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Tornado of April 29, 1971 - a first person account

This is the last in a series of articles covering the tornado of April 29, 1971 from the Columbia Statesman archives; six people lost their lives and a path of destruction was left behind. Click for the previous installment of these stories.

Tornado April 29, 1971: A first person account
By J. Jordan Phelps

A tornado roared through the eastern portion of Russell County Tuesday night, leaving in its wake two dead and almost 40 injured, demolished homes and a swath of dead livestock and farm damage through Salem and Gosser Ridge. At the Avalon Restaurant just south of Russell Springs, lightning flashed as the thunder roared and pealed and the rain resembled "cats and dogs."

Ronald Flatt, 27, and I, drinking coffee by candlelight, joked of "another New York" and the manner in which people got out of bed to light candles and lamps when they, somehow, discovered there was no electrical power. The candle fluttered and almost died as a dripping, windswept arrival clambered through the doorway.

"You know that tornado in Adair County?" he announced excitedly. "Well, it's raisin' cain up Salem right now!"

I scooped up my camera and notebook and followed Flatt in a dash through the door to his car. Almost to the Salem turn-off from the Somerset Road, Kentucky 80, we came upon a Jamestown patrolman and a crew with a chain saw clearing trees from the road.

Neither of us found reason to comment on the unusual fact of a Jamestown cop working the far side of Russell Springs.

"Godbey!" I yelled through the wind. "Where is it?"

"It's bad in Salem," he yelled. "I don't know, you might make it." He waved us by.

Two minutes later, Flatt screeched his Ford to a stop before the first down and tangled telephone and electrical lines we'd seen across the road.

"Hey" Flatt asked, "is that gonna kill us if we drive over 'em?"

I considered the lines' insulation and our rubber tires and allowed that's I didn't think so, and Flatt was across the wires and roaring down the highway before I could grasp that I really didn't know very much about electricity or remember that, as far as I knew, the whole of the country was without power.

At the Salem crossroads, people were milling excitedly and cutting at partial road-blocking limbs and tree trunks. Flatt moved the car off the road and jumped out in the tapering off rain.

From a field to the left, an automobile horn blared unceasingly from the obscurity of the night. "Somebody's trapped and pinned out there," a man rushing by in the darkness informed us.

I followed as Flatt sprinted for the clustered flashlights on the edge of the field.

"Someone was blown out there in a car!"

"He must be trapped and blowing his horn for help!"

"What'll we do?"

Flatt ripped off a ripe, ex-G.I. oath. "Gimme a light," he snapped, an authoritative tone assuring compliance.

"For Gosh's sake, let's get the poor guy outa there!"

"That's an electric fence, cautioned a voice from the crowd. "There's no power anywhere else, you worried?" and Flatt was over the wire and heading in a dead run for the horn beyond the cone of light in his hand.

J.E. Monin, M.D., a Jamestown physician, was running in step with me when we came upon a new truck lying twisted on its back.

"No one in it," Flatt grunted through a rent in its hood. "Horn's stuck."

He gave a jerk and the horn stopped.

"Hey, Doc! Doc we need you up here!" Flatt and I ran with Dr. Monin toward the voice.

An old store building loomed in front of us and we stumbled through the door. Inside, people were stretched on the floor as others tended to their injuries as best they could. Dr. Monin snapped open his black bag and bent to his initial examinations.

Mrs. Garfield Gosser sat with her back propped against an old store counter with her 16-year-old daughter head in her lap. A gash on the girl's forehead had streaked congealed blood down her face.

"Hey, Mouse," Flatt said conversationally, addressing Linda Gosser by her family's and friends' pet name. "How's it going?"

"Is Joy all right?" Linda asked wincing as he raised a bit. She was asking about her older sister who attends Eastern Kentucky University.

"Was Joy in the tornado?"

"Nah," Flatt guessed. "Joy's fine. She's in Richmond, she wasn't in the tornado. She's O.K."

"But she called home about the tornado warnings tonight," Linda protested.

"Joy's fine. Take it easy, Mouse."

"Flatt looked around for Dr. Monin.

"Hey, Doc, take a look at this girl."

The doctor finished the examination he was making and made his way over.

"What are you doing here?" Linda asked and Flatt grinned.

"I'm here with the press," he said, hooking a thumb at me. "Phelps wouldn't ever get a story if I didn't tell him what was news."

Dr. Monin gave Linda a shot for the pain and finished taping her shoulder.

"I'm not sure whether it's broken or not," he said, handing Flatt a canvas cradle. "Get her to the hospital in Somerset."

"I've got a pickup-camper ready to go," her father, Garfield Gosser, interjected. "A couple of you boys carry her to it."

"That's you and me," Flatt told me, handing me my end of the cradle. I handed someone my camera (the blackness of the night was soaking up the flash anyway) and we carried her to the truck on the highway.

"Call and see if Joy's all right," Linda told Flatt and he promised he would, though he was another couple of hours finding a serviceable phone.

Linda had already been treated and released by the time Joy reached the hospital in Somerset at daybreak. The rest of the night was pure repetition, false alarms and actural evacuation one after the other. Over thirty casualties were transported to Somerset in the next few hours.

The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Bulon H. Swanson of the Irvin Springs Community were also recovered from the wreckage of their home by rescue workers during the night.

Wednesday morning, as Red Cross vans made their appearance to set up an aid station in Salem Church, the evidence of the tornado was readily apparent as the day-light revealed the swath, a couple of hundred feet wide, that stretched through Salem and down Gosser Ridge. The scene was reminiscent in its destruction--demolished buildings and stripped and felled trees, scattered wreckage--of the impact area of a battery of 155's in Vietnam.

Flatt and I, exhausted and sleepy, finally reclaimed my camera and walked to his car.

"Let's go to the Avalon for some chow," he suggested.

"Let's go," I said.

This story was posted on 2022-06-04 02:07:54
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