Titanic Anniversary Brings Memories of Local Tragedy

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With this being the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, it brings back memories of another accident that happened much closer to home, which had an eerie similarity.

On July 7, 1984, 15 people and three crew members were on board the SCItanic, a paddle owned by SCI.   A summer thunderstorm quickly came up, causing the boat to capsize near Ditto Landing.   Of the 18 people on the boat, 11 drowned, including an entire family.

The accident and the way it unfolded caught the attention of Dr. Ted Fujita, who devised the Fujita tornado scale.   Below is a summary of the storm and accident from the National Weather Service:

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 18 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.

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.”

Rescue efforts began almost immediately. A pontoon boat that was in an area at the time was the first to reach the capsized vessel. 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.

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 11 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.

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 infamous 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.

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