I was barely a year old on April 3, 1974 when the Super Outbreak – then the largest recorded tornado outbreak in United States history – occurred. Even if I had been older, living in Utah and the lack of technology would have made it difficult to get much information about it until many days had passed. The Super Outbreak held an almost mythical status in the weather community – a benchmark event we were unlikely to ever see repeated. All of that changed on April 27, 2011 when the “2011 Super Outbreak” challenged, equaled or even exceeded some of the ’74 outbreak’s records. Even 2,000 miles away, I was able to watch the event unfold live on The Weather Channel and other various streaming video sites, most notably as the high-end EF4 Tuscaloosa monster plowed into town, a sight watching live that I’ll not soon forget. As someone almost obsessed with rankings, lists and comparisons it got me learning more about the ’74 Super Outbreak. What surprised me was the lack of information and pictures of one of the most devastating events that day – the F5 tornado that struck the small town of Guin, Alabama at 9:02pm.
The Guin tornado has quite a reputation – some claim Dr. Fujita considered rating it an F6. However, very little exists in the way of documentation or photographs of this extreme tornado. Alabama and Guin were no stranger to violent tornadoes and tornado outbreaks. On April 20, 1920 an outbreak of tornadoes resulted in 92 deaths in the state. On March 21, 1932 another large outbreak resulted in 268 fatalities. A weaker tornado struck Guin in 1956. Just one year before the Super Outbreak, on May 27, 1973, a long-track tornado devastated the community of Brent during a major outbreak. Guin had also been hit by a tornado on November 26, 1973 – an F2 that resulted in five injuries but no fatalities. Even two days before the Super Outbreak, nearby Huntsville was struck by an F3 tornado that resulted in several injuries.
With the 40th anniversary of the April 3, 1974 Super Outbreak, considerable information was released via the National Weather Service about this amazing event – including a PDF of Charles Jordan’s “April 3, 1974 – A Night To Remember” which is laden with photos and interviews of 43 survivors of the Guin tornado and others from that day in Alabama.
Guin is a small town in Marion County with a population of about 2,000 in 1974. It is situated in northwest Alabama, about 15 miles from the border with Mississippi and about 80 miles northwest of Birmingham. The following are excerpts from Jordan’s excellent book describing that fateful day.
Regarding weather forecasts, warnings on April 3, 1974 and events prior to the tornado
Reports had persisted since midday about tornado watches. Folks had been talking about “tornado alley” shifting into the southeast, or so it seemed, from it’s Midwest corridor. Now there were reports for tornado watches again, a scant 36 hours after the Sherwood Park incident (F3 Huntsville tornado of April 1, 1974). – Charles Jordan.
Unreasonable sweltering heat for early April. Folks joked about having mid-July weather on April 3, but the heat still made you restless, irritable as you gazed into the skies where thunderheads were building up to the southwest. – Charles Jordan.
I was sitting in front of the television watching storm warnings which were continuously coming across the screen on the TV set. -Haylon Akers
At about 5:30 in the afternoon, we happened to go downstairs because the weather looked a little bit rough, and that was the time when the first hail came along. It was about golf ball size, the biggest I had ever seen. We thought that was the worst of the weather. -Betty Alexander
It seemed that the wind blew hard all day. The clouds seemed to look like smoke at times, hanging low. – Gladys Berryhill
We had been warned about it all day and I prepared for it. I filled up the kerosene lamps and carried them to the storm cellar. I carried some cushions there too. – Mural Cantrell
On April 3rd we had tornado watches all day long; the weather was up and down. My husband had been watching the television listening for the weather, with a flashlight in hand. – Mrs. Harry Carskaden
That afternoon I went to town for a few minutes. The wind got blowing so hard the trees were just bending over, it almost blew me down. A little after 6pm there came a hailstorm, at least the size of baseballs, the biggest I’d ever seen. Later that night some friends came over after church. they were very scared of storms. One of them kept going to the door looking at the clouds. He was so restless. Our neighbors got tired of us not being afraid, so they went home. – Jeanette Frye
We were warned all afternoon that something was going to happen. – Woodrow Haney
On the night of April 3rd at about 6:46pm there was a terrible noise. I ran to the window to see hail about the size of golf balls. It was hitting the windows so hard I thought it was going to break them. Later (about 8:45) there was a lot of lightning. Marcia was on the telephone talking to a friend from Winfield who told her he felt like something terrible was going to happen. Then the phone went dead. Now, this foreboding fear or eerie feeling was felt by many people during that day. -Mildred McGuire.
