Memories of '74 tornado outbreak still strong in memory of survivor

A home damaged during the Super Outbreak of 1974.
A home damaged during the Super Outbreak of 1974.
Rick Ewen
Rick Ewen
The Jean Oechslin family with Dr. Ted Fujita
The Jean Oechslin family with Dr. Ted Fujita

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Forty years ago a remarkable tornado outbreak took place across the eastern half of the country, one of the largest in fact. It is known as the Super Outbreak of 1974.

An unusually strong storm system approached from the west. Ahead of it, warm and humid air set the stage for 148 tornadoes to touch down over a 36 hour period.

In our viewing area, 10 touched down including the devastating EF-5 that struck Brandenburg, but it was the tornado through the Louisville Metro area that caught the most attention.

Tornadoes raveled straight down the center of Jefferson County Kentucky into Oldham County. In its wake, 700 homes were destroyed with more than 300 heavily damaged.

Five Louisvillians were killed that day, with 319 perishing from the outbreak across the nation.

We recently visited the final spot in the tornadoes path, LaGrange, Kentucky in Oldham County. Scars of the storm still remain in the small community.

LaGrange resident Rick Ewen was only 17 years old on that day in 1974 and he remembers it clearly.

"I remember the horizon being as dark as the horizon as I have ever seen it. All there was this eerie calmness," he said.

And in the age of limited weather alerts something strange took place.

"I remember a lot of cars driving down the road, blowing horns just trying to alert us, but even with that we didn't think anything about it," Ewen said.

But just down the street from him, the tornado was moving in fast.

Meanwhile, the Ewen family was in their basement, hoping what jean filming down the road would not him them. Everyone except Ewen's aunt who remained upstairs.

"She stood there and watched this thing develop literally. And at the very last possible second. If she would have waited another minute she would have been caught up. She flies to the stairs out of breath. 'What were you thinking?!?' I asked. She said, 'well, if something is gonna kill me--I wanna see what it is!'" Ewen said.

The Ewen family was spared as well as their house, but it was an emotional ride for him as he had just lost his father only weeks before the tornado.

"One thing on my mind, I wish my dad was here. Somehow as a 17-year-old boy--I thought well if my dad was here--it'll be okay," said Ewen.

While lives and homes were lost in the outbreak Ewen knows one thing is for sure - respect for the power of weather is there and respect for those who have had to face it.

"I can very much relate to the people in Henryville. My heart goes out to them.  Our house was spared, other people can't say that," he said.

We discovered footage that had not been witnessed on television since originally airing on WAVE 3 News shot by the late Jean Oechslin. The video was later viewed by Ted Fujita. He visited with Oechslin and her family to view the film and used it to help create the Fujita, or f-scale, as we know it today.

Copyright 2014 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.