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Jeremy Kappell
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Stories from '74: Brandenburg's Tony Brown

Tony Brown was the owner of the local Chevy Dealer in Brandenburg on April 3, 1974. His heartfelt story of being reunited with his wife who had taken shelter downtown and what he witnessed as he helped pull survivors from the rubble.

Alright Tony, it's April 3rd, 1974. Tell me what you were doing at the time. Well, I was working selling cars at. Chevrolet. I was standing in the doorway to the shop. And. Just east of theirs, 00:26 a State trooper had run out of a house and he came by and he saw me standing in that door and he called and said, you need to take cover. There's a tornado touchdown in Irvington. It's headed this way. So I go in and call the house to make sure the babysitter takes care of the boys and then I called her. And I'm in the showroom standing with the Lamar Allen, which was Chevrolet dealer long time ago. And we were just standing there talking and it got really back and rained hard. I could see that GM sign out there really bending. And then it was over.

And 01:05 we had heard sirens going off but didn't expect anything and then a car pulls in and he was a GMAC representative that had been here in town waiting for a guy, and he came in and the windows were all out of his car and he couldn't even hardly talk, he said. Your town is gone. I said, what are you talking? He said. Your town is gone. So Henry Penn, one of the mechanics there was getting ready to test drive a car. 01:32 I said take me through town and we got to where big O is right now you look cross and there was nothing. Where the Baptist Church and all that was nothing. I got out of the car. Ran down the hill went behind the old library down where she was when I got to downtown Brandenburg. It looked like a bomb had gone off. I mean.. brick out on the road and piled up into all the buildings. All the places I grew up in was gone. 

But she was OK and we had a had a pickup truck there that I had just taken down there at lunchtime and changed cars with her. It was my demo and all the tires were flat on it and all that. Man, you crazy. So. Once she was OK, she started, 02:17 we started looking for people to help them, OK And there was a older lady had a drugstore Rose Grinnell, so we could hear her. We dug her out and put her on her door and carried her and put her in the back of the truck and we take her up to the clinic where the triage was and come back. And there was. Others are there, didn't make it, I know. So once I got through there, they said they need help out here at the on the fairground Rd. Which is right in front of the courthouse. And 02:47 this is where I was raised, right where the courthouse is and I knew all those people you know and it was gone. Those little houses are just concrete slabs and that's always left are the slabs.

 It's kind of weird because they were we're trying to find people and help them and they, the army had helicopters in here and. The state troopers were helping them and we were helping carrying people up there and this guy was asking me. What I want to do with this or that? And I said, why are you asking me? Well, I changed my shirt to come down and help that. But I've been out of the Army only four years and I had fatigue shirt on the sharp Sergeant stripes. And he thought I was in charge. But anyway, that was how that was going. Everybody was helping everybody and. 03:33

There was a family of the Columbus Skillman. He and his his wife and daughter lived together and they worked. I mean, they were really, really great people. They couldn’t find them. So. Harry Jones, friend of mine, Harry's passed now, but I said let's go looking for him. So we came up here, where the courthouse is, my home place. It was fields and honeysuckles, batches and all. We looked and we found them and they, you know, that's 500 yards from where their house was and that's they dropped them 1-2 and three. You know. Wow. and that's that will always be there, but Yeah, I bet.

You reference. Amanda, few references maybe give say her name. That way when we when we're playing this stuff, we know who you're referencing. OK, keep pointing over to her. OK, just say OK, I got you. We're gonna make it look good regardless. Alright. OK, so we kind of that was a ton of information. We could probably dissect what you just said and probably below. Blow it up. Gonna go back real quick. Tell me what you remember. The feeling that day, did you have any idea that there was gonna be weather? What did it feel like outside? No. Well, you know. I don't think you had the warnings then that you do now. But you.. 04:55 no one thought that would be a tornado like that. We didn’t know what tornado was.  You know, how devastating it can be. Again, we we know now, but maybe we take better warnings now. We did then. But I don't know that. What we could have done any differently, you know? Had it happened? Maybe 30 minutes later. It would have caught all this, this traffic coming from Owens at Time chemical plant with all the people leaving there. You know, it could have been a really, really bad there too, you know, So it was right after 4:00, 4/30 they got off work and that could have been really, really bad then or should have been earlier. It would have caught the school buses on the road with all the kids, right so.

You said you took a call from Irvington. Did you get a warning from Irvington? I got a warning from the state police and when he stopped he said that the tornado was in Irving today at that time. So he was relating that to me and said it was close, you know, so he do something fast. How far away is Irvington? 10 miles? OK, so you got about 10.. and when it touched down in Irvington. It didn't come off the ground  all the way through Brandenburg and across the river.

Right. So when did it become real to you? When I topped that hill, when they let me out the Big O store, when I saw across the town and it was gone. That's real. What was going through your head at the time?  So I don't know to get downtown. That's what I did. You know I was 24, 25 years old, I can run then. I'd have to take a cab now. An Uber.

When did you find out that your family was OK and how did you feel when you got that news? I felt great when I got down there so that the mess downtown was in and she was fine. I was great, you know, and I I knew that sound of town wouldn't hit where the boys were because I had been there, you know, and. They were fine.