I was watching television that night of April the 3rd. A tornado warning was flashed and said that there were as many as three tornadoes going. There was a warning every little bit that said which way they were traveling. – Fred Porter
Before we went to church there was a severe hailstorm, huge hailstones fell. We heard the heavy thunderstorm warnings during the afternoon but we hadn’t heard any tornado warnings until after we got to church. Someone came in at church and told us that tornado warnings were given. There was bad lightning when we started out after church service. We stopped at the door and chatted for a few moments with the Brown family. When we got home, we decided the clouds just looked terrible, like there might be a tornado in them. – Mrs. Raymond Shirey
Regarding the tornado strike
I hear a tornado coming. It sounds like a train coming up the hollow there. We could hear the trees popping and breaking. -Bryce Adkins
My wife was in the back room sewing. She came to me and said “the tornado is here”. Then the television went off. I told my wife to get on the floor right by my side. We just didn’t realize what was happening until the tornado was over. We weren’t scared – it was over so quickly that we didn’t have time to get scared. – Haylon Akers
The lights went out – it was a mad scramble to get in the back bedroom. We got in the closet. Bradford’s mother didn’t want to come, but she followed us in when the glass started breaking. The pressure on our ears was terrific. We could hear all the glass breaking and trees falling on the house. It seemed like several minutes but it only took about 16-17 seconds. – Betty Alexander
At 9:02pm I was in the den when I heard the noise that I had really never heard before, but I knew in my mind what it was. I never heard in my life such screeching or screaming of wind. We heard the ripping of the timbers and the flying of glass and I tried to cover my wife as best I could. – George Baird, Jr.
I heard it start thundering and roaring and the lightning was severe. I heard a terrible roar in my backyard, it sounded like a truck. Just as I stepped through the door into the dining room the west side of the windows blew out. I had glass, splinters of lumber coming in on me. – Gladys Berryhill
We heard this awful roaring sound like a train or a bunch of jets that almost deafened our ears. I prayed, “Lord, just have mercy on us.” – Mural Cantrell
I heard this noise and I said, “Listen. is that a tornado?” We had been in the tornado in 1956. My husband just listened and he said, “That’s it. Let’s go.” Our house was hit twice. There was one hit and then it seemed like it was subsiding. I could hear the wind whirl overhead and things falling. Then there was another hit. – Mrs. Harry Carskaden
The power went off. We were in the basement for ten minutes then the storm came. I kept on looking at the lightning, then heard something roaring and realized it was a tornado. The tornado sounded like a train which we could hear two minutes before it hit the house. We heard the whistling sound of the wind that made our ears pop several times. – Michael Estill
The lightning and thunder had gotten so bad (about 8:45). The power went off and we lit a candle. We could hear the roar in the distance. The roar just kept getting louder and louder. We thought it was a train. The tornado just came through our windows, getting so loud. The pressure had built up so much it felt like the whole place was going to explode, and it did. Our house was moved 40-50 feet off the foundation. We just slid around the dining room. It seemed like it lasted forever, but I think it lasted just 18 seconds. – Cindy Estes
My husband had already gone to bed. I was in the kitchen and heard this terrible roar and thought it was the freight train close to us. It got so loud I realized it was the tornado. I rushed to the bedroom and woke my husband up. He jumped out of bed and just got one foot in his pants when the tornado hit. We just fell to the floor. – Mrs. F. A. Fredericksen
It was close to 9pm when then power went out. I stood up because I heard a noise – a roaring sound which I never had heard anything like before. When we opened the door we knew that it wasn’t a train, but a tornado. Right before the tornado hit it my ears popped. It just felt like the whole house was going to explode. – Jeanette Frye
All we could see was this terrible constant flashing lightning, maybe two flashes per second. So we got down under the table and held each other. We heard glass breaking, I told the girls “It’s going to hit us, hold your head down, keep your head down, and don’t try to get up.” The building was built on a cement slab and it was trembling. – Eunice Kirchler
My oldest son took off upstairs pushing the necessary buttons to record the tornado and left the tape player setting on his dresser. He laid the mike in the window. – Mrs. Hoyt Lindley
The lightning got so bad that I turned the lights off and watched it. Then I heard the noise and I called my husband. He got hold of my hand and we ran into the hall. By the time we got there the glass started breaking. I remember the walls falling on me. I was trying to hold them up with my shoulder. I always thought that I would be the one who would panic, but Harding (my husband) panicked. He went to crying and begging our neighbor not to leave us. She returned a little later with three or four people to help. I was afraid they would step on something, I knew we were between the walls and they could crush my head. – Frankie McDonald
The suction was so great that we felt that we were going to be sucked from under the table. The pressure was so great that we felt as if our eardrums were going to burst. The smell of pine was almost staggering We were hit with dirt, grass, pine straw and just about everything else that was flying through. It was with such force that we felt like we were being shot with a pellet fun with a lot of force behind it. -Mildred McGuire.
