A before and after view of Guin incorporating survey data by Dr. Fujita. The information was shared with us by the Special Collections at Texas Tech University. From the source sketchings, Nelson Tucker further refined the polygons by analyzing ground-level and aerial imagery. The U.S. Geological Survey before aerial photo was taken March 10, 1966. The post-tornado aerial photo was provided by the Sulligent Public Library, and taken in April 1974.

Mildred McGuire who owned McGuire Drugs in Guin with her husband Robert was at her home when the tornado struck. She received a broken pelvis and was hospitalized for several weeks. While healing, she composed the following poem entitled, “The Spirit of Guin.”

The “Spirit of Guin” is more evident now

Than it has ever been before.

We’ve lived and loved together

And suffered tragedy o’er and o’er

The spirit that made us “Champions”

Will hold us together now;

To rebuild the future together

Will be our solemn vow.

We want to thank our neighbors

Who have been so very kind,

To help in our disaster

With willing bodies and mind.

These acts of human kindness

Won’t go without reward.

You’ll be loved by the people of Guin

And be rewarded by the Great True God.

With so much wrong in the world today,

It’s a blessing to see so much right;

Sometimes it takes a disaster

To set our values right.

We’ll work toward the future together

We’ll value each human soul

To rebuild a great Guin

Will be our primary goal.

Don’t let a disaster overtake you, my friend.

Before you understand

The only things that matter in this world

Is your love for God and your Fellowman.

Introduction

On April 3, 1974, an unprecedented number of violent tornadoes raged through the Ohio River Valley. By evening, over a hundred had died in the Midwest. Even as the sun went down and activity in the northern half of the outbreak drew to a close, new malestroms ravaged the South. No state saw more suffering than Alabama.

It was into this chaotic atmosphere that one of the most notorious twisters in regional history was born. Under the cover of darkness, it sliced for two and a half hours through rural communities between Lowndes County, MS, and Morgan County, AL. When the deadliest single tornado in the state since 1932 finally dissipated, it had claimed 32 Alabamian lives and traveled over a hundred miles. Most notably, the town of Guin, AL, was nearly wiped off the face of the Earth, suffering the most significant loss of life.

While the knowledge of Guin’s fate is deservingly prevalent, intricate details of this disaster have faded over the following decades. Communities such as Yampertown, Delmar, Oakville, Basham, and more, faced great destruction in their own right. Across the entire path, this work aims to share the stories of the survivors, to preserve the memories of the victims, and to document all of the damage and surrounding history.

This page is an overview of the Guin, AL F5 tornado. During our travels, we collected a massive amount of information on this event. Six upcoming premium chapters will offer greater detail, additional stories and media, and further findings. They are as follows:

Chapter 1: Lowndes County, MS through Lamar County, AL

Chapter 2: Southwest Marion County through the City of Guin

Chapter 3: Yampertown through Northeast Marion County

Chapter 4: Winston County

Chapter 5: Lawrence County

Chapter 6: Morgan County

We are overwhelmingly grateful for all of the contributors who have provided stories, images, videos, and more to help tell the powerful stories in this overview and the detailed chapters that will be released in the future. Many of these wonderful people have opened their hearts to share painful memories but have done so in the spirit of wanting more people to know about their community. Several have been available for follow-up questions and emails and have been more than willing to accommodate. This is your story, and we are honored to share it.

John Allison and Libby Boggess – Morgan County Archives

Bessie Berry – Tornado Survivor

Debbie Broome – Daughter of J.B. Elliott

Chris Darden – NWS Birmingham

Angie Elliott – Sulligent Public Library

Dr. Greg Forbes – Mentee of Dr. Ted Fujita and Retired Meteorologist

Peter Gossett – Hamilton Journal Record

Jerry Groom – Forest Service-Southern Region

Wendy Hazle – Lawrence County Archives

Gary Lancaster – Columbus Lowndes Public Library

Rebeca Markham – Clerk with the City of Guin

Bill Murray – Weather Historian

Norma Nelson – Tornado Survivor

Shelby Newman, Monte Monroe, and Weston Marshall – Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library – Texas Tech University

Kitty Pennington – Mary Wallace Cobb Public Library

Phil Segraves – Mayor of Guin

James Spann – Meteorologist for ABC 33/40 Birmingham

Winston County Archives

Synopsis

A map of the tornado path.

Lowndes County, MS through Lamar County, AL

The exact point of formation is somewhat nebulous. Upon discussion with Dr. Greg Forbes (Fujita’s apprentice), we have placed the start location at 0.5 miles north of Caledonia, in Lowndes County, MS. This was at about 8:25 pm CDT. We have not yet found any sign or report of damage within Mississippi, or in fact, until 15 miles downwind in Lamar County, AL. Fujita’s very first preliminary map starts it inside Alabama, as do several official sources. However, all of his later map editions begin it in Mississippi, including a chart provided by Dr. Forbes. Fujita labeled the intensity at this time as not exceeding F0. Combined with the extremely rural landscape, we consider it quite plausible despite the lack of evidence that the tornado began this far back.

As a side note, this almost exactly mirrors the initial evolution of the Hackleburg-Harvest, AL EF5 on April 27, 2011. In that case, the twister spent the first part of its life as a minimal EF0, causing little to no damage for 15 miles. Hackleburg is just 22 miles NNE of Guin, making the similarities between the two all the more intriguing.

