By Jim Oakley
Publisher of The Centreville Press on May 27, 1973.
May 27, 1973 was never the average day. The day was cloudy with a very strange, slightly warm breeze blowing. The day opened up with a strange color sky and that lasted until just before the storm hit. We didn’t have the
continuous television and radio weather casts like we do now but the warnings were out. My phone was ringing from friends who wanted to know what my
family was going to do.
Foolishly, we stayed right in the house and watched out
the den windows. It was raining very hard and the wind was blowing pretty hard. Suddenly, it stopped everything for maybe 30 seconds. I can remember
us looking at each other like “what is happening?” In a flash it hit. We watched as the limbs of our large pine trees in back of the house nearly touched the ground. It was as dark as midnight. This intense storm lasted maybe
five minutes then suddenly calm returned, along with extremely hard rain.
I had no idea what I was going to see when I left home to see what happened. It was so shocking that 36 years later I can remember every thought and image.
My home is on top of the hill above uptown Centreville and on my way to town I didn’t see much other than scattered small limbs and leaves. When I started down the hill from uptown Centreville toward the four-points area I began to see debris. Roofing, lumber, trash, trees, limbs were all over the place. This was nothing compared to what was to come.
I went on toward the hospital and when I turned north behind Bibb County High School I could see the
devastation to the homes within a block of the school. People were obviously in those homes and rescue workers were already gathering. A blind doctor lived alone in that area and his home was heavily damaged and several of us went to his aid. He turned out to be shaken, but in good shape. As I drove on toward the hospital a carload of people from the Marion area flagged me down
and told me (and several others) that Brent was completely blown away. To this day is remains a mystery how these people made it up highway 5 through
Brent. Hours later when I made it toward Brent it was impossible to travel on the highway. Trees, limbs and power poles were everywhere. The first fear was for live electricity. I walked from the area where Southern Belle Motel (now Windwood Inn) is located and I was totally shocked at what I saw. The houses between the motel and downtown Brent were heavily damaged. In a few
minutes I could see the fairly new sanctuary of the Brent Baptist Church, or wat was left of it.
By that time I was already hearing reports on many injuries and death reports. I walked on toward downtown Brent and the first thing I saw was Bobby Roy Elam, a County Commissioner who had managed to get a fork lift activated from the Olon Belcher Lumber Company and he was in the middle of highway 5 clearing the highway as best as he could so emergency crews could get in. It was not long before law enforcement from surrounding areas began to come in and before midnight we had some national guardsmen on duty.
I spent the next day gathering information to write about it in the newspaper and between me and John Brasher (who had just gone to work at the Centreville Press) we got together some great photos and news items about the storm and. By Tuesday afternoon the power was restored in Centreville and we were able to develop pictures, write stories and run the presses.
John Brasher had the creative mind to shoot a picture of the time clock in the newspaper office and superimpose it on his picture of the Brent Baptist Church. The photo ran on the front page of the “Press”. In Alabama Press Association competition which included every daily and weekly newspaper in Alabama, the photo was judged as the “Best News Picture” for 1973.
My children had two trail bikes and I used one of them to ride through the back roads and fields to get in and out of Brent to help people and continue to cover the news. When the phones started working again we were covered with telephone calls at the newspaper office from news media all over the country. To have a complete city wiped out is a major news story and that tornado sort of introduced a series of tornadoes that came into Alabama within the next couple of years and impacted places like
For the next few weeks most of our news stories in the paper were told to us by people who discovered strange things that came to light in the days after. The Brent Banking Company building was hit hard and soon the story came in from Rising Fawn, in extreme northwest Georgia, that some old checks from a storage room at
the bank were found in the woods around there. I saw some of the checks and they were written back in the day when pen and ink were used (before ballpoint) and the ink had not been smeared in the least. There was a splinter of wood that evidently came from the Olon Belcher Lumber Company storage yard and was stuck in the face of a brick in the wall of the bank building.
The tripod tank of the N.D. Cass company withstood the enormous winds and that made international news. Most of the watertanks in the path of that storm were blown over. Several light poles on the Bibb County High School football field were damaged and many of the light
fixtures were blown away. One of them was found several years later in a lake north of Centreville on the Jack Crouch farm. This is probably three miles from
People found pictures scattered all over the area and we ran a number of them in the newspaper looking for the owners. I remember one that was found in a field in back of the old Wal-Mart store in Brent. It was obviously an
old picture with three small children in a small wagon being pulled by a goat. We ran the picture and the next day the family came in and claimed it. It was made 40 years before and they said it was in the bottom
drawer of a chest of drawers in their bedroom and it was under some clothing. I had a friend in Brent that
collected glass bottles and jugs and she had two or three 30 gallon garbage cans full of bottles and not one can or bottle has been found since.
For a long time the stories continued and we tried to list as many of them as we could because I felt that one day people digging for history would seek information in the storm that destroyed Brent, Alabama.
More from former publisher Jim Oakley
About two weeks before the tornado hit I had hired a new photographer for the newspaper. He was John Brasher from Shelby County. In my efforts to bring John up to speed about places he might find interesting news I mentioned that in the event of bad weather he should go out to the US Weather Station south of Brent. I had been there on several occasions and the observers always welcomed visitors regardless of the weather. The night the storm hit I never dreamed that John had remembered to go to the radar station but I later found out that he was there at ground zero when the brunt of the tornado made a direct hit on the building and radar tower.
Some of our best pictures and some that still are memorialized about that day were made by John on the scene. It was well into Monday before John surfaced. I had asked everyone I came in contact with if they had seen John and they had not. The next day he came in looking like he had returned from combat duty.