by John Brasher

This is the story of the Brent Tornado.

It is dedicated to the people of Brent, Centreville,

and all those affected in the many locations

along this storm’s long

path of destruction.

May 27, 1973 was a red letter day in the annals of Alabama severe weather events. A number of tornadoes touched down across north and central sections of the state that day. The largest and most violent of these would become known as the Brent Tornado. This storm had its beginning just northeast of Demopolis. It went on to cause damage in Greensboro, Brent, Centreville, Montevallo, Calera, Columbiana, Wilsonville, Childersburg, and points between. The monster storm finally dissipated near Anniston, on the western slope of Mt. Cheaha. The tornado was on the ground an incredible 139 miles. The Brent Tornado was and remains the longest track tornado in Alabama recorded history. It is the sixth longest track tornado of record in U.S. history.

The hardest hit area was Brent, where the tornado caused upper level F4 damage, bordering on F5. Here wind speed may well have reached 261 mph, the threshold of F5 strength.

At a certain point,  the measurement of wind speed no longer matters. At a certain point destruction is total.   That point was close at hand on the evening of May 27, 1973, in Brent, Alabama. Brent was almost wiped from the face of the earth.

At that time, a NOAA WSR-57 radar station was located on Alabama Hwy25, southwest of Brent, and just west of Highway 5. The designation of the station was Centreville Radar. Late that Sunday afternoon, NWS staff at the site detected a tornado forming in Demopolis.  State Troopers reported sighting the storm to the Birmingham Forecast Office located at 11 West Oxmoor Road. Tornado warnings were issued up-stream. Centreville Radar itself would become a large part of the story when the tornado struck the facility, ripping away the roof and blowing the radar antenna from its tower.

I was a photographer/reporter for the Centreville Press at the time and was at the radar site when the tornado struck.

My thanks to former publisher Jim Oakley, the current management and owners of the Centreville Press, and everyone that has, and continues to contribute to this site.

All photos and writing by John Brasher unless otherwise noted.

Re-use please credit http://brenttornado.wordpress.com/

Click Link Below For Brent Tornado track:

https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zt41Q8frIGF4.kQ1m3Uj80fXY

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About the photo at the top of the pages:

This is the interior of the Brent Baptist Church. Services were being held here when the tornado struck. There was warning of the approaching storm shortly before its arrival and the congregation rushed into the basement. However, one man was killed when the roof and walls collapsed.

16 Responses to “A Red Letter Day”

  1. Ricky Burch said

    Me and my family were driving back to Tuscaloosa from Opelika on that Sunday afternoon. I had turned 12 years old the day before and I still remember what happened just like it was yesterday. We were traveling down Hwy. 82 coming into Centerville when we saw the blackest cloud we had ever seen. We thought we were going to miss the storm until we turned left by the Cahaba River, passed by Twix and Tween barbeque and about a half a mile later all heck broke loose. We were in a Chevrolet station wagon. It was me, my two brothers, my mom and dad and our dog. When we topped the hill, there was a Texaco station to the left. We looked over and there was a wall of debris coming right at us. The tornado was a mile wide at that point and we had no idea we were driving right into it. Billboards were hitting the ground all around us. We got down as low as we could in the car and held on. You could feel the car trying to turn over but it stayed upright. We were as much in the center of that tornado as we could be. I watched as everything around us was destroyed. Our car was destroyed. Two by fours through the tires and radiator. All the windows on the left side of the car were gone only to have mud, grass, pines needles and other debris about an inch thick on the inside of the windows on the right side of the car. I sit here and still remember the smell in the air. No one was hurt in our car. We had glass and mud and other debris in our clothes and underwear but we were all fine. It truly was a miracle. Shortly after the storm a young man came running by our car and he was crying. He stopped and asked if we were alright. We told him we were fine and ask if he was ok. He looked like he was in shock. He was running to get help because he was at the Brent Baptist Church and he said “the whole roof just fell in on the congregation”. I found out later that people died in that church. He took off running and I still remember him. I have always wondered who he was. We were in our car for at least two hours before the rescue people could dig through the piles of debris to get to us. The National Guard or State Troopers commandeered us a room at what was the Cinderella Motel. We were able to get out of the rain and get ourselves together. There was no power and some minor damage to the motel but it felt safe after what we had been through. My dad stood beside Hwy. 82 and found a man driving through to Tuscaloosa. He gave him a note to call my uncle with my uncles phone number to tell him what happened and to please come get us. That wonderful man called my uncle and he showed up later to pick us up to take us back home. It is hard to believe I turned 47 years old yesterday and I remember every detail of that day.