In Lamar County, almost no inhabited land was affected until 3.9 miles SSE of Sulligent at State Highway 17. Several planes were flipped and hangers destroyed at the Lamar County Airport, while a grocery and filling station across the road was partially unroofed. The vortex gradually widened and strengthened as it continued northeast, destroying five dwellings in the vicinity of Beaverton. Satellite imagery showed a large swath of razed forest across this part of Lamar County.

Damage to a hangar at the Lamar County Airport. Photo from the April 10, 1974 Lamar County Leader.

Southwest Marion County through the City of Guin

The twister entered Marion County 2.5 miles SW of Guin, bearing down on the community at roughly 45 mph. White Rock Church of Christ and a couple of isolated residences were destroyed near U.S. 278 before it reached the southwestern edge of town at 9:02 pm CDT.

The first place to be decimated in Guin was the Monterey Mobile Homes Plant. This division of Winston Industries employed approximately 85 people and was one of the major businesses in Guin. The tornado left the plant unrecognizable.

The twisted remnants of a building at the Monterey Mobile Homes Plant. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

Employees began an immediate search through the debris to try to salvage essential records and other materials. Don Drury was the general manager of the Monterey Division and stated the following in the April 25, 1974 edition of The Marion County Journal, “It was unbelievable. The damage was so sudden and so complete, it left us all with a hollow feeling. I am extremely proud of our people and the spirit which they displayed by pitching in with a ‘will do’ attitude.” Sadly, Winston Industries decided not to rebuild in Guin.

With an outer windfield reaching a maximum width of 1,350 yards (0.77 miles), the maelstrom enveloped much of Guin. It’s important to note that the official size of a tornado is the diameter of the EF0+ (65+ mph) windfield, as determined by the damage. Generally, however, the strongest winds in the core occupy a much smaller space. In Guin, relatively strong winds (enough, for example, to tear the roof off of a typical home) averaged under 300 yards wide, and the most violent winds (the kind that will completely raze almost any structure) were about 50-100 yards across. We derived these numbers by combining Fujita’s survey data (graciously shared with us by the Special Collections at Texas Tech University) and our personal analysis of aerial imagery.

Downtown Guin was hit by the southeastern side of the circulation, leaving almost every important business or facility with some form of damage. Jimmy Herron, 49, was closing up his service station/garage for the night when the tornado struck. The business collapsed, taking his life. A block north, the Guin Post Office was mostly leveled. Other notable hard-hit places included City Hall, the American Legion, the Cashion Motel, Alabama Oak Flooring, Royal Furniture, and many more. Our coming premium narratives on this event will cover every location known in extensive detail.

An aerial view of Guin looking north. At bottom is the downtown area, with the most complete destruction further in the background. Photo from the April 15, 1974 Northwest Alabamian.

The center of the twister plowed through the residential section of northwestern Guin, scouring grass, debarking trees, and shredding scores of homes in just a few seconds. Some of these were annihilated from their foundations; at least two were rated as F5 damage by Dr. Fujita. One of those two was the Shirey house.

Utter destruction in a residential neighborhood on the western side of Guin. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

Erleen Pugh was a Northwest Alabamian and Marion County Journal staff member in 1974. She lived with her husband, Ernest, and son, David, in the vicinity of 13th Avenue West and 12th Street North. She told her story and that of her neighbors in the April 11, 1974 edition of The Marion County Journal.

Her family home was struck, but the damage was not as extensive as that of other surrounding houses. Erleen wrote in her article that Ernest, David, and other neighbors searched the area to see who they could help. Joseph Shirey, 80, and his wife Jesma, 71, lived two doors down from the Pugh family. They had become trapped when their home collapsed. Per Erleen, “They were searching the debris for the Shireys, and my son heard Mr. Shirey breathing right beside his feet. He flashed the light, and there was a slab of about 300 pounds of concrete lying on top of him. His wife was found a little later and they carried them both to the hospital, but they died shortly afterwards.”

An aerial view looking to the northeast of obliterated homes in western Guin. The Shirey house was at the intersection near top right. Photo provided by Debbie Broome and originally from her father, J.B. Elliott.

Ellen Gilmore, 50, was with her husband Hamp and two of their children in a trailer off 13th Avenue West when the twister hit. The entire family was tossed from their mobile home. Ellen was found in a parking lot near the Methodist Church. Erleen stated in the article that the Gilmores were all found bleeding and that Hamp’s arm was almost severed. Sadly, Ellen passed away from her injuries at Lister Hill Hospital in Hamilton on April 4.

The tornado crossed U.S. 278, obliterating most of Guin First United Methodist Church above its elevated brick base. Across the road, the Tombigbee Electrical Cooperative and Guin First Baptist Church were wrecked. Eva Florence Hulsey, 88, was at her home in between those buildings with her daughter Catherine Whitehead that fateful night. Eva passed away on April 12.

Before and after views of First United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church along U.S. 278. Photos provided by the City of Guin.

A.T. “Gus” Norwood and his wife Marcie founded the Norwood Funeral Homes chain in Guin in May 1966. They opened two other locations over the next 11 years: one in Sulligent and another in Fayette. In 1974, the funeral home also operated as an ambulance service. They were phased out of that business but still had the equipment and vehicles at the time of the tornado. Gus and Marcie had four sons: Don, Charles, Rex, and Tommy.

Norwood Funeral Home was on the southern fringe of the circulation and did not suffer much damage. Almost immediately, bodies were brought to the business, and a makeshift morgue was established. Don Norwood helped direct the receiving of those who had died. Marcie wrapped bodies in sheets and attended to family members who had arrived to identify their loved ones. In the midst of the chaos, the family realized they didn’t know the status of Rex.

