Remembering May 27, 1973

| May 26, 2008 @ 9:14 pm | 24 Replies

May 27, 1973 was a Sunday. My family lived in the Roebuck section of northeastern Birmingham. I was eleven years old at the time. I loved sleeping with the window open, and awoke to a warm and humid morning, muck like today. But something was noticeably different. It was very windy with a southwest breeze blowing at some 10-20 mph. My first thought was, “Tornado weather.” The mere thought gave me a feeling of intense dread and apprehension.

You see, I spent the first twelve years of my life petrified of the weather. Literally frightened out of my mind by storms. So, I diligently listened to WVOK throughout the day, hoping to hear any weather information. By late morning, tornado watches were issued. Storms began firing across Northwest Alabama before noon. The severe storms were reported bear Tuscaloosa. Tornado warnings were issued for Jefferson County when these storms produced a tornado at Rock Mountain Lake, near Bessemer. This was getting too close for comfort. I tracked the storms across the Birmingham metro area and breathed a sigh of relief when no more damage was reported.

Then action began to our north. A tornado was reported near Hulaco in Cullman County. This did not concern me, as it was north of Birmingham and moving away from us. WVOK was my constant friend, feeding me the time weather information I sorely craved. Another wave of thunderstorms moved through at mid-afternoon. These storms were heavy, but once again, we had dodged a bullet in the Birmingham area.

Soon after those storms passed, we went out to play baseball, thinking that the heavy stuff was over. I did not see a well written severe weather statement from the National Weather Service in Birmingham. It warned that the weather was not yet over.

We had been playing baseball for over an hour, and were oblivious to the changing sky. After 6:30, my mother appeared at the back door and called us inside. She spoke in a tone that let us know she meant business, so although we were disappointed that our backyard baseball game had been broken up prematurely, we headed inside. When I got to the screen door, she told me to look to the north, knowing I would instantly recognize what she was seeing.

A tornado! And a big one! You could only see the top of the funnel above the trees just one mile away. It had just crossed Highway 79 and was demolishing the mobile home park there. My mouth fell open in amazement. We were in textbook position to see it. Instinctively, she ushered us in just as the circulation of the storm hit with a fury. We ran to the middle hallway and closed off all the doors and wind and heavy rain battered our house. The power flickered and then went out.

After it passed, we listened to a battery powered AM radio and learned of the devastation in the Tarrant and Center Point areas. The next day, we drove out to see the destruction in Center Point where Mr. Thomas Simpson died. It was very sobering.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And check out John Brasher’s excellent website about the Bibb County storm at James also has an excellent post on our old blog.


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Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site’s official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site’s severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

Comments (24)

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  1. Suzie in Argo says:

    I remember that day, I remember it being windy all day long. We lived in Center Point at the time. We had gone to Pinson to feed our horses, we kept them at a stable there. As we were leaving the weather was getting bad, we saw not one but 2 funnel clouds in the sky. We had to go home, there was no safe place where we were. By the time we got to Center Point it had hit, we were at an intersection when it went through, we could not see anything but swirling wind and debris. We had a hard time getting home as power lines were down everywhere. Our house made it through but Center Point was demolished. It was a horrible day and I was frightened all night. I was terrified of storms up til that day, for some reason after that the weather didn’t scare me as bad. By the way, our horses were fine.

  2. BuffaloRock says:

    I wasn’t here yet, but I’ve heard stories about this from family members who stood on our front porch and watched it hit the Shasta bottling plant on Hwy 79.

    We have the front page of the Birmingham Post Herald for May 28 (a Monday). Might try to scan it and give a link to it.

  3. James (Tuscaloosa) says:

    Amazing how we came through & coped w/out the infromation and technology available today. I probably spent 5-6 hours over the holiday on the laptop following the weather out West.

  4. ~Eddie~ says:

    I was 10 soon to be 11 in June at this time and I was living in Montgomery. I don’t ever remember hearing about this one before now but I know right where it hit as I have been through this area hundreds of times since I have been living here in Jefferson County!

