in the evening. It was an F2 storm that developed in Pickett County and passed through the northwest part of Scott County and on into McCreary County, finally ending near Smith Town. At 20 miles in length, it was the longest tornado of the evening on the Cumberland Plateau. But since it passed mostly through forested land — what would become the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area had been largely abandoned by that point — no one was hurt.

By the end of the night, a total of 32 people had been injured in Scott County — 21 in the Black Oak tornado, and 11 more in the Sunbright-to-Winona tornado. Only 14 Scott Countians have been injured in tornadoes before or since, making the 1974 Super Outbreak the most devastating day in Scott County’s history, from a weather standpoint.

Neighboring areas fair poorly

It wasn’t just Scott County that was under the gun. In total, 16 tornadoes touched down in East Tennessee, and another 21 touched down in Middle Tennessee. There were a total of 250 people injured and seven killed in East Tennessee. Most of the casualties occurred with a pair of F3 tornadoes in Bradley and Polk counties. In Middle Tennessee, there were 27 fatalities and 385 others were injured.

In Fentress County, an F4 tornado that was 200 miles wide passed between Allardt and Jamestown just before 8 p.m. Four subdivisions were flattened near the S.R. 52 intersection with U.S. 27. It was by far the most devastating tornado of the evening on the plateau, injuring 150 people and killing seven. In one instance, a tractor-trailer truck was tossed 100 yards into a home. Forty-eight homes were destroyed. That tornado marked the last time anyone was injured in a twister in Fentress County. 

In Pickett County, an F4 tornado traveled 19 miles, killing five and injuring six others. In Overton County, 10 were killed and 51 others were injured in a massive tornado that measured 700 yards across and traveled 32 miles. A separate F3 tornado in Overton County traveled 13 miles, killing three and injuring 120.

“The night that storm hit was awful,” said Teressa Braden, who had just been discharged from Scott County Hospital after the birth of her son, Jonathan. “The winds and rain were so scary. I remember them telling about the damage near Jamestown being really bad. They even found cows in trees and some people were killed.”

The aftermath

The American Red Cross moved into Oneida as the storms moved out, occupying space in the Oneida Church of Christ as a makeshift headquarters. For the next several days, aid was administered to those who needed it. Michael Summers, who lived a quarter of a mile from the path of the tornado, remembers taking donuts to neighborhoods hardest hit.

Vanessa Burchfield also remembers going with her grandmother to deliver food to those who had lost their homes in the storms.

Even in areas where the tornadoes didn’t hit, the winds were damaging. As darkness settled across the region and the winds howled with lighting flashing, fear was the primary emotion.

“I lived in a mobile home and I can remember the lightning flashes were just like being in a movie theater because they were constant,” said Donna Crabtree. “It did not touch down where I was at but I was holding my son’s baby bed. It was on little wheels and it was moving from the force of the wind. The electricity was off so there was no warning. It was a scary night.”

Anna Strunk Phillips stayed beneath the bed as the storm shook the windows at her home.

“I still think to this day that the only thing that saved us was we lived on a hill, and when it hit the hill it went over our house and touched down by Ted Q. Wilson’s,” she said.

Loretta Strunk lived with her mother in the housing projects near the Country Storm.

“The lightning was awful,” she said. “Sparks were coming out of the plugs. I have never seen my mom as afraid as she was that night.”

In all, 315 people were killed and 5,484 were injured that evening. The single deadliest tornado occurred in Xenia, Oh., where 32 people were killed.

One of those killed was a classmate of Tina Slaten, who later married Kevin Bilbrey and moved to Oneida. She was 11 at the time and her family lived in Xenia. 

Dave Douglas, who would also wind up in Oneida, lived near Xenia at the time and also remembers the deadly tornado.

A harrowing tale of survival

"I remember that night like it was yesterday. I lived in a trailer next to Wallace and Edith Marcum. I had worked out in the yard that day; the wind was blowing really hard. I was married to Philip Marcum and he had called to tell me and our daughter, Kasie, to go to his parents' house. But all he heard was me screaming into the phone and the tornado. He knew what was happening.

"The trailer turned over the first time like in slow motion. I hit the stove and refrigerator hard and was knocked out. The trailer flipped three times and on the fourth time blew apart. The wind dragged me down Coopertown Road about 50 feet with the phone still in my hand. 

"Phil had to call Charlie and Nikki Marcum to come check on us. Kasie was three at the time and she did not even get a scratch on her — unlike me with broken ribs, a black eye and stitches in a few places. We both had a guardian angel looking out for us!"

Kathy Rose |Oneida, Tenn.