21-year-old Rex Norwood had gotten a job, left his family home, and rented a room in downtown Guin. According to an article in The Montgomery Advertiser, Rex remembered talking to his landlady about how dark the sky had become. “She told me to put her dog in her car and to go to a nearby church,” Rex told the paper. He did as she said but didn’t make it to the church. “His landlady’s house was demolished, the church he had planned to go to for protection was gone and the car was 50 feet from where it had been. Somehow, Rex’s landlady survived. The dog was dead. Rex’s chest was punctured by flying sticks and the roof of the car had caved in and was pressing on his skull.”

An aerial view looking southeast at the path of the tornado through the heart of the town. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

After the tornado, Randy Tice, who operated the funeral home and was a close friend of the family, ran from his house and found Rex in his car. He then raced to the Norwood home to get Tommy, who had been laid up with the flu. Tommy rushed to Rex’s side, was able to extract him, and they went to the hospital in Winfield in one of the ambulances from the funeral home.

Rex went through four operations within an 18-day period, per an article in the Marion County Journal on May 2, 1974. “He has undergone surgery twice to his head, once for lung repair and once for hemorrhage of his esophagus.” Damage occurred to the left side of Rex’s brain, which controls speech. He was left with a condition called aphasia. In July of 1974, Rex began a therapy program at the Capstone at the University of Alabama to help him learn how to talk again.

The death and ruin next spread to homes in northeastern Guin. Robert Pennington shared his story in the book, “A Night To Remember.” He left home at 6 pm to work at the electric department office. Due to the storms that evening, there were numerous reports of problems in Lamar County. “Approximately at 9:00 o’clock our two-way radio went out. The manager and his wife were in the office at that time. I got in the pickup truck out front and told the manager I would go up on the hill to talk to the men out in Lamar County. I met the tornado head-on in the middle of Guin in my pickup truck.” Robert crouched in the seat of the truck while debris rained down on the windshield. He had minor cuts and bruises.

After the twister moved on, Robert got out of the truck and ran to where his home used to be. “There was no sign of our house, its foundation, framing or anything. My wife was gone.” The body of Juanita Pennington, 64, was found near Yankee Street, approximately a block from the residence.

This photo was taken looking to the southwest. At left is the home of George Baird. The homes of Bertha Baird and the Penningtons would have stood in the background near center. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

Bertha Baird, 77, was a neighbor of the Penningtons. Her son George Jr. lived down the street, and he relayed the details of his encounter with the tornado in the book, “A Night To Remember.” He had been at home with his wife. “I never heard in my life such screeching or screaming of wind.” The residence was severely damaged, and the couple “left the house through the missing front door.” George and his wife made their way up the debris-ridden street to the remains of his mother’s house. Tragically, she had not survived. “Her neighbor’s two cars had been blown either through my mother’s home or over it for they were on the opposite side of the street. One was setting straight up and the other one was bottom side up. As we went by it, gasoline was still gurgling out of the upturned car. We made our way around towards the front of my mother’s home and nothing was left except the concrete slab that had served as a porch. I called for her several times, but, of course, she didn’t answer me.”

Billy Joe Brown, his wife Virginia, and their 16-year-old daughter Janet were in their Yankee Street home that fateful night. Across the road lived Robert Baker and his family. Per an article in The Birmingham Post-Herald on April 5, 1974, after a tornado damaged his home in February 1956, Baker decided to build a 12-by-12-foot concrete shelter next to his house. On April 3, Robert and 13 others found safety in that bunker. One neighbor in the storm cellar was Woodrow Haney. He shared his story in the book, “A Night to Remember.”

“We heard it coming like two or three freight trains plus maybe a jet bomber among the mess that was screaming across the hill. When it carried my house away, I heard it lifting. It was just a short time, then it was over. Some of us grew panicky, but we calmed them down a little and then we pried the door open. My wife wanted to know if I could still see Mr. Brown’s house across the street, but there wasn’t any house there.”

A storm shelter belonging to the Bakers that saved 14 lives. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

Haney said he heard crying under a pile of 2x4s. It was Janet Brown. “I didn’t know what all I did have to move to get her. She told me that she was going to die and that she couldn’t live any longer. I got her out. A neighbor across the street had a car that wasn’t torn up too badly. We got the girl in the car, moved a bunch of poles and trees, first one thing then another, and started to go to the hospital with her, but she died on the way to the hospital. It was just about one of the most terrible times that I have ever had to go through.” The bodies of Billy Joe and Virginia were later discovered amid the debris near the storm cellar.

The tornado remained extremely violent as it cut through sections of woods and into some of the last neighborhoods in the far northeastern fringe of the community. These were concentrated along or just off of State Highway 44, which also snaked northeast. Another two dozen dwellings here were damaged or destroyed. One house was so thoroughly disintegrated that Fujita rated it F5. This belonged to the Ballard family.

James Ballard was at work at 3M when the tornado roared through Guin. He shared his story in the book, “A Night To Remember.” The employees at the company could hear the rumble of the twister. They stood at the front door and saw it go through Guin. James and his co-workers rushed out of the business to determine if their families were safe. “I had to walk and run about a quarter of a mile to get home. A boy hollered to me and said that my little boy came running to him with a light. I went to my little boy and asked him where his mama and the others were. He said, ‘Well, the last thing I remember they had jumped under the table.’ So I went hunting for them. Three hours later, I found my wife, her twin sister, Mary Lou Thompson, and her three-year-old boy, Trevor, dead. I found my little girl Suzette still alive and she was rushed to Tuscaloosa Hospital, but she died the following Monday.”

