Remembering a tragedy on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama 40 years ago
Remembering a tragedy on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama 40 years ago

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (WHNT) — On July 7, 1984, a fatal accident occurred on the Tennessee River due to a microburst event. The SCItanic was a paddlewheel boat that was intended for rental to SCI Systems employees and their friends and families.

The SCItanic set off from Ditto Landing on the Tennessee River in the morning when the weather was still calm. There were 18 people on board the boat that day, including the crew.

The boat itself was equipped with a marine radio that could receive NOAA weather broadcasts. At the first sign of lightning, the captain turned on the radio.

By late morning, summer showers and storms began to form along the river. At 11 a.m., the airport observation station recorded wind gusts of 45 mph. With favorable conditions, the storms continued to intensify, and at 11:10 a.m., a severe weather warning was issued for Madison County.

The weather station at Marshall Space Flight Center recorded a gust of 28 miles per hour. Another station at Redstone Arsenal recorded a gust of 70 miles per hour. This station was about four miles from Ditto Landing.

On the way back to land, the SCItanic capsized and eleven people were trapped below deck. Seven people were able to escape through windows and return to land. The eleven trapped people lost their lives.

Courtesy: National Weather Service Huntsville

Above are aerial photos of tree damage from the microburst event. If the damage was caused by a tornado, the trees would be in a rotational pattern. The trees are also in a diverging pattern, suggesting a microburst event.

Forty years ago, many believed the damage and tragic event was caused by a tornado. At that time, microbursts were relatively unknown and had only been discovered in 1976 by Dr. Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, the head of meteorology at the University of Chicago and inventor of the Fujita Tornado Scale.

Finally, he visited the area himself to inspect the damaged area.

For more information, visit the National Weather Service of Huntsville website.

What is a microburst?

Severe thunderstorms require strong updrafts to exist. Updrafts are the winds that enter a thunderstorm. During a downdraft, the updrafts weaken, causing wind and rain to flow toward the ground and spread in all directions.

A downburst is classified according to its size and is called either a microburst or a macroburst. A microburst occurs when the downburst is 4 km wide or less. A macroburst occurs when the downburst is more than 4 km wide.

Whether the downbursts are micro or macro storms, they can cause a lot of damage due to the strong winds that hit the ground. Sometimes the damage is comparable to that of a weak tornado. The damage from a downburst can consist of major structural damage to downed trees.

By Liam