Many thanks to Bill Murray, J.B. Elliott, and the ABC 33/40 Weather Blog for the following articles.
“Like a Bush Hog on a Rock Pile”
By: Bill Murray
Last night, J.B., Sally and I traveled to Brent for a special Sunday evening service at the Brent Baptist Church. Brent is located in Bibb County, about 45 miles southwest of Birmingham. The church was destroyed by an F4 tornado on May 27, 1973.
Thanks to Brent Mayor Dennis Stripling, Pastor Dennis Hyche, and the congregation at Brent Baptist Church for inviting us. Before the service, there was a hot dog and ice cream social. J.B. sucked down some hot dogs and the mayor’s own homemade strawberry ice cream at the social.
A funny thing happened when the Mayor introduced J.B. to Mrs. Katherine Cottingham. The vivacious lady, who would pass for much closer to the 43 that she was in 1973 than the 83 she is, was preparing for a special service honoring the church’s graduating seniors when the tornado struck. The Mayor introduced J.B. to Katherine, telling her that he was the man who had issued the tornado warning that evening for Brent. She broke into a big, bright smile and exclaimed, “Well, we didn’t get it!” which elicited a big laugh from everyone at the table. She said he should have mailed it earlier.
Katherine had a healthy respect for the weather, forged from years of heading to the “storm pit” every time “a cloud came up”. Their storm pit had been a haven from many people, including several on May 27, 1973, after it had been constructed by her father after the terrifying 1932 outbreak that had killed so many Alabamians. The women and children had huddled through many a terrible storm, while the men watched the weather above ground. “If a tornado had hit, all the men in town would have been killed,” she laughed over a cookie Sunday night.
But things were different on that Sunday night in 1973. There was no way to get the warnings that pioneers like J.B. Elliott and Jay Shelley were issuing from Birmingham. There was no James Spann, no Weatheradio, no Weather Channel, no blog. There was no colorful Doppler radar to display on television or the internet. There was no social media and no smartphone apps or texting. People went about their business, oblivious to the threat that was looming, unless they looked to the southwestern sky.
After laughing the social and looking at pictures and articles people had brought to the fellowship hall, we moved to the sanctuary for the memorial service. It was a moving time of reflection and remembrance, excellently moderated by Dr. John Meigs, a local family physician, who was 18 at the time of the tornado.
John Brasher, who was a photographer/reporter for the Centreville Press at the time, spoke, along with J.B. and Dale Black. Dale was the radar operator on duty that night at the National Weather Service WSR-57 radar site. Locals in Brent always bristled at it being called the Centreville radar. They referred to it as the Brent radar, or more accurately, “the radar at Pondville”. John Brasher was a new reporter/photographer for the Centreville Press. When he started just two weeks before, the Publisher Jim Oakley had told him to head to the radar station when the weather got bad.
John did just that on the afternoon of May 27th. He watched an amazing situation play out in the ghostly glow of the radar displays as Dale and Bob Coe tracked the storms and reported on their locations to Birmingham, Montgomery and via teletype to weather offices all over the country. There were no easy to watch radar composites back then, only maps drawn from their coded reports.
Dale had spotted the developing tornado when the storm was between Demopolis and Greensboro. He could tell when he saw the tell-tale hook echo, indicating a possible tornado. He did a quick calculation and realized that the thunderstorm was on a track that would carry it near the radar station.
But there were other hook echoes to track, including one that was menacing the northern part of the Birmingham Metro area. The storm southwest of Centreville slipped into the ground clutter pattern when it got within 25 miles of the radar. The operators were flying blind.
John Brasher and Dale Black stepped outside to get a feel for the approaching storm a little after 7 p.m. John remembers a feeling he had never felt before or since. The wind was sustained out of the south at around 30 mph. The air had a sweet smell to it, like freshly mowed hay.
Just a few minutes later, at 7:20, Dale and John looked at one another as their ears popped from a fast drop in atmospheric pressure. The tornado was on them! They dove for cover as the tornado ripped the roof off the building and knocked the radar from atop the tower.
The tornado was five minutes from the church. Dr. Meigs was outside the church as the tornado approached. He described it as a “wall of black”. Re recalls that the streets of Brent were lined with trees before the tornado in 1973, so there was no way to see a funnel itself. Realizing that it was a tornado, he and another member had only seconds to scoop up some children that were waiting for a ride outside the church.
Mrs. Ann Murphy, lived just a few doors down from the church. She stepped outside around 7:15, just as Training Union was dismissing before the evening service at 7:30. She said, “Oh, the weather is bad. I have to get home.” She made it as far as her car in the parking lot before the tornado hit, exploding the windows out of her vehicle. She said that the car was lifted and set back down several times as she rode out the storm. She said the sound of the storm can be best described as a “bush hog on a rock pile”. When things calmed down and she saw the destruction to the main church building, she was terrified that there had been great loss of life.
Dr. Meigs says that if the storm had hit five minutes sooner, or five minutes later, there would have been much greater loss of life at the church. There were four serious injuries and one fatality at the church, but it could have been much worse. Jerry Pow was the Minister of Music and a hero that night. As he was practicing with the youth choir in the basement of the fellowship hall right before the tornado, the electricity went out. Several of the kids ran outside to see what was happening. Jerry followed, and when he saw the approaching tornado, he ushered them back in to safety.