An aerial view looking southeast across 8th Avenue North and State Highway 44. The Ballard family home once stood near the corner of the top-right intersection. At far left is the Lindley family home, where an audio recording was made of the tornado. Photo from the April 18, 1974 Marion County Journal.

Just 160 yards north of the Ballards lived the Lindley family. They were at home that evening of April 3. Mrs. Hoyt Lindley shared in the book, “A Night To Remember,” that after receiving a phone call from her brother-in-law in Fulton, MS, about a tornado heading their way, they opened one of the windows to see if they could hear the winds howling. “My oldest son [Allen] who had the tape player in his hand wanted us to listen to some jokes he had taped off the radio. We told him we weren’t interested, that we were listening for a tornado.”

The sounds of the growling winds increased, and Hoyt Lindley screamed for his family to “Hit the basement.” Instead of running downstairs, Allen ran upstairs to his room and pushed the record button on his tape player. He left it on his dresser and placed the microphone in the window. He then joined the rest of his family and their neighbors in the basement. “When the storm was over, my son said, ‘I have the thing on tape.’”

In an April 24, 1974 article in The Birmingham News, staff writer Frank Sikora tells the story of the Guin youth who recorded the killer tornado. “The U.S. Weather Service heard of the tape and borrowed it from Allen to make reproductions. In a letter from the service, a spokesman said he was amazed at the horrifying sound. Allen’s recording picks the twister up for one minute during its approach on the town, then with unmistakable shrieking pinpoints the 18 seconds that it passes by the Lindley home, and continues for another 35 seconds as the storm rumbles northeastward.”

The City of Guin has a copy of the audio on cassette in its vault. Peter Gossett from the Hamilton Journal Record sent us an MP3 version of “the tape,” which we have embedded below.

The Lindley tape held by the City of Guin.

Verla Martin shared her tornado story in the book, “A Night To Remember.” She was at her trailer home with her husband, Preston. They were accompanied by daughter Gloria, her husband Robert D. Parron, and their two children, Robert Blaine and Susan Page. The family had been watching the ever-changing weather conditions all evening. “The clouds looked better so I decided I would take a bath, but the electricity went off. So I lit a kerosene lamp and a candle for myself. I decided to go ahead and take my bath. I went to the bathroom and closed the door.”

The storm began to press in, and Gloria, Robert, and the kids went to the shelter. Preston yelled to the bathroom door, “Honey, it’s coming.” Verla yelled back that she couldn’t come yet; she had to get her bathrobe on. “I will help you,” said Preston. Verla opened the door, and they heard the sound of timber cracking.

Verla stated in her story that she started praying. “I thought I had laid down on the floor, but as I heard the bricks begin to fall and the timber begin to break, I did not realize that I had been thrown about 60 feet out in the backyard.” Tragically, Preston was also hurled, and killed. The rest of the family made it out alive. Verla said in the book, “My daughter and her family who were with us during the tornado were saved, but still we felt a great loss. Still, we were just so thankful that my husband didn’t have to suffer, that his death was instant. I feel that the Lord knew what he was doing because he was in bad health. We were both retired. I am so thankful that I am here today to tell this.”

Per an April 3, 1994 article in The Birmingham News, George and Becky Todd and four of their five children hopped into their dark green, two-door Pontiac LeMans when they heard the tornado approach. Their goal was to reach the home of Brother Walden, their pastor because he had a basement. “In the back seat were Paul, 19; Doug, 14; Mark 12; and Jana, 7. Jana, afflicted with a severe case of cerebral palsy, was in Mark’s lap. Another son, Greg, 17, was at a neighbor’s house.” We pick up the story in Becky’s own words in the book, “A Night To Remember.”

“We got –oh, not too many feet away from the house when the tornado caught us. It was a black twisting thing that dipped down at us. I told them that was it. George told us to grab the seats, to hold on, and we did. I heard the trees crack. I remembered that we turned over one time, and I didn’t know how many times after that. Well, I know it wasn’t but a few seconds, but it seemed like a long time before we stopped.”

The Todd family car after being thrown by the tornado. Two lives were lost here. Photo provided by the City of Guin.

The four kids were all tossed from the vehicle while Becky and George were still in the car. Per The Birmingham News article, “George Todd thinks the car may have traveled 150 feet in the air before hitting a power pole. The top of his head cut from being thrown against the car’s ceiling light, and the left side of his face crushed from being thrown against the driver’s side door, he managed to get out of the car.” George and a neighbor were able to extricate Becky. She had several cuts on her face and neck.

Doug and Jana survived the ordeal. She had a cut on her leg that required stitches. Tragically, Mark and Paul were killed. In her story in the book “A Night To Remember,” Becky said that while at the hospital, a nurse came into the room and asked her how many children she had and their names. “I told her what she wanted to know, and that we didn’t have Paul and Mark anymore. She told Brother Walden to come in and talk to me and he did. He didn’t have to tell me, instead I asked him.

‘They are gone, aren’t they, Brother Walden?’ and he answered ‘Yes.’

Before he told me, I closed my eyes and I thought they were the prettiest angels I ever saw in my life – that’s how I knew Paul and Mark were.”