My husband came to the bathroom door and said, “Honey, it’s coming.” I told him I had to get my bathrobe on. So I opened the door and he put my bathrobe on me. I knew we had to hurry. I heard the timber begin to break just as he got my robe on. He said, “Here it is.” I did not realize that I had been thrown about 60 feet. As I lay there waiting for them, I knew that my husband was dead because a voice told me “No, he wasn’t saved.” Finally rescuers heard our call. – Mrs. H.P. Martin
We were lying down in bed and I could feel that there was something going on outside. I raised up and looked out the window and it looked awful. I heard a roar. The looks of it was so terrifying. – Verla Otts
I met the tornado head-on in the middle of Guin in my pickup truck. I had no warning of there being a tornado. I neither heard the roar or saw any unusual lightning. The first thing I noticed was when debris, brick and blocks from the Old Snow’s Cafe began coming through the windshield. – Robert L. Pennington
The next thing we knew our windows were bursting out; the housetob blew off; all the ceiling and wall had fallen on me pinning me down. Then I got crushed very badly with timbers. – Mallon D. Ragus
There was a terrible sound, like half a dozen freight trains coming toward us. It was so severe that the earth just seemed like it was rumbling and shaking. Even the windowpanes in the house were already shaking. As we had gotten down, the walls, the roof and everything fell in on us. Everything was swept away. The tornado just hit and in a minute it was gone. The Browns, the family we had chatted with as we came out of church, were all killed. – Mrs. Raymond Shirey
We ran and got into the car. We got – oh, not too many feet away from the house when the tornado caught us. George told us to grab onto the seats, to hold one, and we did. I remembered that we turned over one time, and I didn’t know how many times after that. Well, I know it wasn’t but a few seconds but it seemed like a long time before we stopped. I guess it was a hundred yards before we landed. It threw the kids out. The next day I didn’t ask about Paul and Mark because in my mind I could see them lying there dead. That evening, Brother Walden and our visiting preacher came to the hospital to see me. He didn’t have to tell me, instead I asked him, “They are gone, aren’t they, Brother Walden?” He answered, “Yes.” – Rebecca Todd
Regarding aftermath of tornado
Our two older teenage children, David and Shirley, were out dating; we didn’t have any idea where they were. It was probably an hour or two before we knew that they were all right. – Bryce Adkins.
We kept getting reports about what happened. There were many people coming around with flashlights. We started hearing ambulances and rescue squads, they just went on and on. – Betty Alexander
When the tornado was over, we got up and could feel the rush of the cool air. Then I began to feel a few drops of rain. I couldn’t get out of the room without having to knock a door down that was in the way. We began to hear and smell gas escaping. With my flashlight I saw that my wife had blood streaming down her legs. I couldn’t tell how badly hurt she was, but she could still walk. We began to hear screams for help. We started up the street looking for my mother for I knew I wasn’t going to find her alive. There was nothing left except the concrete slab that served as a porch. I called for her several times but, of course, she didn’t answer me. My wife noticed my pant leg and shoe saturated with blood. I pulled my pant leg up and found a gash with a muscle protruding out of it. – George Baird, Jr.
