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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -
According to the National Weather Service, during the late afternoon and evening hours of April 3, 1974, at least eight tornadoes, including four extremely intense and long-lived storms, blasted through Alabama.
Sixteen counties in the northern part of the state were hit the hardest.
More than 80 people were killed, 949 were injured and damages totaled more than $50 million.
Don Webster is now the Chief Operations Officer at HEMSI. In 1974 he was 17-years-old and worked as a paramedic.
"There were some fatalities that were out there and several people were injured," said Webster. "We had three ambulances that responded out to that location and that was a lot considering, from what I recall, we only had seven ambulances in the fleet."
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely was a 23-year-old state trooper in 1974. He said it was a mad scramble to find and help injured survivors. He was stationed near the Madison/Limestone County line as the outbreak began.
Around 6:30 p.m. that night, a powerful F-5 twister formed in Franklin County, then moved over Lawrence, Limestone and Madison Counties. In Tanner, as storm-stricken residents struggled to escape debris and find help, a second tornado struck, only a half-hour after the first. Blakely helped with the rescue and recovery efforts.
Recalling the chaos, Blakely said, "Our hospitals were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people that were brought in that night. I would come up on a house that had been completely blown away and find either a dead person there in the yard, or someone who was severely injured, and then trying to be able to coordinate and get somebody there to help take care of the problem."
Blakely said the radio system used by the Limestone County Sheriff's Office has not been upgraded enough since then, and they had trouble with it during the 2011 outbreak, but he added that much has improved in terms of being prepared for the storm, and with coordinated response after it hits.
Webster said looking back., a lot has changed since 1974.
"We didn't have the technology of fancy flashlights and lights that we have now, we had just two d-cell flash lights and communications were very limited," said Webster. "We didn't have the medical training that we had today, the medical training was just being developed."
Webster said emergency crews continue to learn from every major weather event. Blakely said residents are much more weather aware, and know how to prepare. He said rural fire departments are much better trained on how to respond.