It was the last night at Brent Baptist Church for the Interim Pastor, Dr. Walker. A new Pastor had been called and had already moved into the Pastorium. Dr. Walker stepped outside, where he found Jerry Pow and Aaron Murphy rounding up people and shepherding them to safety. Dr. Walker asked if he should move everyone to the basement. Jerry Pow replied, “As quickly as you can.” That action would save the lives of several people who had already congregated in the sanctuary.
Andrew Mitchell was an older man who did not see very well, and he only made it as far the organ when the wall of the church collapsed. He was trapped under a mountain of debris. When John Meigs and another member, Kenny Brown, dug him out, they had to identify him by looking in his wallet, even though they had know the elderly man all of their lives.
Brent settled into an inky black calm after the tornado, the darkness punctuated by occasional flashes of lightning from the thunderstorm that had wreaked havoc on the community. Within minutes, help was arriving from all quarters. Mrs. Cottingham’s son Phil had been enroute to the church from Centreville for the service when the tornado caught up with him. He could only hunker down between the seats. After the storm had passed, he knew the tornado was enroute to Brent, where his mama was working at the church. As he started driving again, he realized he was going away from Brent. The tornado had turned his now windowless car around in the middle of the road!
Phil found his mom, who was fine after the storm. Legend has it that Catherine hid from the storm in a trash can in the kitchen at the church. She says there were no trash can to hide in. The tornado had already sucked them out of their tight confines below a counter. She just gratefully took the space they had vacated and it may have saved her life.
Phil knew the town was in trouble, so he went to the lumber yard down the street from the church and commandeered a forklift. He drafted his cousin Bobby Murphy to help him operate the piece of equipment They were able to start the machine and immediately set out moving debris off of streets so help could get through. Bobby looked at his cousin and made an improbable statement: “I’ve always wanted to do something like this.” Phil could laugh forty years later.
Tornadoes destroy things. They injure, maim and kill people. But they don’t destroy the human spirit. They tend to bring out the best in it, as evidenced by the sense of community and love on display last night at Brent Baptist Church.
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The Famous Brent Tornado – 40 Years Ago
By: J.B. Elliott
There will always be tornadoes in Alabama as well as in all states of the good old USA. All we can do is stay alert and be ready to go to a safe place when one happens. Enough of that…
During my 32 years in the U.S. Weather Bureau, later called the National Weather Service, all at the Birmingham office, I have spent many hours and miles surveying tornado tracks and assembling final reports for the national publication known as Storm Data.
After the April 1974 outbreak that almost destroyed the city of Guin, I walked over the entire town interviewing residents that had lost everything. After talking to hundreds of people I was extremely impressed that not a single person questioned God or hated God for what had happened. They were instead very happy to be alive.
Very much of a similar story happened at Brent in Bibb County on that struck on Sunday evening May 27, 1973. It was rated an F4. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary. Bill Murray and I, along with his wife Sally, motored deep into Central Alabama to the town of Brent to attend an evening memorial service last evening. By the way, Sally is an excellent driver. She could drive a taxi in New York City and not blink an eye!
Included on the program was Dr. John Meigs, a local physician who moderated and had been 18 at the time of the tornado; Dale Black, the lifesaving radar operator; Bill Murray, weather historian; John Brasher, who thoroughly documented the event and was at the radar site when it was destroyed; and myself. After a very pleasant meal in the dining area of the church, we migrated to the new sanctuary, which was a beautiful one, for the memorial service. A lot of people did some speaking. Two of the main ones included Dale Black and John Brasher. Dale was the man in charge of the big WSR-57 radar mounted on a ridge southwest of Centreville. He was an employee of the National Weather Service just like the rest of us. In the same radar room was John Brasher, who has written dozens of stories about the event and he is considered the historian of the tornado.
The tornado was first reported near Demopolis. Later it did major damage across Southeast Greensboro and then it took off to the northeast and eventually moved right into the city of Brent. A few minutes before that, however, it destroyed the radar tower and part of the building where the NWS people were watching the radar.
I have been to many meetings like last night in many parts of the state after a tornado tragedy. We have never been better received than we were last night. After the meeting, many folks in the congregation came by to thank us and to welcome us. Believe it or not one of those persons was a long lost cousin of mine. She was born in the Valley community almost in the same place I was. I still have lots of kin folks in North Perry County, in Hale County at Greensboro, Akron, Moundville and good old Havana Junction. Brent mayor Dennis Stripling promised me if I ever retired and wanted to move back to Havana Junction, he would make an effort to go down there and make sure I got elected. We were all joking of course. It’s no sin whatsoever to have fun at such a meeting.
Final note…I am still very upset at what happened in Moore, Oklahoma over the weekend. Saturday morning some people descended on the town and solicited clean-up work from people that had no chance of doing it themselves. However, they wanted payment in advance. You guessed correctly, they vanished and did not come back. I wanted to drive out there and punch them out. Just a thought–I never would do that. Life goes on.