I had to walk and run about a quarter mile to get home. I went to my little boy and asked where his mama and the others were. He said “Well, the last thing I remember they had jumped under the table.” So I went hunting for them. Three hours later I found my wife, her twin sister and her three-year-old boy dead. I found my little girl Suzette still alive – she was rushed to Tuscaloosa Hospital, but she died the following Monday. My house was totally destroyed. I never did find anything that was worth keeping. – James T. Ballard
Just at the time I heard stuff falling upstairs, the bunk beds crushed down on me. I was between the bunk beds and there were four mattresses on top of me. Then a bunch of cement blocks crushed on me and I couldn’t hear a soul. I was hollering as loud as I could, calling my husband Parnell. I thought they had all been killed except me. The wind was still blowing very hard which was why we couldn’t hear each other. I kept on hollering and they finally heard me. They dug me out and all the rest except Mrs. Berry – they couldn’t find her. They started throwing blocks away and saw her hand. Her heart was still beating when they got her out. Parnell said in a little while that Mrs. Berry, his mother, was dead. It was still raining and lightning. – Betsy Berry
When the tornado was over, we didn’t have time to get scared. There were screams and hollering all over for help. – Mural Cantrell
When we were sure that the power lines were down and there were no live wires, we got up and tried to find a way out. We knew our house was gone, and the whole territory around us was gone too, because we could hear people screaming for help. – Cindy Estes
In our bedroom, the glass was driven was blown out of the windows and driven completely through the closet door. My husband couldn’t even pull it out. – Mrs. F. A. Fredericksen
Butch left and he was gone until about 2am. He helped a girl get out of a garage apartment that was completely destroyed; he helped get some of the people who were killed down the next street; he got out a girl before she died on the way to the hospital. The experience was so horrible I couldn’t comprehend it. – Jeanette Frye
I went back to the storm cellar to see if everybody was all right. That was the time when I heard Mr. Billy Joe Brown’s daughter, Janet, who was buried under 2×4’s, brick, bathtub and a door. She told me that she was going to die. I got her out. A neighbor had a car that wasn’t torn up too badly. We got the girl in the car, moved a bunch of poles and trees and started to the hospital with her, but she died on the way. It was just the most terrible time I’ve ever had to go through. – Woodrow Haney
It was awful to come out and not have anything in this world but just what little I had on and a flashlight in my hand. – Essie Lee Jones
When we got to Winfield one just can’t imagine what the hospital looked like. It was filled with bloody and dirty people lying everywhere. The worst part about the tornado was that the night and next several days that followed we were not sure of knowing who was dead and who was alive due to the communication system that was broken for several days. – Mildred McGuire
Our new Pontiac, which we just bought on Saturday, was blown away on Wednesday. We didn’t have any insurance on that. – Joann Overton
Immediately after the tornado I got out of the truck and rushed back to my house. Finding no home; there was no sign of our house, it’s foundation, framing or anything. My wife was gone. While searching for my wife’s body, I went up Yankee Street and saw the Billy Joe Brown family. Billy Joe’s wife and their daughter were taken out dead while I was there. After I left the hospital, my wife was found near Yankee Street, approximately one block from our house. – Robert L. Pennington
After the tornado was over, we began calling each other. Larry was complaining, “I can’t breathe and my chest is hurting.” I asked him to be quiet and not use his energy talking. Martha was underneath the car which hit her on the side of her face. “Mother, I believe that my jaw is broken.” I said, “Well, I can’t move, I don’t know why, but my left arm feels like it’s paralized.” Jeff and Jim got up and they both seemed alright. They went downtown to see if they could find some help. They came running back and said, “Mother, there is nobody in town. Everybody is blown away.” – Margie Silas
It’s something that if ever one gets through it, they will never forget. – Karen Aileen Smith
The tornado that struck Guin touched down at 8:50pm north of Columbus, Mississippi and quickly moved into Alabama, striking Guin at 9:02pm. The tornado killed 28 (23 in Guin) and injured 332 along its path. The tornado dissipated just southwest of Huntsville, which had already had multiple close calls or glancing blows from tornadoes earlier in the evening. Some dispute appears to exist about the path length – some sources list it at 135 miles, some list it at 102 miles and others at 80 miles – regardless of the official length, it’s intensity was extreme and many consider it among the strongest tornadoes in history. It was certainly a night to remember for Alabama, and one they would re-live 37 years later with the even more destructive 2011 Super Outbreak.
***Sources include Wikipedia, TalkWeather.com, NWS Huntsville, “April 3, 1974 – A Night To Remember”, by Charles Jordan.