  2. brenttornado said

    This email from Chris Golden of Tuscaloosa, used here with his permission.
    John Brasher

    I was 10 years old at the time. My family lived in Cottondale, but we camped at Lake Payne numerous times. I think I can remember this correctly, but we had been camping since Thursday the week before. I remember strong storms Sunday evening while still at the lake, but not being frightened. I just remember the next morning packing up to go home and my parents talking about a storm in Brent. I think it was Highway 25 that we took once leaving the lake. I remember going through what once was Brent.I remember seeing a gas station made of cinder blocks and it was completely leveled. My dad said the storms path was a mile wide. It truly looked like when folks say “a bomb went off”. I will always have those scenes embedded in my mind and thinking how very close we were camping in tents. It was not until I was in my twenties that I got over the fear of even a tornado watch being issued. Back then we didn’t get much information and it was very general. My parents have since passed on, but remembering all the camping excursions we had,that is one that sticks out and it was so devastating for so many people.

    Chris Golden

  3. Brother Bob said

    I remember this event quite well. My dad was the pastor of Centreville Baptist Church. He was preaching a revival in Montgomery for the former pastor of the Brent Baptist church. A year earlier I had been called to preach. My dad asked me to fill the pulpit on this Sunday evening. I had never preached in my Dad’s church nor at this time any church. I was nervous at the prospect to say the least. My wife stayed home in Montgomery that afternoon with a our new baby. Her sister, Sylvia, made the trip with me. Just before the service was to begin my mom suggested I run over to the house and get a flash light in case the power went out. I felt that something bad was about to happen and the deacons suggested we go to the basement for the service. The power did go out and people lit candles. It was hot and I was sweating but completed the message. Brother Grady Chism announced at the benediction that the Bethel Church had been hit by a tornado. A moment or two later it was also announced that the Brent Church had been hit. When we exited the building the air was deathly still and we could hear sirens of the emergency vehicles. A portion of the tornado did some damage at the bottom of the hill from the church. Yes, I remember it well.

  4. Sir, As a child my family would sometimes stay at the Cinderella Motel while enroute to Miami Fl. I assume that this structure doesn’t exist anymore as a result of this storm back in 1973. Does anybody have any picture before and after of this Motel?

  5. Mitch Crumpler said

    My family and I lived on the hill in Centreville at the time, about a half mile from where Bro. Bob was preaching. Even though the tornado took a turn just below the Centreville business district, I can still recall the strange feeling in the air that evening. It’s still amazing to think about what went on that day. Moments after the storm had passed, even though we knew it was very strong, we had no idea what had taken place a mere mile or so away. My dad, who was a serviceman with Alagasco, was called out within the hour. I remember him showing up sometime the next morning to take a break. The first thing he said when he walked in the door was “Brent’s gone”.

  6. Louis Berney said

    Sir –

    In 1973 I was a cub reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. One of my first big assignments was to go to Brent a few days after the tornado hit and write a story about what was going on in the devastated town. I just recently reread the article I wrote after my visit to Brent. If you would like, I could transcribe the article and post it. I also took photographs of the town, the most poignant of which was of a clock that had stopped at the moment the tornado hit. The article included a photo of then-Mayor Melford Worrell addressing a group of merchants whose businesses had been destroyed.
    I interviewed a number of long-time residents of the town for my article.
    The thing I remember most was the capricious nature of the tornado: A grocery store, half obliterated while the other half still contained food neatly placed on shelves; one house still standing in perfect condition even as the two neighboring homes on each side had turned to rubble; a building housing lumber blown away in its entirety, even as stacks of wood remained perfectly in order.
    I also recall the courage, resilience, and resoluteness of the citizens of Brent, as well as their willingness to do all they could to offer help to their neighbors. The tornado leveled Brent almost four decades ago, but I can remember my visit to the town as though it were yesterday.

    – louis berney

  7. Allen Myers said

    I remember this so well. My Grandfather was Tom Green, one of the people who died in this terrible event. I remember that my Aunt was living with my Grandfather at the time and she was injured and sent to a hospital in Tuscaloosa. When they put her in the hospital they had her listed under the wrong name. We did not know where she was for almost two days. I will never forget that day.

