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Jeremy Kappell
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Stories from '74: Brandenburg's Tom Bridge

Tom Bridge was a pastor and also a newspaper deliverer for the Meade County Messenger in Brandenburg on April 3, 1974. His story of survival, heroism and remembrance will leave you speechless.

The day 1992. 27th birthday. Nobody deserves to have that disease. With the 4 1/2 years we had, from the time he told us he had AIDS until the day he died, we're the best 4 1/2 years we had as a family. We literally went for broke because we just knew we didn't. So courageous. There are a couple of times in those 4 1/2 years that he got depressed and that depression would last three or four hours and he'll be back to where he was. He was a a manager, executive assistant and manager of Walgreens drug store in North Houston and. Double their profit and double their sales in in a couple of years that he was there. He just worked and worked great work ethic.

 Was he also a man of faith like you? Somewhat.. Are you guys ready? Tom Ridge, yes, it's great to have you. I wanna take you back. Do you memories of the days maybe just prior to April 3rd of 1974? Where were you and what were you doing during those days? 01:10 I was Bi-vocational Baptist Minister who was pastor at Cold Spring Baptist Church in Battletown and worked for the Meade County Messenger. There'd been a tornado a few days before the April 3rd tornado that came through the county. Kind of gets your attention. Yeah. In fact, we were mentioned that a little bit. You want to talk about what happened on April 1st? I don't remember much of that. I know it went through midway and maybe touch the the meat packing plant down there. Yeah. I was born in the one raised in the Monticello IN. So we were familiar with and they finally ended that Prairie were familiar with tornadoes and what they doing. So. 02:00 On April 3rd, when I saw the sky of the color of green that it was, I knew there was a. In my world, that means there's a tornado somewhere closer. Some irony that you mentioned Monticello, which was also very hard hit that day. It took out a second of a railroad bridge. There were a handful of some special needs students, as I recall when they were all killed in that. That was rough. My grandparents home there, it was rough.

Rough day for a lot of folks having sometimes you can lose focus when you're hit by something like Brandenburg was. But you guys were not alone of course. Alright, so all in your specific memory from April 3rd, do you what do you remember from the weather that day prior to the tornado? I was on the way back from Elizabethtown, we had printed the newspapers down there. 02:56 My job or part of my job was to deliver papers throughout the county. To the various new stands and grocery stores and and. It made several stops and got back to the messenger. Took the large canvas bags of newspapers to the Post office so they could be mailed. And I went to the the dock there at the post office and talked with Mr. Owen Duggan. Explain to them. Fellas when this sky is this color. There’s a tornado close. We should take cover. And they said that's exactly what we're going to do is we can. 03:35 We chatted just for a minute or two and they said as I drove away from the dock at the post office, it blew the windows out in front of the post office. So 03:45 I left the post office, which it was the old post office, and turned to go back downtown. The messenger was downtown, then, at that time. And as I turned the corner to go downtown, a large sign looked like the RCC sign went over the road in front of me. So I knew.. it got my attention. 04:08 So I turned there at the Moose Lodge and went behind the Moose Lodge to a kind of little block wall and where we parked the pickup truck. And thought I'd better see what I can do. So I started getting out of the truck and looked up and saw. Trees, gables, ends of houses, Debris in the air. And the stuff was already starting to move. So I thought, well, the best thing for me to do is to stay in the truck. So I layed down in the seat got under the dash as much as I could. It picked the truck up and moved it a little. And at one point I looked up and saw the the bottom end of the one of the doors at the county garage coming right toward the windshield. So I.. it didn’t take long to put my head back down. But. 05:00 You know when something like that happens. You kind of go into a time warp. It's like every second seems like an eternity. And when it finished, when it stopped. I got out of the truck and tripped over concrete blocks. They were scattered all over the area twigs had made holes in the metal topper on the back of the truck, right behind the cab.