Um. You mentioned some of the rescuing. Can you go into a little more detail? You mentioned the one lady that you pulled from the rubble. Yeah, Rose Grennel Can you describe maybe a little more detail? You know she was at her drug store there, there everybody wanted to get to her then they would just pile on top of her and and she was an elderly lady at the time, pretty tough and we were able to dig her out and put her on the door and and put her in the back of the truck. I can't. There's like three we did that with and I can't remember. The other ones, but it was she just sticks out in my mind that that was the one. I couldn't believe she was saved because just across the road there was buildings just like that the people died in.

Right. What else do you remember during that must have been chaos? It was chaos and and it's been going through my ever gonna clean this up. You know this is my town. Yeah. You know I delivered papers as a kid to all these people. You know it's gone and never be the same and it hasn't been 08:07 you know it changed the the place.. this town forever, whether good, bad or whatever, but you know, it was centralized downtown the courthouse, you know, there was businesses down there. There's a theater down there. There was, you know, and it's all gone.  You know, and it was never going to come back in it. It's struggled, you know, I think it probably when the courthouse moved from downtown that probably moved everybody's attention to come out from downtown.

Yeah. There was a, I guess, memorial. At the high school. Correct? Well see, both funeral homes were tore up. We were having funerals in in schools and St. John's School, the basement that was one of the funeral homes used that.  And Hager Funeral home they were able to use the back building behind their Funeral Home, fixed it up and they used that. and that, you know, that made it.. that made it tough, you know, for families, it did. You know they had memorials at the at the high school and. It was.. I think everybody still in shock at the time you know yeah and and and it's Amanda said at her and you know it's it's like it's it's a pinpoint. That this happened before the tornado after tornado, let's just the way it's always going to be in the lives that we lead here and went through that. It's it's a central part for us.

So all these years later, looking back at that. What are your takeaways? Is the town ready? For another disaster like that? Well I hope not. I hope we dont get another disaster, but I think it's a lot more efficient while we were, you know because they've they've seemed to that and I think communication is a lot better. You know you can get on Facebook or whatever somebody's on all the time they're taking tell them warnings and all over. Then that day you didn't have any warning. You know it was there. It was on you.  And and I know there's times that probably a tornado can sneak up like that again. You know they can warn you about it, but they don't know what's gonna pop up. But as Amanda said, you know, she was, she's really been alert on storms and she has and she kept us all alert on them. You know, I didn't, we didn't take it for granted. We don’t.

How do you think the community reacted? Um. You know, the community was one way before April 3rd, 1974. And then the days immediately following. How do you contrast? Everybody jumped in. I mean people have businesses and contractors and so forth had that had the backhoes and tractors and so forth, they jumped in. You know they have cleaned the streets up and have you know it was it was amazing some of them and some of them are lost had lost their business and all they pile and helping everybody else you know that just how tight nit it was here at the town. Ohh. You know, there's the population has increased here and there's still people here that remember this, you know, But there's, you know, a lot of people that have passed away since that time. You know, they helped a lot, they helped all them people,

right? While Brandenburg didn't receive a warning or that much of one at all. Because of what happened in Brandenburg, though. I spoke to a forecaster that was working for the National Weather Service, who said because of Brandenburg. Because of what had happened earlier in southern Indiana. Louisville got a 30 minute warning, so in some ways. It was almost like Brandenburg was the sacrifice. To help other communities downstream, including Louisville. What's your thoughts on that? Well. I don't know how much warning you would take if you hadnt experienced one of these. You know, they say, well, a tornado was hitting Louisville and was coming our way. Would we be as responsive if we would now because we already experienced it? Probably not. But I'd say now, yeah, you're gonna respond to it now and and that's what we are.

What about the kids though, nowadays, you know, this is 50 years ago, you know the kids nowadays. How would they relate to what you describe and what occurred in April 3rd, can they relate to that? How does how does anyone relate to something they haven't experienced? You know, that is hereby you don't want them to experience it, but you know you're trying to tell your kids about things and sometimes they just gotta experience it for it to happen and sink in. So I don't know you can put all the warnings you want to, but will they really accept that, I don't know?

I don't think if we get some youth to watch this video we're producing, they may have a little bit of a different response when a warning comes. Well, I think. To hear your testimony. They hear the testimony. You know from from the members of the community that were there at the time. 13:12 I just hope that some of the some of these kids have grown up now. They're not kids anymore. Ohh. This story has been told to them by their families, that lost people, that lost a lot and they experience this and lost their friends and so forth that they have told the story through the years so they know that this happened to Brandenburg. It can't happen again, you know, so always be aware.count your blessings everyday,

right? All right. Sorry. Any final thoughts, Tony? I just, you know, grew up in this town. And like I said, deliver papers and everybody that down through there, the one shirt by the courthouse and all and the I knew all these people, you know, there's a tragic thing but I think we're grew from that, you know and that it. Life is precious and now if we can make it just as good here now, but just. Get close to your neighbor and close to your your town and be willing to help when things happen like this. Yeah, it certainly looks like Brandenburg did that. Yeah, I did. Alright, appreciate that. No problem.

 

Jeremy Kappell

Meteorologist, Journalist, Writer, Speaker, Broadcaster

 

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