Two other deaths are attributed to the tornado. Troy Stanford, 74, a native of Lamar County, had been in ill health and was injured on April 3. He died in Lister Hill Hospital in Hamilton on September 15, 1974. Max Knight was reported seriously injured by the tornado and was sent to Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. Per Find a Grave, he passed away on February 5, 1976, at 68.

Yampertown through Northeast Marion County

After the massive funnel left downtown Guin in ruins, it continued to plow northeast. It struck New Hope Church of Christ off County Road 250 and continued toward the rural community of Yampertown. It is in this area that six people lost their lives.

The story of Howard Calvert, 20, his wife Virginia, 16, and their 2-year-old daughter Katina was shared by Howard’s mother, Lucille, in the book, “A Night To Remember.”

“At 2:30 the next morning after the tornado, my daughter-in-law’s father, James Green, and stepmother, Donna Green, came and told us that our son and his wife were killed in the tornado at Yampertown. We were all so shocked. It was such a horrible nightmare that we could hardly stand it. They told us to hold up because Katina Ladawn Calvert, the only child they had, was still alive at the Tuscaloosa Hospital.”

It was relayed to Lucille that there wasn’t anything left from her son’s house except the doorstep. A tree in their front yard, along with their car, was carried to the back of the house. Boots Hess Sr. had been living with the family, and he was also killed. Lucille said in her story that a 16-year-old boy who resided with them survived. “He said that they heard the noise coming and they all piled up in the corner of their house. My son had the baby and maybe all the others were down over her. He said the next thing he remembered was furniture going around and around in the air and then the house was blown across the street. The boy went around to look for the rest of the family but he could not find them.”

After an exhaustive search, Katina was found in a ditch while Howard, Virginia, and Boots were “on the bank a good long ways from where the baby was, all pretty close together.” Katina had a fractured pelvis and leg, as well as a serious head injury. An article from The Marion County Journal on July 25, 1974, gave an update on the little girl. She was improving and living with her grandparents, Lucille and Amos Calvert. At this point, she was still awaiting an operation to replace a portion of her skull with a silver plate.

An aerial view of damage in Yampertown. Photo from the book, “The Guin Tragedy.”

Three others were killed in their homes in the same area as the Calverts: Maggie Fisher, 89, Rosie Burleson, 83, and Raymond Edwards, 45.

The following nine miles of the path were very rural, and little is known about the tornado during this stage. Declassified CIA satellite imagery from April 18, 1974, shows a colossal tornado scar across Marion County that punched through the Brock community west of Brilliant. Theophilus Brock described the situation in that locality in the book, “A Night To Remember.”

“The tornado completely cleaned out our whole household, car, trucks, tractors and equipment. It tore our barn and corn crib down; scattered out corn considerably. It blew our pasture fences down; turned all of our stock out. Pigs, hogs, cattle, mules, horses and all things like that were out free.” He mentioned that four dwelling houses and ten vehicles had been destroyed in their community. Everyone had sheltered in the storm cellar and emerged uninjured.

Close by, several people were also impacted in the Sunny Home community. This included Arvil Garrard, their wife Sandra, and their sons, Eric and Nathan. Per the April 15, 1974, Northwest Alabamian, the family left their mobile home and sought refuge in a neighbor’s storm cellar. The trailer was obliterated. No information could be found about the five miles of track from Sunny Home to the Marion/Winston County line.

Winston County

The first inhabited area hit in Winston County was the rural community of Delmar, 4.5 miles SSE of Haleyville. The tornado roared over County Road 62 and State Highway 13, smashing over a dozen residences. Gracie Cagle shared her tornado story in the book, “A Night to Remember.” She wrote that her son, Ray, and his wife, Doris, had stopped by and had supper with her. Suddenly, hail began pounding outside. Against Gracie’s wishes, Ray and Doris returned to their mobile home just down the street. Minutes later, the ruthless funnel tore through their neighborhood, ripping the roof off of Gracie’s residence. She exited the house with two of her grandsons, who had been sleeping inside.

The trio walked toward the car, where they found Gracie’s oldest son unconscious. He had been sitting in the vehicle watching the storm approach and was hit by a wooden plank that had gone through the window. When he came to, they walked out to the road and noticed “everything was blown away.”

Gracie learned four of her family’s homes, including Ray’s, had been destroyed. He, Doris, and their five-year-old son, Waylon, had been blown from their trailer. Per an article in the April 8, 1974, Northwest Alabamian, all that was left of Ray’s mobile home was the iron framework found bent around a pole.

A search ensued to find everyone, and all family members were eventually accounted for. Tragically, Ray was killed. Doris was left in critical condition but ultimately survived, and per Gracie, Waylon “wasn’t hurt too badly.” The extent of the injuries to the rest of the Cagles is not known.

The twister remained unrelenting as it sped beyond Delmar. A canister of high-resolution vertical aerial film uncovered at the Lawrence County Archives was instrumental in understanding the path throughout Winston County. At times, all forest in the direct path was completely razed into striking convergent patterns. The width of the tornado was consistently near ½ mile (880 yards). Along County Road 28, several chicken houses were scraped from their plots, and a home was unroofed.

Post-tornado aerial imagery provided by the Lawrence County Archives that was overlayed into Google Earth, showing the path from Delmar to Ashridge. The background consists of April 28, 1974 Landsat 1 satellite imagery that was sourced through the U.S. Geological Survey.

Five miles northeast of Delmar was the even more dispersed, unincorporated locality called Macedonia. While only about a half-dozen dwellings along County Roads 32 and 23 were beyond repair, this included three houses swept from their foundations.