  5. Talie says:

    My father has told me about the horrible tornado in Center Point on many occasions, he was right in the middle of it. The blocks of houses behind and in front of his location were completely destroyed but the house he was in only suffered minor damage. I thank God that His hand of protection was on my Father that day.

  6. Butch says:

    That day my cousin and I were over in Center Point most of the day walking all over and cramming into phone booths trying to get out of the various rain storms that passed over. That evening we ended at my Moms for a short while and I recall my sister talking about how she and some friends over in Roebuck (other side of the bowling alley) had thought they saw funnel clouds dropping down and then going back up into the clouds but none had came even close to touching the ground. She was thinking that the storms were over but the weather reports said different. Back then everyone believed you were supposed to open the windows during a tornado or the house would explode from the pressure. My cousin and I had to get back home so I told my sister before leaving that if a tornado hit to open the windows, she said I was nuts , she wasn’t going to let all the rain in (she was correct) but I insisted it was that or end up on the other side of Polly Reed road. A little over an hour later the tornado hit. My Mom was in a car down on Center Point Parkway with my Aunt and Uncle on their way to see the “Last Seven Days” when they said it got pitch black the wind came up and everything imaginable was flying by so my uncle pulled in beside the Wynn Dixie Supermarket to get out of the wind field and ride it out. My sister and her date were not so lucky, they were in the house which was located on top of the hill the tornado went up (20 st and 4th pl) it barely missed the church at the bottom of the hill but it took off the top floor of some yet to be finished apartments on the way up. It blew a bird through the dining room window and bits of news papers from Brent/Centerville were plastered on the far wall. Other than that it had only knocked the carport down onto the car. It wasn’t so lucky for a man just across the way. The place had once been a lot like it looks today , shade trees , green pretty. After the tornado the houses looked like they had been blasted by a giant shotgun…they were full of holes and the trees , what were left of them, were stripped bare and broken. Power lines were down everywhere and cars were laying all up and down that part of Center point parkway. It looked like a demolition derby had happened. The tornado jumped Bonanza steak house and hit the corner of Marks Fitzgerald furniture. Seems like it wiped out the Mustang Drive Ins screen. All back in the Polly Reed rd/Gene Reed rd. area it was a mess. Trees were down over behind Richard Kelly Chevrolet on Five Mile rd and Woodslee st. There was a path from Lawson rd over across Carson Rd all the way through where Arthur School now stands.It was after the tornado cleared that land that they started building there. I think this was the same twister that hit the corner of the Shasta building and over turned the Roadway truck lines truck, then crossed Hwy 79 and demolished the trailer park. For a long time after that there was debris still stuck up in the trees. I do not think it was ever determined how many tornados hit the state or passed over the area that night but at the time there were estimates of as high as seventeen.

  7. Russ says:

    I had been at a friends house and my mom called my sister and I home. We were 10 and 8 respectively. We got home and no sooner had we been home than the power went out. My father went back to his and my mom’s room to call the power company. He looked out the window as he was on the phone and saw a neighbor walk out of his house into his front yard and then turn and RUN back into the house. Daddy looked a little further down the road and saw a HUGE black cloud moving right down the street. He yelled for my mom to get me and my sister to the basement and as soon as he got down there all heck broke loose. My ears stopped up, and I just remember looking out one of the windows (from a distance)and seeing limbs and leaves blowing and the air was thick and a yellowy-green. I was scared to death. It was over in just a few minutes and we looked out and there were trees that had fallen all around our house. They made a perfect square. One fell across our drive and missed our 1971 Ford Maverick by 4 feet. My parents were so grateful. The next day was one of the most beautiful days you have ever seen. The bluest sky ever. But we did not have any power for about 8 days. I lived in Mara Vista, which is the hill behind the First Baptist Church, right off of 20th Ave. NE on 3rd Place NE. We lived on the low side of the neighborhood and did not get nearly as much damage as the high side (top of the hill). All of the houses on one street were nearly destroyed. We spent days cleaning up the mess. We lost 12 pine trees in our yard due to the storm. Several just had to be cut down because they were bent over so bad by the winds. I’ve been a weather watcher ever since. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

  8. Russ says:

    Oh, and one more thing. The man who died, Mr. Simpson, did so by throwing himself over his children as their stairway collapsed. He was real hero.

