On Sunday night, May 27, 1973, I saw serious tornado damage for the first time in my life, and it changed my life. The sights and sounds are still fresh in my mind; almost like it happened yesterday.
I was wrapping up my junior year at Tuscaloosa High School, and on that Sunday night we received a call for help from our friends in Bibb County. A tornado had gone right through the center of Brent, and amateur radio operators from Tuscaloosa were needed to establish communication with relief agencies in Birmingham and other places. Remember, there were no cell phones in 1973, and this was an urgent need. I arrived with a group from Tuscaloosa within one hour of the tornado, and we were all stunned at what we saw. Eerie darkness, an odd odor (many people that have experienced call it the “smell of death”), roads blocked by trees, and debris everywhere. I wound up coming back the next morning, and stayed in Centreville (adjacent to Brent) handling communication from a church.
Down in Brent, a total of 5 people died in the storm, including Andrew Mitchell, who was attending evening worship services at the Brent Baptist Church, which was destroyed. Many more were injured, and town was just about wiped out by the EF-4 twister. That was actually just a segment of the damage; the tornado first touched down just northeast of Demopolis, and went through Greensboro, where one person was killed and 72 injured. It continued northeast, and took out the old National Weather Service radar site on Alabama Highway 25 before striking downtown Brent. The crew at the radar site had to take cover in the ditch across the street.
From Brent, the path continued near Montevallo and Childersburg, before it finally lifted on the western slope of Mount Cheaha in East Alabama. A total of 216 buildings were destroyed, 570 buildings were damaged, 97 mobile homes were destroyed, and 45 businesses were damaged or destroyed. More than 12,000 acres of timber was destroyed. It was a storm I will never forget, even though it happened 42 years ago.
We should note an EF-3 tornado that same day impacted a Tarrant-Center Point-Springville-St Clair Springs-Ashville-Gadsden path. Heavy damage occurred in Center Point where 32 homes and 48 mobile homes were destroyed. Over 300 homes were damaged. One person was killed by that storm.
This came at the tail end of the spring tornado season; a reminder we can have a strong/violent tornado in late May in Alabama.
A series of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes moved across Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These storms accounted for injuries to at least 422 persons, including 47 fatalities. Here in our state, the biggest tragedy was an EF-4 tornado that destroyed the Goshen United Methodist Church building during the morning worship service. Twenty people died inside the church, all part of an Easter drama that was in progress that Palm Sunday morning. Ten of those who died were children, including four year old Hannah Clem, the daughter of Pastor Kelly Clem.
A tornado warning was issued 12 minutes before the church was hit, but they never heard the warning. Another reminder that every church in Alabama must have a NOAA Weather Radio.
Below is a special put together ten years ago by Bill Castle of ABC 33/40 that looks back at this horrible day.
On December 16, 2000… an F4 tornado tore through the southern part of Tuscaloosa, killing eleven people and injuring over 100. Nine of the fatalities occurred in mobile homes, one in a vehicle, and one in a commercial building converted to residential use. Six of those killed were females and five were males. Ages ranged from 16 months to 83 years old. The tornado was on the ground for a total of 18 miles, all within Tuscaloosa county. The tornado path was estimated to be 750 yards wide at it’s maximum intensity.
There was an excellent warning for the tornado; a warning was issued at 12:40 p.m. on that deadly Saturday, 14 minutes before the twister first touched down in a rural area southwest of Tuscaloosa near the Black Warrior River. The tornado crossed Alabama 69 near Shelton State Community College and Hillcrest High School; destroying a shopping center and many homes. The Bear Creek Trailer Park was hit, where many of the deaths occurred. The tornado moved to the east/northeast, south of Skyland Boulevard, and finally crossed I-59/20 near the Cottondale exit.
We caught the tornado live on our tower camera in Tuscaloosa; we were able to show live video of the twister on ABC 33/40 for almost 10 minutes as it rolled through the southern part of the city of Tuscaloosa. Our StormChaser van was heavily damaged in the storm; John Oldshue and his photographer had to rush in to a Hampton Inn to protect themselves as the tornado passed right over their location. The manager of the motel has all of the guests lined up in a hallway on the lowest floor, and nobody was injured there.
Later in the day, the same parent storm dropped an F3 tornado which stuck the Coats Bend region of Etowah County, near Gadsden, detroying 250 homes and injuring 14 people. Like the Tuscaloosa tornado, excellent warnings were issued by the National Weather Service long before the damage occurred. Just another reminder we can have some very violent weather this time of the year.
See our live coverage of the tornado below… note we had a skeleton staff that day, and the person running the old tower cam over in the newsroom was multi tasking, and doing the best he could to keep up with everything. The problems on this day led to our new SKYCAM system, which we fully control in the weather office.
And, the front page picture from the Tuscaloosa News on December 17, 2000 was so touching. Michael Harris carries an unconscious Whitney Crowder, 6, through debris in Bear Creek Trailer Park after a tornado on Dec. 16, 2000. Whitney’s father and 15-month-old brother were killed in the tornado. Whitney graduated from Tuscaloosa County High School in May 2012; read more about it here.
Numerous confirmed tornadoes on the ground in the Oklahoma City Metro. A cluster of supercells continue to produce tornadoes through out the area. Widespread reports of damage and a lot of reports of overturned cars and truck along the highways in the area. This is a very significant and life-threatening situation.
A very large, rain wrapped tornado is approaching the western portions of Oklahoma City. A tornado emergency is in effect for this storm. This is a very dangerous and life-threatening storm.
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN NORMAN HAS ISSUED A
* TORNADO WARNING FOR…
SOUTHWESTERN OKLAHOMA COUNTY IN CENTRAL OKLAHOMA…
SOUTHEASTERN CANADIAN COUNTY IN CENTRAL OKLAHOMA…
* UNTIL 700 PM CDT
* AT 623 PM CDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEOROLOGISTS AND STORM
SPOTTERS WERE TRACKING A LARGE AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO 6
MILES SOUTHEAST OF EL RENO. DOPPLER RADAR SHOWED THIS TORNADO
MOVING EAST AT 40 MPH.
THIS IS A TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR YUKON…RICHLAND…WILEY POST
AIRPORT…BETHANY…AND THE VILLAGE…TAKE IMMEDIATE TORNADO
IN ADDITION TO A TORNADO…DANGEROUS AND EXTREMELY LARGE DESTRUCTIVE
HAIL UP TO SOFTBALL SIZE IS EXPECTED WITH THIS STORM.
* LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE…
EL RENO…YUKON…BETHANY…MUSTANG…WARR ACRES AND RICHLAND.
THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND LIFE THREATENING SITUATION. IF YOU
CANNOT GET UNDERGROUND GO TO A STORM SHELTER OR AN INTERIOR ROOM OF A
STURDY BUILDING NOW.
TAKE COVER NOW IN A STORM SHELTER OR AN INTERIOR ROOM OF A STURDY
BUILDING. STAY AWAY FROM DOORS AND WINDOWS.
DO NOT STOP UNDER BRIDGES OR HIGHWAY OVERPASSES. THEY WILL NOT
PROTECT YOU FROM A TORNADO.
It is another very active and dangerous severe weather day across the state of Oklahoma. Severe storms have developed just to the west of Oklahoma City. This tornado warned storm is moving towards downtown Oklahoma City.
This storm is obviously rotating with a very impressive couplet below. This storm now has a confirmed tornado being reported by storm spotters in the area. It is dropping very large hail, some hail could be larger than baseballs.