Bessie Berry of the “Berry” neighborhood near Macedonia told her family’s story in the book, “A Night to Remember.” Bessie had been home with her husband, Parnell, and their daughters, Tina and Gina, going through their nightly chores and routines. With them were family members Ozie, Excell and his wife, and Bessie’s mother-in-law, Idella.

As that night’s severe weather worsened, two of their neighbors, Larry Berry and his wife Gaynelle, showed up at their house. When some of them heard what sounded like a tornado approaching the home, Ozie suggested that everyone lay down in a corner of the room they were in. Bessie was terrified, and then the lights went out. All ten people got to the basement, and debris began to fall on the home.

The house was coming apart. Bessie was pinned under a wall of cinderblocks and called to her husband, Parnell. But the violent winds drowned out their voices. She thought that everyone else was dead. In time, the tornado moved on, and everyone began searching for their loved ones amongst the rubble. A severely injured Bessie was dug out from under the debris. Parnell eventually came over and broke the news that his mother, Idella Berry, had been found dead. She was 71 years old.

What was left of the Berry home. Photo from the April 18, 1974 Northwest Alabamian.

When an ambulance eventually arrived, Gina and Gaynelle joined Bessie there. Gina suffered a crushed pelvis, and Gaynelle had a broken arm. The remaining six people in the family also lived. Bessie credited the basement for their survival. “Wouldn’t any of us be alive if we hadn’t been down there? There were ten of us there and only one got killed.”

Rachel Tidwell of Macedonia told her story to the April 8, 1974 edition of The Northwest Alabamian. Rachel and her husband Marvin’s brick home was believed to be safe during the evening’s storms. That night, it hosted six family members, including her son Jimmy Henderson, his wife Maxine, and their daughter Tracy, who sought refuge from their less sturdy frame house. Rachel’s bedridden mother, Lizzie Guined, who happened to be celebrating her 78th birthday, also resided with them.

Despite considering the safety of the basement, the family remained upstairs to avoid causing Mrs. Guined pain. As the family wound down for the night, birthday calls for Lizzie from distant sons failed to reach her in time as she had gone to sleep.

By 9 pm, the family had retired to bed. As the wind intensified, Rachel voiced her concerns to Marvin. Their pondering was suddenly interrupted when the tornado hit, catapulting Rachel into a pasture away from her house. Amidst the chaos, she could hear Tracy’s cries for help.

Barely able to move, Rachel made her way to the road, praying for the strength to save her family. Carl Hood, a passing driver, assisted her and Tracy to the hospital in Haleyville. It was there where Rachel learned that her son Jimmy, 26, husband Marvin, 66, and mother Lizzie, 78, had not survived. Maxine was left in critical condition and transferred to the University Hospital in Birmingham. She was joined by little Tracy, who was beginning to recover from her injuries there too.

The Tidwell’s home was obliterated, leaving only the basement, ironically with canned goods intact. The planned Easter reunion for Mrs. Guined’s children, their first in 26 years, turned into a sad gathering for funerals.

An oblique, 3D perspective of the tornado path created by overlaying vertical aerial imagery from the Lawrence County Archives onto Google Earth terrain. This view is looking southeast, with the tornado center following the pink line from right to left. The remnants of the Tidwell house are visible at top left.

With only her daughter Carolyn, son-in-law, Maxine, Tracy, and extended family left, Rachel faced the daunting task of rebuilding her life without three of her closest family members. However, her resolve to recover and care for her granddaughter offered hope and resiliance.

The twister passed 1.2 miles NW of Ashridge, striking at least one property in the vicinity of State Highway 195. The Baldy family shared their tornado story in the book “A Night to Remember.” James Baldy, his wife Patricia, and their daughters, Sandra, aged 12, and Jamie, aged 6, were beginning a late dinner after a long work day. The weather had been stormy that evening when the lights flickered out. As James searched for a lamp amidst the darkness, the roar of an approaching tornado filled the air.

With no time to spare, he directed his family to their car, seeking escape from their trailer. Even so, the twister quickly caught up to them on Alabama Highway 195 and lifted the vehicle from the road. James experienced fleeting moments of consciousness, only to find himself ejected and lying in a pasture. The remaining Baldys were relatively spared, still inside the vehicle when it came to a rest, with Jamie crying in the front seat. They managed to crawl out through a shattered window. Sandra ran into the field and found an injured James.

Bobby Clemmons and another passerby were flagged down and readily assisted the battered family. Bobby hoisted James into his pickup truck, with Patricia, Sandra, and Jamie joining. Bobby sped them to a hospital in nearby Haleyville. James suffered a broken leg and ribs, a punctured lung, and various cuts and bruises, while the rest of the family’s injuries were minor.

The Baldys later learned that the vortex annihilated their nearby mobile home, vehicles, and possessions. In the aftermath, they took refuge in James’ parents’ house while rebuilding their lives and home, this time with a storm shelter. The Baldy family credits their miraculous survival to God, grateful that all four lived to tell their tale.

The Baldy car left battered in a field by the tornado. In the background at top left are some of the remains of their trailer. Photo from the April 8, 1974 Northwest Alabamian.

The twister spent the last six miles in Winston County shredding into Bankhead National Forest, with countless trees downed and shattered. No other dwellings were affected, but the Turkey Foot Ranger Station.

Lawrence County

The tornado moved into southern Lawrence County. It remained in the unpopulated Bankhead National Forest for another ten miles, cutting an arc of deforestation so clear it was apparent even in early satellite images. An estimated 20 million board feet of timber were downed.