  9. I remember this tornado all to well. We lived on Stonewood drive at the time, and I was 7. We had played ball most of the morning, in between the rain, and went in to fine weather warnings popping on the TV. while we were watching TV – another warning signal had just started to come over – and the power went out. We were not familiar with tornados yet and thought we had plenty of time. We were upstairs going to the bathroom when a window in the back of the house blew out. At that point Dad yelled for everyone to get downstairs. We went to the garage/basement and got under the table there. Across the basement we had a small window in the back of the house. We watched as a tree landed across and in front of that window. The blown out window upstairs and the tree that fell in front of the basement window proved very fortunate as the tornado passed through our backyard destroying more than 50 trees as it tore a path of destruction up and through our neighborhood. Even without the pictures that I still have of that – it is something I will never forget.

  10. April Curry says:

    Im looking for the Kids that were saved by their Dad, Thomas Simpson. I was friends with Bob and Samantha Simpson who had moved across the street from me in 1974. I remember Bob telling me about the tornado that killed their dad and it was because of that, that as a child I grew up terrified jsut to see trees moving outside on a day that would be glummy afraid of a tornado coming. When you are but 8 years old and hear of such a tragic event from a 10 year old as Bob was 2 years older then I and myself and Samantha, His sister were the same age. I lost touch with them when we were teenagers. I would love to know if anyone can help me locate them. Nonetheless, that tornado is etched in my memory simply from hearing the story out of the mouth of babes, so to speak. From the Children that were saved by their heroic father that gave his own life for his children. They were under a work bench in the basement while their mom had ran up the stairs, if I remember correctly to get a flash light and somehow survived and came out with no injuries, only to find her husband dead yet her kids alive. Those kids were truly affected by that and Im sure still are to this day.

  11. Martha says:

    I remember the Center Point tornado well. I was nine and it destroyed our neighborhood. We lived on 20th Court N.E. Almost every house in our neighborhood was destroyed. I will never forget the smell. The scariest thing to date I have ever lived through.

  12. Martha says:

    April – I know Bob Simpson. My husband went to H.S. with him. I also lived through that very tornado. What devistation. I will never forget that day. Mr. Simpson was an amazing hero that day.

  13. Phillip Pack says:

    I was 7 at the time and was living in a house in Rock Mountain Lake that took a direct hit from the tornado. It was the most frightening event in my life. I have a fear of storms to this day. My Dad saw the tornado coming across the lake and yelled for us to get downstairs. We ran to the basement and hid in a little storage space that was under the front stoop. As the tornado hit the house about 30 seconds later, the first thing it did was tear our back deck off our house and throw it into a vacant lot across the street. There was a wall of picture windows on the back of the house on the living room where my parents had been sitting before the storm hit. After it was over, we went upstairs to find the windows shattered and glass embedded in the paneling all behind where they had been sitting. They would have been shredded glass shrapnel if Dad hadn’t seen it coming. While we were downstairs, the walls of the house shook like jello and the fan on the AC unit screamed in protest as the suction from the vortex pulled it rapidly in the wrong direction. To this day I am both fascinated and terrified of tornados.

  14. Bubba says:

    Feel for you folks that went through this. We had a F5 when I was a kid in Wichita Falls TX. Very scary as a kid to see the damage thes things do. We lost 7 people to that damned tornado.

  15. Lindsay says:

    I lived on 21st ave NE, the street behind 20th court NE that Martha said she lived on. I had just turned 4 years old, yet I have vivid memories of that tornado. We were coming back from the Bham library, and I remember the fireman outside the fire dept on Roebuck parkway looking west, and my parents getting worried because the skies were getting so dark.
    I remember us coming over the hill on 21st ave, just next to the big yellow and brown water tower, and the sky turned green. As we pulled into our garage, the tornado was going behind our house. I remember looking out the back of the car, and seeing debris flying through the air, specifically a couple of garbage cans that were flying horizontal to the ground about 10 feet off the ground, and also a bbq grill that flew by.
    The tornado must not have been all the way on the ground, because it only fully destroyed one house on 2Oth court. It looked like it picked the house up, ripped it off the foundation, and tossed it in it’s backyard. Lot’s of damage to surrounding houses though, that were hundreds of yards from the path, including my house. There were cracks running up the length of the corner of our house, closest to the tornado, where it looked like the tornado was trying to pull that corner of our house towards it. A house down the street from me, where 21st curves into 5th place, and was parallel and about 100 or so yards from the destroyed house, looked like a dart board with 2 by fours all stuck in it.
    I also remember afterwards, all the emergency personnel walking around, and seems the next day or so, there was a Red Cross truck on 20th court, and we got free hot dogs.
    I also remember the story about the man dying in Bridlewood, and that he died covering up his children while trying to protect them.