    Allen Myers

  8. Aletha said

    I remember the devastation from this tornado well. My Papa (BB Elam) was at church at the Brent Bible Methodist Church. My step-grandma (Ida Bailey Elam) was at home. Their house only received minor damage. The meat house next to their house was leveled. My uncle’s house (Aubrey & Sue Elam) had only one wall left standing & the barn was gone. I was 5 at the time & remember Papa having to put down one of his horses. All the trees that my cousins & I had played under & swung from were gone. It gave me a very healthy fear of tornadoes. I’m saddened that AL has once again been devastated. May God comfort those that are hurting & give them the strength that they need to carry on.

  9. june whitaker miller said

    My father was manager of the IGA in centerville at the time , I was 16 yrs old . I remember he and I were standing outside then it seemed like the oxygen was sucked out of the air . My dad heard it and yelled to get inside . It plowed through the school and pulled up an extremely old oak tree , and let it go on top of the store . I am thankful our lives were spared . My brothers girlfriend at the time , Jane Bamburg lost their home and whole neighborhood in Brent including a small church . all that was left was the block foundation . So much more I could tell . I will never forget this particuler Tornado.

  10. jim crawford said

    This tornado made a lasting impression on me …we lived in Mobile…but traveled to Birmingham once a month….Hwy 5 was our route and my dad made a special stop to show us the destructive power of a tornado….I’ve been interested in them ever since that day when at the age of 11 I was awed by the power of tornadoes

  11. Andrew Taylor said

    Baaculaureate services had ended 12 minutes before the tornado came through Greensboro and destroyed the old Southern University which housed Southern Academy at the time. The devastation was horrible.

  12. Connie said

    I was living in Brent Alabama when that Tornado hit. And I never want to go though that again. I was 17 years old.
    I do know how powerful the tornado was. We had a small freezer come though our big picture window We turned our couch up side down and hid behind it. We found out the next day that the freezer came from 2 miles down the road. There was nothing left of Brent.Out house was no more. It took every thing we had. My family and I went around the town to help our neighbors. I thank God every day we made it out ok. Some were not as lucky. It still scares me till this day when i hear that a Tornado is near. We moved to Maplesville and started over. Now i live in Charlotte N.C. But when i saw this site about the Brent Tornado I had to write.

  13. I stumbled across this site, looking for the N.D. Cass Co. of Alabama. What a story! So glad the community banded together & rebuilt! Do you have any info on this Co.? I have a couple pieces of wooden doll furniture I was trying to find info about. Your help would be deeply appreciated1 Thank you

  14. Teresa J. Moore said

    I was a victim of the 1973 tornado. I lived in Calera, Al at the time. I was 12 years old at that time. It was a Sunday afternoon, the wind was very high. It wasn’t hot or cold it was just right. i wanted to stay outside and play. The wind had picked me up slightly and I felt as if I were floating down the hill. It was fun, so I thought. My sister had called for me to come home because for some reason she was afraid.

    Upon entering our home for the last time, I tried to get her to come outside with me. Thank God she wouldn’t go. We started hearing stuff hitting up against the house. We didn’t know what to do. We went into a bed room and knelt down between a bed and the cheftarobe. The next thing I remember is seeing stuff flying all around me.

    I woke up in the hospital after being in a coma for weeks. My sister and I both survived but had sustained many injuries. God is good we both are still here!

  15. JD Bailey said

    I was stationed at old Craig AFB in Selma and was a T-37 instructor pilot. The wife and I lived in base housing there. What a night to remember! Have not lived another night/day like this weatherwise until April 27, 2011. While Selma itself was not hit by an actual tornado that night, I’m sure one came very close and just did not touch down as there was a green hue to the sky and rain driven sideways – just plain scary! I was scheduled to fly the next morning, and I remember the morning being absolutely crystal clear and calm – a great day to fly considering the weather the evening before. Our military training area was over the area west and north of Selma to include from near Demopolis to near Tuscaloosa and the national forest area up to Centreville, and was subdivided into a smaller particular area. I was the lead instructor that morning in a two-ship formation training mission. We took off fairly early that morning as I recall and climbed to 8000′ and received our assigned working area from the controller. It happened to be the area directly above Brent-Centreville. As we neared our area, we could immediately see the path of total destruction within the national forest to the west (fully a mile wide path with trees laid down) and making a bee line for the towns. As we got even closer we could then see what had transpired. Even from 8000′ you could see the amount of destruction that had taken place and knew immediately it was not good and that it would be a long road to recovery for both the town itself and the people it effected. I have many vivid images of that morning that have stuck with me throughout my life.

  16. Tracy said

    I remember this storm. I was 9 years old. To this day severe weather bothers me . I am 50 old and I will never be able to smell fresh pine without thinking about the tornado.

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