The 'SCItanic' Microburst Event - July 7, 1984

Diagram showing the location of the SCItanic accident. Graphic by Dr. Ted Fujita.
Diagram showing the location of the SCItanic accident. Graphic by Dr. Ted Fujita
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July 7, 1984 started out as a typical summer Saturday in the Tennessee Valley. The forecast called for partly cloudy skies with a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Presumably, many people were outside, taking advantage of the dry conditions and temperatures in the 70s. The plans of eighteen north Alabama residents included a picnic and a leisurely ride on the Tennessee River in a paddlewheel boat called the SCItanic. The boat was leased by SCI Systems for use by employees and their friends and family. Little did they know, they were about to be involved in what one government official described as the “worst boating accident on (Alabama’s) inland waterways in modern history.”

By the mid-morning hours, showers and a few strong thunderstorms began to develop over the Tennessee Valley. Thunderstorm activity impacted the Shoals area as early as 10 am and affected the Huntsville/Decatur area by 11 am. Meanwhile, the SCItanic launched onto the Tennessee River from the Ditto Landing marina south of Huntsville for a two hour tour. At 11:03 am, a wind gust of 44 mph was recorded at the National Weather Service Office at Huntsville International Airport. As the thunderstorms continued to intensify, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for Madison, Marshall, Jackson, and Morgan counties around 11:10 am. Upon receiving word of this Severe Thunderstorm Warning, SCItanic’s captain Frank May turned the sternwheeler around to return to the marina. The boat was equipped with a marine band radio capable of receiving a NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts, which the crew had turned on after the first sighting of lightning.

SCItanic
Wind traces from the National Weather Service Office in Huntsville and a weather station on Redstone Arsenal. Click on image for higher resolution display.

At 11:27 am, an anemometer at the Atmospheric Sciences Laboratory on Redstone Arsenal, about four miles from Ditto Landing, recorded a 70 mph wind gust. Around the same time, the SCItanic was within a mile of reaching shore. To prepare for the approaching thunderstorm, the crew ushered the boat’s passengers to the bottom deck and helped them put on life jackets. In order to safely navigate in the strengthening winds, the boat was turned into the wind. This is a technique which had been used successfully in the past to ride out stormy conditions. As the boat moved along the south side of Hobbs Island, the crew heard a deafening noise and observed white-out conditions. A sudden strong wind gust hit the boat broadside, capsizing it and trapping the passengers underwater. The SCItanic’s captain, Frank May, told The Huntsville Times, “It knocked me down. I got up and got off one ‘May Day.’ Then I was under water.”

SCItanic
This is an image from the Nashville radar around the time of the microburst. The white "blobs" are indicative of a large cluster of thunderstorms in the Huntsville area. Radar archives from NCDC via Dr. Ted Fujita.

Rescue efforts began almost immediately. A pontoon boat that was in an area at the time was the first to reach the capsized vessle. When it arrived, six of the passengers, including all three crewmen, had swam to the surface and moved onto the bottom of the boat, which was now the only portion of the boat floating above water. One other person who was wearing a life preserver was about 50 to 75 yards away from the boat. Those seven people were taken to shore.

SCItanic
This is a satellite image from around the time the microburst occurred. Radar echoes from the Nashville and Centreville radar sites are overlayed. Archive data from NCDC, graphic created by Dr. Ted Fujita.

At the time of the incident, several people were present at Ditto Landing. One of those people was one of Huntsville’s most famous residents. Homer Hickam is an author and former rocket scientist. His memior “Rocket Boys” was the basis for the critically acclaimed 1999 motion picture “October Sky.” One of his biggest hobbies at the time was diving. Homer was getting ready to go water skiing with two friends when the storm rolled in. Upon hearing about the boat accident, the three men raced to the site of the incident on a speed boat. Using his scuba gear, Homer began searching for survivors. Mick Roney was also at Ditto Landing working on his boat when the storms moved through. When a marine police officer discovered he was a lifeguard and trained medic, he escorted him by boat to the accident scene.