I went to the messenger to make sure that the the Willises who owned the paper and their employees make sure everyone was OK, then went out on the street and. Of course there was debris everywhere and Ackley Harned who was a pharmacist up in the Nasser and Cole Clinic or kind of the backside of the clinic but Ackley Harned came by and he said Tom let's go see if we can find someone and 05:50 we walked down to Rose Grinnel’s store. Rose Grinnell was in her 80s had a two-story dry good store. She lived in the upstairs. It was just a quaint, wonderful. We call it vintage clothing, but it was just a great place to go and anyway went in there well. We had to tunnel. Ackley was smaller than me, so he would hand me boards and material and we just built a tunnel and found her she we could hear her crying and screaming and we got under there and found her. She was trapped, not hurt badly, but we had to then to get her to crawl out. So the more she crawled more upset she became. And so it was difficult getting her out. We did get her out and four men came by with a sheet of plywood and layed her on the plywood and carried her up to the clinic to be examined. One of those men I remember was Mr. Tony Brown. I don't remember the others. I probably knew them. And that's just about the way the rest of the the day went. Little Dave's Tavern. The only thing left was the bar. And there was a young lady there. Probably not much more than 20 years old with a baby. They were covered in mud and debris and their eyes were as big as saucers and the baby was clearly in shock. She was trying to feed the body, the baby a bottle. The bottle was just covered in mud. They were covered in mud and talked to her and got her up to the clinic as well. Got her up that way. The rest of the day went that way. And as tragic as it sounds. It was worse in reality. That area was not recognizable. The concern was just, let's find people we were concerned about whether the electric clients were still alive. You know, hot to avoid all those. But several people were carried on doors and plywood up to the Nasser and Cole Clinic to be examined. You have to think about 50 years ago, there were no cell phones. There was no communication. The communication lines we had were down. Electric lines were down. No way to to call people, to let them know you were OK No way to check on anyone else. But it becomes a blur. 

I had I had a part in the memorial service a few days after that, but we we spent our days. You had to prove to the state troopers that you either lived or worked in town to get back in town you can access. But, we spent our days helping people try to recover what material we could from their homes. But there wasn’t a lot left. Yeah. Wow. 08:55 The memorial service. Quite frankly, the news media. Was somewhat of a problem. They were in there with their cameras and their lights, and here were, here were all these gaskets and families grieving and they would go up and put their cameras right in the mother's face while she's looking over the casket. It was not the best of circumstance. Very distasteful. I honestly thought some of the families became so agitated and so angry. That I honestly thought there was going to be a riot. When all of that was going on. Those of us that were responsible for someone who had passed away. Ministers sat on the stage and we each had a little part in the memorial service And then. I said in the back part of it, maybe the back row, and as the service started, 09:55 a Catholic Priest and I don't recall his name, got up and he started reading from John 14. Let not your hearts be troubled. believe in God. Believe also in me. In my father's house. There are many mansions. Lights go off. The cameras, the lights and all overloaded the circuit and the lights went off. That man repeated from memory the rest of that chapter of John 14 until the lights came back on. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. But that had such a calming effect on the whole situation. It's as if some.. it’s as if the Lord was saying enough. Let's focus on what we need to focus on. So 10:41 when I tell my story, I tell it. To honor the memory of those lives that were lost.  I tell it to support those survivors that were left behind and struggled for years and years with those losses. So it's in their memory and their honor.

My part of what I did, I felt like, was just a small thing. I'm sure there are other parts I'm leaving out, but. 11:15 What really amazed me. Jeremy was how? Everyone pulled together. We were a small community, less than half the population that we are today. But so everybody knew everybody. And in a small community you you talk about each other, you fussing each other and that didn't matter. It absolutely did not matter. We we were flooded with people. From the community who came in. Did the most horrendous, horrible, heroic things to help somebody else that needed it. Didn't matter who you were. Just pull together and that makes you. It makes you appreciate and love your community, I told some ladies up front this morning. It kind of vulcanizes you to the community. You think this is where I belong, this is where I need to be, or people will help each other. My philosophy in life is if we're not here to help each other, I don't know why we're here. Now my wife. We talked about this interview coming up and my wife said, you know, are you gonna talk to him? And I said sure. I said I don't mind telling my story, but this time of year it seems like I'm telling 50 times and and I'm like guy that goes home and has nightmares about it.  So you do it to honor. In the memory of all those that were lost. And to try to support and express your love for those that were left behind. This is. So I moved to Texas, you know for 16 years and when I when it was time to. Our son died and and then eleven years later his mother died unexpectedly. So when it was time to to go somewhere else after a year. I came back here. Gotcha. I just felt like this was home.

Well we're really glad you did well, and we're really glad you're sharing your story with us. People need to be prepared. Have a plan. Have a plan in your House of what you're gonna do in case there is a tornado. Where I grew up, tornadoes were so prevalent that we would have drills, We would have fire drills, We would have tornado drills. Are you from Texas? No. From Monticello IN Oh you said that. Yeah. Sorry. We we we we were a second floor old farmhouse and there was this big antenna tower right by our bedroom window and our drill was why I was the oldest child. My drill was to open the window and make sure that my siblings climb down that primarily looking almost a ladder like tower to get to to the ground. But we had a plan and we had we had supplies in the basement. He had root sellers. We would go in. I remember my dad going in and clear the potatoes off the shelf and put blankets up there for us to lay on the shelf to sleep while he sat over listening to a radio with a kerosene Lantern and we were playing checkers or whatever we were doing and but. We we practiced. We practiced our plan and often had to execute our plan.

