By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
Today, Beth Tucker will say a prayer for tornado victims everywhere – past, present and future. She’ll pray for those killed or wounded, in whatever way, in Beauregard, Alabama and in Havana, Cuba.
She’ll pray for the 28 who died 45 years today in Guin, Alabama, when about 9 pm a roaring, swirling, roiling immense black cloud ripped it to pieces.
Only .1 percent of tornadoes attain an F5 rating. Dr. Ted Fujita, creator of the F-scale, came to see the destruction. He was amazed. He thought his scale measured any and all tornadoes. It’s reported that he considered calling the Guin tornado an F6.
He finally decided to call it an F5-plus because, he said, its power was immeasurable. Presently, the EF measurement, the Enhanced Fujita scale, says an EF5 contains winds over 300 mph.
“No one is safe from a tornado like this one,” Fujita said at the time. “A tornado like this one can pull you right out of a storm shelter, right out of the ground. There’s no hiding from it.”
In the 2011 movie “Twister,” members of a storm crew are guests for lunch. At table, they wryly laugh about strong storms they’d seen, F3’s and F4’s. The host asks, “What about an F5? Is there an F5?”
The crew quietens and looks at each other uneasily. Finally one says, “An F5 is the finger of God.”
Beth Tucker was living in Guin, a 23-year-old teacher of English, when the storm struck. She lives there now.
And maybe she’ll pray extra hard for those who have gone head-on with an F5 and still are alive to tell the tale, except one thing:
She might be the only one.
She isn’t sure of it. Xenia, Ohio was hit that night by an F5 that claimed 32 lives. What is certain is that survivors of an F5 wouldn’t fill a small room.
In 1974 there was scant general knowledge of tornadoes. There were no reality shows, no storm chasers to capture fierce footage. Country folks called them bad clouds and huddled close.
“I wasn’t afraid of tornadoes. I didn’t think wind could kill you,” she said.
Her mind began to change about 6 p.m. when golfball hail broke a window in her wooden-frame apartment over a garage. The hail was replaced by a light rain. She went to bed early, about 8.30. Then she heard it.
“It didn’t sound like a freight train,” she said. “I grew up next to a railroad. I know what a powerful train sounds like. This sounded like a thousand trains. I knew immediately it was a tornado. It couldn’t be else.
“My first thought was to run and I ran towards the door. It was an oldfashioned heavy wood door, chained and bolted. That solid oak door swung back like a giant hand had slapped it open and slammed it against the wall.
“Windows started exploding. The house started coming apart. My bathroom was nearby and had the nearest window and I thought if I could open it maybe it would equalize pressure. I stepped into the bathroom and then I was in the tornado.”
Not only was Beth Tucker inside an F5+ tornado, the tornado was inside her.
“The pressure was so great I couldn’t breathe. My head felt like it might explode. The apartment was exploding. I put my hands on the wall and my head in my hands. I was saying please God no. It was all crash and roar. Then the wall wasn’t there any more. The structure of the house, the wood, glass, beams became debris. Then the bathtub was out from under me and I was free falling.
“A beam I guess it was hit me hard on the back of my neck and head. I heard it as well as felt it. Things were striking me and I thought, if something else hits me on my head it’ll kill me. The tornado felt malevolent, a living thing of pure evil and it had come for me.”
She said everything seemed to go into slow motion. She was falling in slow motion.
“There was a green tint inside the thing, heaven knows what produced it. I could see clearly though there was no power. I felt the cavitation. I felt I was three feet above the ground and light as a feather. Then the giant hand that had held me up there suddenly dropped me.”
She landed on her knees on jagged concrete blocks torn apart by wind and pressure. They cut a five-inch long gash on her left shin, exposing the bone. There’s a scar and an indentation for souvenirs.
She was stunned but never unconscious. As she came to herself, she saw, 20 feet away, the roof of her apartment. From a solid wood frame house, the roof and Beth Tucker were the only things that remained.
The light rain, stopped by the winds, resumed. Sitting on the ground, determined not to panic, she started taking the rollers out of her hair. She’d put them there an hour ago, a forever ago.
“I was wearing baby doll pajamas and my undies and I kept thinking I hated for anyone to find me like this,” she said. Then she began to hear the moans and cries of badly injured people.
Still determined to maintain, she began to call out in a loud but controlled voice:
“Mr. Collins is injured. I’m okay but if anyone can come help him, please come now.”
Next door neighbors, the Peoples family, called out that they’d be there soon as they could but they had to cut through downed trees. What would have been a 45-second walk from their house to hers became a 20-minute ordeal. When they reached her, Peoples asked what he could do to help her. She asked for his jacket to cover herself.
The fun wasn’t over for Beth Tucker. Power lines dangled and fizzed sparks. They removed her through the downed lines to their storm shelter. Peoples had been out seeing how and whom he could help. Suddenly, he stuck his head back in, shouted, “The Adair home next door uses gas. It’s going to blow up. Run!”
“And then there we were, running for our lives down Yankee Street.“
I know this story well. Beth Tucker is my darling sister.
(Next week: Megadeath in a Small Town.)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com. Email Skip HERE.