The tornado scar through Bankhead National Forest. April 28, 1974 Landsat 1 satellite imagery sourced through the U.S. Geological Survey.

The twister emerged out of the forest and back into rural farmland 1.8 miles south of Aldridge Grove. Still, few structures were affected until crossing County Roads 203, 207, and 208 in the community of Oakville north of Speake. It is here that the final two fatalities occurred.

The two killed were Ella Mae Poke and 12-year-old Marilyn Brackins. Per The Moulton Advertiser in their April 1, 2004 edition, young Marilyn lived with her parents, Travis and Odessa, and two sisters, Carolyn and Rhonda, in a mobile home in Oakville. Their trailer was one of three in the area, belonging to family members. “Just as I laid down, I felt something move and I landed on the floor,” Travis told the paper. “The next thing I knew, I was out in the yard.” Odessa added, “It sounded just like a train coming, and the wind was so heavy. The trailer busted open and I was just tumbling out in a quilt.”

There was a total of 12 people who lived in the three mobile homes, and Travis searched until he found everyone. When he discovered Marilyn, she was still alive, but “he knew in his heart that his oldest daughter was gone.” After arriving at the hospital, she was pronounced dead. Carolyn had a broken pelvis, and the rest of the family had numerous cuts.

Beyond Oakville, the tornado traveled approximately another three miles, destroying a couple of isolated estates before making its way into Morgan County.

Morgan County

The twister continued through rural northern Alabama, crossing into Morgan County 3.8 miles NNW of Danville. It swept west and north of Neel in the Punkin Center area, damaging or destroying at least 23 homes and businesses scattered across the countryside. The Gospel Tabernacle Church was turned to rubble, and the Long’s Carpet store caved in.

Along Iron Man Road lived the Oden family. Virginia Sue Oden told her story in the book, “A Night to Remember.” About an hour before the tornado, Virginia and her husband, Herman, were at home watching the television with their son, Stevie, and Virginia’s mother. The TV was turned off after they heard that a twister was heading towards their area. However, they decided to go to bed for the evening, figuring it “would blow on around” them, according to Virginia.

Nearly asleep, strong wind and rain jolted Virginia. As Herman was retrieving a flashlight so they could see, the twister began tearing the house apart. Virginia desperately attempted to get her son Stevie from his room, but the last thing she remembered was seeing his bed turning over.

The Odens found themselves in the yard. Herman attempted to drive the family to a hospital, but the roads were covered in downed power lines. Virginia ended up driving under the power lines while Herman lifted them.

The remains of the Oden home. Photo from the April 11, 1974 Hartselle Enquirer.

At the hospital, Virginia described her mother as having the worst injuries, with multiple cuts that required stitches. However, all four of them survived the ordeal. Over the years following the tornado, Virginia focused on paying more attention to “bad-looking clouds in the sky,” and seeking shelter rather than going to bed ahead of a storm.

Four miles northeast of Neel, the Basham community was directly hit. Damage was concentrated most on Danville Road, with over a dozen residences wrecked. Basham Chapel Methodist Church fell to pieces. A local favorite pitstop known as Baker’s Store was also lost. The April 11, 1974, Hartselle Enquirer showed the store’s owner, Murray Baker, surveying what was left of his business. Across the street, a florist shop also suffered heavy losses.

Murray Baker surveying what was left of his store at Basham. Photo from the April 11, 1974 Hartselle Enquirer.

Northeast of Basham, a few homes were damaged or destroyed along Bird Springs, Day, and Austinville-Flint Roads. Soon after, the vortex raced across Highway 31, five miles south of Decatur. The Vieux Carre Apartments, a complex of two-story structures, was struck. Portions of upper-story roofs and walls were wrenched away from several of their southern buildings. All residents there survived the ordeal, including the Vieux Carre’s managers, their children, and multiple neighbors, who sought shelter in a hall closet and bathroom.

An aerial view looking NNW at the battered Vieux Carre Apartments. Photo from the April 4, 1974 Decatur Daily.

As the tornado crossed Alabama Highway 67 into Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, multiple metal transmission towers were crumpled to the ground.

High-resolution aerial imagery uncovered at the Lawrence County Archives does not extend beyond the wildlife refuge, limiting our knowledge of the final two miles of track. The Decatur Daily recounted that one house was destroyed and nine others damaged at the Rolling Hills neighborhood, along with a substantial amount of timber. Just after, the vortex finally dissipated near the Interstate 65 crossing of the Tennessee River. This end was at 10:57 pm CDT, approximately 5.2 miles southeast of Decatur.

In Loving Memory

The names of those in Marion County who died inscribed at the Guin tornado memorial. Photo taken by Jennifer Narramore.

