Skip Tucker: Death in a Small Town

Skip Tucker: Death in a Small Town

By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist

April 3, 1974 – Beth Tucker slowly swam back through a twilight zone to full consciousness.

Sitting on wet grass in a light rain, wearing a Babydoll nightgown, she looked around in the early dark at a scene from The Twilight Zone. Destruction. Dystopian. Post-apocalyptic.

The 23-year-old high school teacher of English began to realize she’d taken a short trip through hell. Much was gone that 20 minutes earlier had been the small northeast Alabama town of Guin, 2,000 souls.

At 9:02 p.m., a black cloud of whirling death screamed into town. It was a mile-wide merciless monster that seemed to its victims to be malevolent and sentient. They felt it had hunted them. Just that quick, 28 were dead and 250 injured.

Only in the coming days would she learn she’d been drawn into the heartless maw of an F5-plus tornado. And that she’d earned membership to an extremely exclusive group.

Just .1 percent of tornadoes attain the deadly ranking of F5. A smaller percentage, much smaller, survives direct contact.  

She’d never believed it was a dream, a nightmare, but she was not reassured by the surrounding landscape. The sturdy solid woodframe garage apartment she rented was gone, except for the roof. It sat next to her.

A National Weather Service damage surveyor later said one 6-block area was “like the ground had been swept clean…a total wipeout. As near to total destruction as you can get.”

Beth Tucker was at Ground Zero. Nine of the 28 dead had lived within her line of sight.

She sat, dazed from a blow to her head and hurting from a nine-inch bonedeep gash to her left shin. Power was out, but snapped live lines around her sparked and fizzed. She knew not to move.

She began to hear moans and cries. Calmly but loudly, she began to call for help for her neighbor from anyone who could hear her.

“I’m all right,” she called, “but Mr. Collins is injured badly.” The Peoples family lived in the house behind hers. They called that they were getting to her quickly as they could, cutting away fallen trees and debris.

“A half-hour ago, it wouldn’t have been a 45-second walk,” she said. “It took them 20 minutes to reach me.”

When they did, she asked Mr. Peoples for his jacket so she could cover and warm herself. As they led her through dangerous downed lines to their storm shelter, she thought, “Thank God. I’ve survived.

She’d survived against odds immense to the point of immeasurability. She’d survived, but her nightmare wasn’t over. It intensified.

She said they were sitting in the storm shelter, thanking God for survival, when Mr. Peoples opened the door suddenly and shouted, “The Adair house uses gas. It’s going to blow. Run!”

“And there we were,” she said, “running for our lives down Yankee Street.”

The Adair house exploded indeed. She heard it as they ran. By then, she said, part of her mind filled with wry amusement. “Every time I thanked God for my survival, He had to pull me out of something else.” Three times, she thought. A tornado, downed lines and an explosion. Three times.

Her leg throbbed, but pain almost was a welcome thing. It meant she was alive. The physical pain diminished. She was unprepared for the amount of emotional pain she was about to have to endure.

“I was given a ride to the hospital by a nice, older woman I thought was going to kill me, after all,” she said. “Every time we’d pass under a dangling power line, right when she should speed up, she’d stop and scream. I’d think, after all I’ve been through, I’m going to be killed by bad driving.”

Shaking, hurting, emotionally drained, Beth Tucker reached the hospital about 10.30. Generators had kicked on and there was light. The head nurse was a friend of hers. She was treated and released, nor did she have anywhere to go or, had she, a way to get there. There were no cell phones in 1974. Landlines were down. She could not reach her family 30 miles away in the little town of Eldridge. Our family.

Beth Tucker is my sister, stronger than an F5+ tornado.

In Eldridge, untouched by the storm, phones were ringing wildly. News of the deadly Guin tornado and many dead was broadcast widely. Everybody in Eldridge knew us, most knew Beth lived in Guin.  People called to ask about her and to say that prayers were in motion.

My dad was a State Trooper who got the news direct from headquarters. Word was kept from mother. There was three of us boys. Dad got the youngest and headed for Guin. He worked Guin. My younger brother stayed with mom. I, managing editor of the Mountain Eagle, lived in Jasper. I was working our own F4 tornado that had ripped the facade off main street buildings.

Chaos is far too weak a word to describe what happened next.

Dad reached Guin pretty quickly. Police had closed entry but recognized my dad and waved him into town. He checked Beth’s house and grimly hopeful headed to the hospital. Not only was she not there, she’d not been admitted. Bleak news.

The hospital was overfull. Victims were taken to hospitals in Hamilton, Winfield and Fayette. That’s where dad drove.

At home, mom knew something was up, something bad. Dad had said she wasn’t to know. Finally, she demanded that my brother tell her. He did. She said, “Let’s go.”

At Guin, they knew my mom, too, and let her through. She reached the ruins of my sister’s house, got out to look and collapsed to her knees.My sister was believed dead by all of us.

Actually, she was safe at home in Eldridge.

Beth’s nurse friend had told her there was no bed for her, could she stand to wait in the receiving room. My sister said yes, then bodies began to arrive. My sister could withstand an F5. She couldn’t stand the almost certain knowledge that she’d see mangled remains of someone she knew.

Again, she was rescued. A family friend from Eldridge came in search of his daughter who lived in Guin. She was safe. He drove my sister home. Empty house. He invited her to his home but she knew the family had gone in search of her so she stayed.

As the night moved toward dawn, all returned. Joyous.

Last week marked the 45th anniversary of the tornado Dr. Ted Fujita said was the most intense storm he’d investigated. He knew storms. He’s the scientist who created the F5 scale into which he thought all tornadoes would fit. An F5 ranking means winds up to 318 mph. It’s reported he considered calling it an F6. His scale, though, said an F5 meant total destruction. Since nothing can be worse than total destruction, he settled on calling it an F5-plus.

“The force of a tornado like this one is immeasurable,” he told the audience. He had plotted basics for an F6 but stopped. He called it “inconceivable.”

Since then, the Fujita scale has been updated. It’s called the EF scale, the Enhanced Fujita scale.

Only one church, the Guin Freewill Baptist, weathered the F5 in 1974. Once the victims were prepared, funerals from the church had to be scheduled.

God bless my sister Beth. Again.

(Next week: 1984 Plus Two.)