Together, Hickam and Roney searched through the muddy waters of the Tennessee River for survivors. Many of the victims were trapped in the boat’s cabins. Because of this, the rescuers had to break into the windows of the cabin. Hickam severely cut his arm in the process and had to go to the hospital to receive several stitches. Soon several other agencies arrived on the scene, including Huntsville police, sheriff’s deputies, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Madison County Resque Squad. Eventually, all of the victims were found and brought them to the surface to the waiting medical personnel. But it quickly became apparent that none of the remaining eleven passengers had survived. Among the victims of the SCItanic tragedy were four members of a single family - a mother, father, son, and daughter - and three members of another family - a father, mother, and son. There were seven adults and four children and teenagers.

The storm also caused considerable damage near the accident site. Several trees and outbuildings were damaged on both sides of the river, especially in the Lacey’s Spring area of Morgan County. One other large boat on the Tennessee River was tossed against the river bank. However, there were no injuries associated with this wind damage.

SCItanic
This photo taken during an aerial survey of the damage shows the path of the microburst that capsized the SCItanic. The downed trees are laying in a divergent pattern, which is one of the clues that helped determine the cause of the damage. Image by Dr. Ted Fujita.

In the days following the tragedy, investigations into the cause of the incident ensued. Many believed it was a tornado that toppled the SCItanic. At the time, microbursts were relatively unheard of, at least to the general populace. They had just been identified in 1976 by Dr. Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, head of meteorology at the University of Chicago and creator of the Fujita tornado scale. The incident captured Dr. Fujita’s interest, prompting him to visit the area and survey the damage. He was accompanied by Dr. Joseph Goldman, a consulting meteorologist from Houston, Texas. To get the best possible perspective of the damage, Fujita and Goldman flew in a helicopter over the areas surrounding the accident site.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) held a joint hearing on the incident at the Madison County Courthouse beginning on July 17th. The hearing was intended to find the cause of the accident and to determine whether the boat was fit for use. Many testified at the hearings including survivors, eyewitnesses, Dr. Goldman, and several others. The hearings found that the SCItanic was a well-maintained vessel, but it was believed the SCItanic might have not capsized if it was operated under certain USCG stability standards. Thunderstorms frequently occur on protected inland waterways during the summer months. However, more destructive events like microbursts and tornadoes are far less common and more unpredictable, and it would not be feasible for boats to dock each time they encounter a thunderstorm. Therefore, it was suggested that USGS stability standards might have been too strict. And it was recommended that those standards be reassessed. It was also recommended that the USCG should increase awareness of microbursts in the boating community. Total damage to the SCItanic was estimated at $65,000.

SCItanic
The SCItanic was a 90 foot sternwheeler leased by the SCI Systems, Inc., a Huntsville electronics company. This is a how the boat looked before it was overturned by the microburst. Image by Gary McClusky, from the Storm Data publication.

Though Dr. Fujita did not testify at the NTSB/USCG hearings, he did publish the findings of his survey in his publication “The Downburst.” He found that the thunderstorm produced a macroburst, which produced strong winds over a large area. Within the area affected by the macroburst, there were multiple microbursts, which produced stronger winds and wind damage. At least four microbursts were identified. One occurred over Lacey’s Spring in Morgan County, and caused damage to trees and structures there. A second one occurred just east of Lacey’s Spring along the southern bank of the Tennessee River. This microburst is the one that capsized the SCItanic and caused tree damage along the river bank south of Hobbs Island. A third was identified just southeast of Ditto Landing in southern Madison County, producing tree damage along the northern banks of the Tennessee River. And the fourth one occurred over Redstone Arsenal, and caused the 70 mph wind gust recorded there.

SCItanic
Diagram showing the findings of Dr. Fujita's storm survey. The fourth microburst occurred in an area outside of this map on Redstone Arsenal. Graphic by Dr. Ted Fujita.

The SCItanic microburst sparked considerable interest in the meteorological research community. Several studies have now been conducted, and much more has been learned about microbursts in the southeastern United States. Microbursts are still very difficult to detect on radar, because they develop very quickly. However, forecasters now know what atmospheric conditions are favorable for the formation of microbursts, and can often use this information to alert the public more quickly.

Limestone County Microburst

Another less publicized microburst occurred on the morning of July 7th in Limestone County. That microburst occurred around 10:30 am in the Reid community southwest of Athens. A mobile home was destroyed, trapping one man in the wreckage when a washing machine was blown onto his leg. Amazingly, there were three other people in the mobile home who escaped without injury. Trees in the area were downed within a mile of the mobile home.


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