In Guin

James Lionnel “Jimmy” Herron, 49

Joseph Emmitt Shirey, 80

Louise Jesma Gilmore Shirey, 71

Winnie Ellen Crews Gilmore, 50

Eva Florence Westbrooks Hulsey, 88

Juanita Hankins Pennington, 64

Bertha Mae Caudle Baird, 77

Billy Joe Brown, 43

Virginia Louise Brown, 43

Janet Lynn Brown, 16

Jimmie Sue Harp Ballard, 34

Jennifer Suzette Ballard, 14

Mary Lou Harp Thompson, 34

Trevor Kyle Thompson, 3

Herbert Preston Martin, 65

Mark Ronald Todd, 12

William Paul Todd, 19

Troy Vester Stanford, 74

Robert Max Knight, 68

In Yampertown

Howard Monroe Calvert, 20

Virginia Dale Green Calvert, 16

Orville James “Boots” Hess, Sr., 64

Maggie Lee Miller Fisher, 88

Rosie Bell Miller Burleson, 83

Raymond Rayford Edwards, 45

In Delmar

Oda Ray Cagle, 33

In Macedonia

Idella Jack Berry, 71

James Earl Henderson, 26

James Marvin Tidwell, 66

Martha Elizabeth “Lizzie” Herald Guined, 78

In Oakville

Marilyn Jeanette Brackin, 12

Ella Mae Poke

Tornado Talk Research Trip

In August of 2023, the Tornado Talk Team of Jen Narramore, Zach Reichle, and Nelson Tucker traveled for a week throughout portions of Alabama. We visited numerous libraries, history centers, archives, and city centers, conducting interviews, and gathering photos and other materials for the writing of the detailed series on the Guin tornado and others from the April 3-4, 1974 Super Outbreak. Along the way we met some amazing people that are passionate about preserving tornado history for their community and were more than willing to share with us so much invaluable information. The following highlights those that provided information for the Guin story.

We traveled to the Mary Wallace Cobb Public Library in Vernon and worked with Kitty Pennington to examine their materials, including archived versions of the Lamar Democrat newspaper. From there, we traveled 15 miles to the Sulligent Public Library to view their history folder of old newspaper clips.

Before our visit, Jen had a few discussions with Rebeca Markhum at the Guin City Hall. She had already emailed numerous photos but said she would gather what they had in the vault for the visit. To say we were overwhelmed when we walked into City Hall is an understatement. Mounds of materials filled one of the rooms. It was not only from the vault but also from the local library. Four hours later, we reviewed and captured everything we could and interviewed Mayor Phil Segraves and former city clerk, Norma Nelson. We visited Guin Memorial Park and then finished our time in this wonderfully quaint town with dinner with the Mayor behind a backdrop of active storms.

Material laid out inside Guin City Hall for the Tornado Talk team to document. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
A supercell thunderstorm photographed by Nelson Tucker from inside the Guin tornado path near Yampertown, where we were about to eat dinner with the mayor.

Our travels took us to the Winston County archives. While Zach and Nelson began taking photos of materials set out, Jen sat down and interviewed Bessie Berry, one of the survivors of this tornado. We shared a brief version of her story in this overview. Her home in rural Winston County was destroyed, and she lost her mother-in-law, Idella Berry. The interview was powerful, and Bessie was emotional at times. It doesn’t matter when these events happen; the pain left behind can last a lifetime. Below is a small clip from our interview with Bessie.

We visited Peter Gossett at the Hamilton Journal Record who provided newspaper archives from 1974 and the audio recorded by Allen Lindley of the Guin tornado. One of the more surprising visits occurred in Moulton at the Lawrence County Archives. We had slated a couple of hours to spend there to do our research but ended up staying extra hours and rescheduling two other stops. Wendy Hazle, the director, pulled out a few things from their vault, including film canisters with aerial reels of some of the tornado paths. Those invaluable artifacts will be on display throughout several summaries. Our time there also included interviews with several residents who had gone through the tornado.

One of the most invaluable finds during our trip was at the Lawrence County Archives. These were two canisters containing vertical aerial reels of several tornado tracks from the 1974 Super Outbreak. With little time and no specialized equipment, Nelson improvised this setup with the aid of Wendy Hazle to document the long-forgotten imagery. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.

While chasing tornado history, we visited the NWS Birmingham and spoke extensively with Chris Darden. We also met with Katie Magee at the NWS Huntsville. James Spann of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham and WeatherBrains shared stories and advice with us. Bill Murray, weather historian and panelist on WeatherBrains, gathered some of his books and other materials to have a geek-out session over breakfast.

During our time in Alabama, we had the honor of meeting Debbie Broome, the daughter of J.B. Elliott. He spent 32 years as a forecaster with the NWS Birmingham and was on the front lines during the 1974 Super Outbreak. She had some photo slides that belonged to her father to share with us.

This overview and the detailed chapters to come are a labor of love, not only from the Tornado Talk team but from every individual mentioned above. It is our goal to tell the most detailed narrative we can of the Guin, AL F5 tornado. We honor the memory of those that were lost that day and cherish the lives of those who survived and lived through the heartbreak of such a tragedy. We dedicate this work to the people of Guin, AL.

Rotating thunderstorms looming over Guin Memorial Park in August 2023. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.

Discrepancies and Sources

Coming soon!

**UNLESS AVAILABLE/SOURCED FROM A GOVERNMENT WEBSITE OR GIVEN OUR EXPLICIT PERMISSION, NO IMAGES OR OTHER MEDIA FROM THIS SUMMARY ARE TO BE REDISTRIBUTED IN ANY WAY. SOME OF THIS MATERIAL WE HAVE OBTAINED UNDER VERY SPECIFIC PERMISSIONS TO FEATURE. WE WILL TAKE ACTION IF ANY REPOSTINGS OR REDISTRIBUTIONS ARE FOUND OF THE FOLLOWING SUMMARY CONTENT.**

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Note:  There are some images/videos in our summaries that were licensed to us to be used only on this website. If you would like to use an image/video in your project or blog, please contact us and we will grant permission if possible.

Newspaper clips are embedded via newspapers.com. Please see their terms and conditions.

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