My April 27 story started on April 3, 1974, when I lived in Huntsville AL. I was 12 at the time, and that day changed the way I looked at severe weather forever. Much later in my life, I became a Skywarn spotter & EMT and eventually took up storm chasing as a hobby. Over the years, I have chased several high-risk days in North Alabama and a few moderate risk days, but never was in the right place at the right time to actually intercept a tornado on the ground. I have always told myself that as unlikely as it was to live to see another April 3, I did not want to be sitting at home if that day ever came. On April 27, I lived in Atlanta, GA.

For days leading up to the 27th, I followed the forecasts and weather conversations about the event. I followed a weather blog, focused on Alabama, called TalkWeather. One person whom I greatly respected was Fred Gossage. Fred was into “the science” and never alarmist. This is the type of post that I had never seen from Fred, and it got my attention, big time.

“Fred Gossage Posted 26 April 2011 - 07:11 PM This is going to seem like an alarmist type post... but folks that have followed me for a while know that I'm not the intentional hype-type... I try to just be straight and tell it like I think it is... and if I bust, I bust... and learn from it..... With that said, tomorrow is quite easily the most dangerous setup I've seen in the state of Alabama in the 17 years I have been studying weather. “

I was up late on the 26th and decided to take a day off work and drive west to chase in Alabama. Most of my data that day was from NOAA Weather radio and Nexrad radar data on my laptop (running GRLevel3 via cell phone hotspot). I also had a GPS so I could see my position superimposed on the radar image.

I was concerned about what impact the early morning convection might have on the afternoon storms and was torn between going north towards Huntsville or west toward Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. I decided to move closer towards Birmingham and wait and watch. Once the monsters started to go, they went tornadic fast. The Tuscaloosa cell, I thought was too far and I started looking at a couple cells that were north of that one. As I started to contemplate an intercept, I wanted to be south of the storm, but the opportunity would be fleeting, given the speed and limited visibility due to terrain.

I finally decided my best shot would be the cell that was moving towards Blount County. I drove as fast as I could (which was not fast in a 3-cylinder Geo Metro) up I-59, with my initial target of Cleveland, AL. Since I was not listening to local radio and did not have my Amateur Radio license at the time, I had no idea what was happening in Tuscaloosa, or any other place, unless it was on NOAA weather radio. Of course, I saw the storm relative velocity images, and suspected that a lot of the storms were probably producing tornadoes.

As I approached Cleveland, AL the tornado warning for that cell continued and I remember hearing them say the storm was moving at 60 mph. I knew there was a good chance I would not be able to see the storm, due to the terrain and trees, but I was already committed. Just outside of Cleveland, the road took a slight turn to the north, and into my view came the tornado. When I stopped to videotape the tornado that was headed towards Blountsville, it was approx. 3.8 miles to the northwest of my location. Of all the days and hours, I had chased over many years, that was the first time I ever saw a tornado in-person. Below is an image of the tornado on radar and a still I captured from my video of the tornado.

In hindsight, I realized this was the parent supercell that spawned the 2nd tornado of the day to hit Cordova. All I could do was observe it as it passed to my north. Once that cell outran me, I realized another storm was south/southeast of that cell and moving on a track that would take it south of me. In hindsight, I found out this second cell was the same parent supercell that spawned the Tuscaloosa tornado. It was a combination of adrenalin and bad distance /time estimation on my part that led me to think I could maneuver safely to the southeast of that cell before it overtook me.

As I was maneuvering south, I ended up stopping in a valley for a few minutes to observe in the direction of the approaching storm. This spot eventually was in the direct damage path of the storm. I ended up leaving before this. Below is a still from the video that I took at this spot. At the time I did not see the tornado, but when looking at the video and enhancing the picture, you can clearly see the tornado.

As I was navigating into position for a second intercept and watching my position superimposed on the radar image, it became clear that it was going to be a close call…. closer than my safety margin would normally allow. I made one last push south and ended up traveling up a mountain with zero visibility of the horizon, due to pine trees/terrain. The radar image refreshed one last time, and I had that “Oh S%$#” moment. I have always heard the advice to abandon your vehicle if faced with a potential tornado strike, but just never thought I might have to do it.

The wind started to pick up, and I estimate it was probably 50+ mph when I thought …If this is producing a tornado, I’m very close to its path, but will not be able to see it approaching until it’s too late. I remember verbally praying “Hail Mary’s” out loud, as I made the decision to abandon my vehicle for the ditch. As I got out of the car, the winds were continuing to increase and as I moved in front of my car to get to the ditch, two pine trees literally dropped 15 ft away from me across the road.

This all happened in seconds, but things seemed to slow down, as I started to think this might not be a great place to jump in the ditch. I quickly decided that I would take advantage of the trees that already fell across the ditch and jump under them. This all happened so quickly, and the winds started to subside. I gave thanks to the Lord for my protection, and I remembered something I heard from one of my grandparents…”God protects Fools & Children”… and I quickly put myself in the former category.

After looking at the NWS damage assessment maps, I realized that I was approx. 1 mile from the tornado that at that time was producing EF-1/EF-2 damage. Five miles later it ramped up to do EF-4 damage. The tornado was on a track to make a direct hit on my position, but ended up jogging a bit to the north, right before it got to me. With my close call being behind me, I raced back home to try and beat later storms that might affect my family Northeast of Atlanta. It was not until 11pm that night, that I finally listened to radio and tv news reports of the day and started to grasp the full tragedy that was unfolding.

As a 12-year-old on April 3, 1974, I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember the clouds, the constant lightning and being so scared that I began to cry. I could not have imagined that on that fateful night a passion would be born that 37 years later would finally put me in a position to witness my first tornado in an area not too terribly far from my old home in Huntsville Alabama.

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