News Articles

Destructive tornado kills 32; devastates a dozen churches

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Winds pushing 300 mph ripped through three Alabama counties with no remorse April 8, taking at least 32 lives and injuring 220 more.
But as the most destructive tornado in state history, the F-5 twister hopskotched a 20-mile path, gouging 15 miles of life in western Birmingham communities and obliterating everything in sight.
The tornado — somewhat of a tradition during Holy Week in Alabama — touched down in Tuscaloosa County just before 8 p.m. The high-powered winds swept northeastward, touching down again in Jefferson County, wiping out entire communities just outside the heart of Birmingham. The deadly storm stayed down for an historic 15-mile stretch, reaching into St. Clair County. President Clinton declared all three counties federal disaster areas April 9.
Vice President Al Gore and James Lee Whitt, national Federal Emergency Management Agency director, toured the annihilation on Good Friday.
At least 1,000 central Alabamians were left with nothing but rubble and close to 900 more returned to unrecognizable homes. But they were the lucky ones.
“It’s awful … so heartwrenching,” said Kenny Allen, pastor of Concord Baptist Church just outside the Rock Creek and Oak Grove communities where some of the worst twister damage occurred.
“Every sixth or seventh call is someone looking for a loved one or to say they lost someone.
“What can you do? You do your best to reassure them and then you just pray,” Allen said.
Concord operated as a “transition” shelter during the Wednesday disaster and served as headquarters for the joint Red Cross/state convention disaster relief feeding unit.
Among the devastation were close to a dozen churches with severe damage, half of them Baptist. Numerous Alabama Baptist families were among the countless who lost their homes — and in some cases neighbors and loved ones.
Bethel Baptist Church in Moody lost its existing building plus the nearly complete new sanctuary and just completed family life center. The new structures were part of a $3.25 million building campaign and were to be dedicated April 13. Bethany Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa lost its roof and chunk of the sanctuary. Sylvan Springs Baptist Church suffered major damage to its steeple. First Baptist Church, Gary Ensley; Chapel Hill Baptist Church in McDonald Chapel; and Edgewater Baptist Church also were heavily damaged. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have been stationed at Sylvan Springs Baptist Church since the tornado hit last week.
Alabama Baptist disaster relief crews have been stationed at Concord Baptist Church since April 8. Volunteers from Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham made sandwiches at noon Wednesday before helping with hot meals that evening. Local merchants donated thousands of dollars worth of food for Concord’s emergency shelter to tornado victims in the Oak Grove/Rock Creek area.
Crews serving three-day shifts began service April 10. Reggie Quimby, disaster relief coordinator for the state convention reported April 13 that close to 10 associations had participated in feeding and/or cleanup efforts over the weekend. Volunteers from Tuscaloosa Association operated the feeding unit during the weekend and were to be replaced by volunteers from southeast Alabama April 14.
Already disaster relief volunteers from Tennessee have contributed, and Quimby is expecting crews from South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi throughout the week.
Noting the major damage done to central Alabama, Quimby said this relief effort could take up to three weeks.
Baptist volunteers were making lunch for relief workers and tornado victims the day after the tornado ripped through the city. Working jointly with Red Cross, the disaster relief units prepare the meals and Red Cross volunteers deliver them.
On-site coordinator Emmette Jones, who is participating in his 14th disaster relief situation and second one this year, anticipated a long haul before this relief effort is over.
“We’re getting an early start on disasters in 1998,” Jones said. “This one doesn’t look good.”

    About the Author

  • Laurie A. Lattimore