  16. Lynn says:

    I lived on Glenwood St. with my husband and my 5 year old son. The house that Tommy Simpson was killed was over one street and about two blocks up. I called him Tommy because that was the name I knew him by. He was about a year older than me but we went to grammar school and high school together. He was one of the nicest people that you could ever hope to meet. My husband was a volunteer for an ambulance service that was based across the street from us. He was on the ambulance that day and they had been called somewhere near Bessemer, AL. but when he actually saw the tornado he was standing in front of the hospital downtown. He saw the tornado going towards Tarrant City and then saw it split and knew without a doubt that it was coming mine and my son’s way. I will never forget it as long as I live the eerie color of greenish-yellow that I saw when I looked out my kitchen window and knew that a tornado was inevitable. We survived with just a few of our pine trees being topped and the power box being torn off of our house, but I have never been that scared before or since. The mass that swept our street completely uprooted a huge 100 and something year old oak tree and toppled it into the peoples house across the street also damaging the house next to that one. Then it turned around and went back across the street doing very little damage. It then came back across across the street and bent the TV antennae on our next door neighbors house. Luckily they were on vacation. It wreaked so much havoc in the small town of Center Point that people will never forget. I know that I wont. GOD BLESS Tommy Simpson and his children where ever they are. He was a good man and a good father.

  17. Cheri Hicks Pound says:

    I was 9 years old when the tornado hit Center Point. I lived on 6th st across the street from Tommy Simpson, who was killed protecting his children. I will never forget this horific storm…my family and I were in church when it hit but I remember seeing the devestation trying to get home after church. The sights sounds and smells will be with me forever…the national guard outside of our house for days…the sounds of chain saws and the smell of timber are forever etched in my mind. I would love to hear from Tommy Simpson’s children if anyone knows them or knows where they live now.

  18. Anita says:

    I will never forget this day or look at bad weather in the same way. I was nine years old and it was a typical Sunday. My GrandMother, who lived in East Lake had come over for Sunday dinner after church. It had started raining and the weather was bad so she decided to stay to wait out the rain. When the skies cleared she decided to set out for home. My Mother and Father and I decided to go down the hill to Peoples Gas Station to get my father a pack of cigarettes. We lived on the top of the hill behind First Baptist Church. We took off and left my older sister (age 11) and brother (age 15) at home because we were only going to be gone a few minutes. The tornado started moving through Center Point as my Mother and I were sitting in the car waiting on my Dad to finish his purchase, he was talking to the attendant about the weather. We watched the wall cloud move across Center Point Parkway the legs of the sign at Braswells Furniture started bending and my Mother and I were terrified that they were going to buckle and the sign would fall on us. My GrandMother who drove a ’63 Fiat Spyder drove right through the cloud, not knowing till later what had taken place. My father finally came out of the gas station and the damage was already done the hugh oak on the corner where Krystals was at was down and power lines were down, debris all over and my Dad started trying to find a clear path to get back up 20th to the home were his other two children were alone. We turned down 1st Street some power lines drug under the car which was a brand new Delta 88 (had not even made the first payment) but we finally made it up the hill. Our house suffered only a small amount of damage roof shingles missing, front window broken, trees down our neighbors had damage as well but not as much as some families.. But my brother and sister were fine. My brother had seen the clouds and grabbed my sister and they ran to the hall and stayed there to wait out the storm. The window he had been looking out was the one that shattered.. We rebuilt we were unhurt but it changed our lives forever.

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