Yeah. Had you seen a tornado during your time in Monticello? Ohhh, yeah, One went through Delphi when I was probably 4 5 6 years old and took all the windows out of the house and destroyed our barns. We were in the basement. I can remember looking out the window at a plant and all the darkness and that's about all I remember that one. But I had seen some others doing from work on a tractor and be you know scattered storm today and here comes a storm and I watched it and. My dad one time had a pickup truck and he sold, he sold cattle feed and supplement and we were going somewhere and we looked out. I said dad, there's a tractor and a cultivator out there and I don't see anybody on it, he said. Well, look over here and there was a funnel cloud and we stopped and I said, why are you stopping? He said we're going to figure out which way that's moving and then we're going to go in a right angle away from it. We're not going to try to run away from it. We're going to go at a right angle away from it. You know and I thought about that tractor and that that out there in the field just with nobody on it. A couple of days later. I went with him and we were at this little truck stop restaurant kind of thing out in Round Grove, Indiana, and here with this little man drinking coffee with my dad. And I said, I don't remember his name. And I said Mr. So and So I saw your tractor out in the field when that tornado was coming and he says yes, he said I put the cultivator as far in the ground as I could and I got under the tractor and hung on to the cultivator while the tornado went past. Wow. Yeah. Smart. So those things get planted in your mind, You know. Be prepared, right? Have a plan.

How did those tornadoes you saw as a child compare to the beast you saw on April 3rd? That beast wasn't even recognizable hardly as a tornado with it. 16:33 It was just a big wall of black. The ones as a child were minor, As much damage as they caused, they were minor compared to what happened April 3rd, 74. Seems like in many ways, Brandenburg turned out to be the epicenter. Brandendburg and Zenia the epicenter of what occurred that day. As a student of meteorology. I'm always blown away when I think about just just the statistical improbability of such occurrences that occurred that day, how many were there that day? The Readers Digest had an article of like 99 tornadoes in a single day, and I don't know if There was 148.

There was 148 tornadoes that occurred in less than 24 hours. At the time that was never seen anything like that, but it wasn't just the number of tornadoes. It was the magnitude of the Tornadoes, and you guys saw one of the worst of the worst. To put it in perspective, the F5. The rarity of the F5 or the EF5 now occurs less than once per year across the entire United States. Sometimes you'll have many years of goes by without seeing one occurrence of an F5 or EF5.  In fact, currently you have to go back to 2013 since the last EFI happened in Moore. OK, 11 years ago. On that day there were seven. Seven F5’s on that day.  We remember how bad Henryville was just a few years ago 2012 Henryville was a really bad storm. That was an F4. People talk about that. You know we'll talk about that for decades. That one storm which was an F4, on that day there was 23 F4’s the strength of Henryville and then seven a whole other level and I got to read some of the findings from Doctor Fujita. UH, which is the famous Japanese professor of Meteorology at the University of Chicago, that did surveys for the entire 148 tornadoes that occurred that day. What he described happened in Brandenburg. He said that that is the top of the scale. He never seen damage at that level before, he said if there was a theoretical F6. Based on some of the damage that occurred on top of West Hill. It would be right there. It was a. It was beyond description. It was beyond description. I grew up on a farm and. You see Things destroyed. All things that have been destroyed and you in your mind you wonder what do they used to look like? What? You know. As she said, you 19:26 you couldn't tell what street you were on, You couldn't get your bearings. You couldn't figure out where you were or whose house you were next to. It was that horrific. Just complete devastation.

Obviously changed this town forever. What's the legacy of April 3rd, 1974 for Brandenburg? 19:45 We’re survivors. I speak for a lot of people who don't feel comfortable speaking. Because of of what they still carry, the pain they still carry in their hearts because of that day. But we are survivors where people who will work together and we will support each other and love each other. We may fuss and argue and correct each other and reprimand each other. But we will come together at the end show our true spirit. You can't beat the people here.

Fantastic. Tom any final thoughts? Just. 20:24 Sometimes you feel guilty because you are a survivor. But like I say, if were not here to help each other. I don't know why we're here. We’ll leave it right there. Thank you. That was great. Thank you. That was really great. You could tell he's told this story before..


Jeremy Kappell

Meteorologist, Journalist, Writer, Speaker, Broadcaster

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