Tornadoes Destroy Rock Creek
Spring in Alabama was pleasant with quiet breezes. On this day nobody had any idea of the disaster that would soon be upon them. Rock Creek situated in the hills about 25 kilometers from Birmingham. Rock Creek was a small community and everybody knew each other. The kids played together in the street.
Members of the Open Door Church were getting ready to meet for evening prayers and to practice music for their Easter service. A tall cross graced the front of the building. Situated on top of a high ridge, the church had a two storey façade of heavy glass windows. When the light was right, the windows reflected the skies and trees and all the beauty of nature.
At Charlie’s, a windowless brick cavern that smelled of cigarette smoke, the regulars were starting to arrive. In addition to alcohol, the amusement at Charlie’s included pool and video poker.
Rock Creek was among a line of small communities including Edgewater, Sylvan Springs, and Oak Grove. For the locals that had lived most of their lives in these communities, such a perfect day had to be watched with suspicion. Tornado’s was a constant threat.
Several kilometers away, Woody Odom was underground. He was the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County and had spent the morning monitoring the news from the National Weather Service. It had reported that there was a possibility of strong thunderstorms, including tornadoes, for the northern half of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Tornadoes hit many parts of the world and in all 50 American states. They are as common to the region as earthquakes are to California.
Why Do Tornadoes Form?
- When warm, moist air such as that flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico, collides with cool, dry air surging in from the north and west.
- Such unsettled conditions often prevail around Alabama in the early spring.
- In 1932, ten or 20 tornadoes killed more than 270 people the week before Easter.
- In 1974, close to 80 people died from tornadoes just before Easter.
- In 1977, just before Easter more than 20 were killed.
- Since 1950, 40,000 tornadoes have killed nearly 4 500 people in America.
- Within a tornado’s funnel winds can reach 480 kilometers per hour.
- One tornado lifted up a 70 ton railway carriage, and dropped it 30 meters further.
- Tornadoes come raging down out of the clouds, rumbling and snapping, attacking and sucking up everything in their path. Then they can quickly vanish, only to be replaced by savage new twisters.
The Emergency Operations Center Was Very Organised
On this lovely day in 1998, the air got heavier, and the sky later began to take on a slightly greenish tint. Most people were not concerned as they felt that conditions were normal for the time of year. However, some residents were worried. Woody Odom was observing reports of the tornadoes in a concrete bunker situated beneath the City Hall’s parking garage. Soon all the people concerned with a disaster call would join him. Located next to the police communications center, the EOC Emergency Operations Center contains dozens of telephones, televisions, computer monitors, and short wave radios. Here was the switch that activated the tornado warning sirens that were positioned throughout the county. It had direct links to the county’s 59 fire and 28 police departments as well as state and federal disaster offices. He kept track of the various storm tracking monitors, and paid special attention to the two way radio reports coming in.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center issued its first tornado watch for Jefferson County just after 1.00pm. Bad weather was moving swiftly towards Birmingham, spawning thunderstorms and torrents of large size hail. Visual observation was of the utmost importance. There were close to seventy local amateur radio operators, who reported their weather observations. Reports were also received from hundreds of municipal workers, including firefighters, police rescue crews. The storm struck at 7.30pm, one hundred and thirty kilometers away in Pickens County. During the next half an hour the twister which was two hundred and fifty meters wide, destroyed everything in its path for 27 terrible kilometers before it appeared to draw back into the dark sky.
Minutes later, the massive tornado began descending upon a quiet little town in the hills just outside Birmingham. The tornado sirens were blaring throughout the county and the communication systems were activated. Winds were churning at well over 400 kilometers per hour. Terrified people ran into basements and any place that would provide protection.
Michael and Diane
Michael Calma was working in the garden, preparing for their annual neighborhood pool party. When he heard a terrifying noise, he called his wife Diane. When she saw the heavy darkness and the roar coming closer she ran to get her two children. They ran to the basement and Michael slammed the basement doors. Diane clapped her hands over her children’s ears. A terrifying sucking pressure began pulling at them and she held her children close. Once the twister had passed leaving destruction in its path, The Calma’s were starting to come to their senses. They had been fortunate and were protected by a slab of concrete that had been the floor of their porch. Their house was gone except for the concrete slab over the heads.
David And Deborah
David Helms phoned his wife Deborah to warn her about the tornado threat. He told her to take shelter in the basement and sit against the wall. Deborah’s father lived next door but was in town for the evening. David had rushed from his work to be with his family and found his house completely destroyed. He found his wife and two sons after digging through the rubble. They had all been crushed to death when a wall fell on them.
Matthew and Christie
Matthew was watching television when a report came on stating that a twister was only 16 kilometers away and heading their way. Matthew and Christie quickly gathered the children, Nathan, his brother, John Michael, almost three, and their year old sister, Margaret, into the back center bedroom. The timber house had no basement. The muscles in Christie arms and legs seemed about to burst. Fighting against the terrifying sucking she struggled just to keep her limbs from being torn away while holding onto her little daughter Margaret while her husband held onto the two boys. The lights went out and a mind shattering, explosive cracking ripped through the house as beams and floors rose into the air. The roof was gone and the house was coming apart. The suction grabbed Christie’s daughter from her arms, and both were drawn into the black sky.
Christie, Matthew and their children were pulled from the tangled vines and scrub on the hillside. Their house used to be situated below the hill. One of Christie’s lungs had collapsed, her ribs were smashed and one leg was broken. Her husband’s back was broken, and he will never walk again. The two small children were doing well by some miracle neither had any life threatening injuries. However, with her medical training, Christie knew that Nathan was badly injured. His head injuries were severe and he lay in a coma for nine days. He died from his injuries. Nothing can ever be the same again when you lose a child.
At Charlie’s bar, Steve Brando was celebrating his birthday then the whole building began to tremble and one of the last places the tornado sideswiped before jumping the city was Charlie’s. There was screaming and the sudden darkness, and some of the glasses and liquor bottles were shattered, the lights went out. People shrieked in the darkness and then the concrete floor began to crumble. Amazingly the tornado went pass and did not hit the bar directly. Nobody was injured but glasses and bottles were smashed.
The Open Door Church
At the Open Door Church Pastor Cooper was not worried about the tornado reports as there were reports every spring and their town had never been hit. The church had no basement, so Pastor Cooper and his flock of seventy took refuge in a passage near the center of the church. The men did not see the vicious twister that was roaring in their direction in the growing darkness. The vortex now nearly 800 meters across, was chopping trees and telephone poles off at their bases on its journey to the church.
Jill Presley 14, accompanied another girl to toilet. While she waited in the foyer she realized that they might all soon be dead. A great peacefulness filled her. She believed that God was telling her that she had nothing to fear. When she went back she told the Pastor of her experience. She then repeated her experience to the congregation. Minutes later men came running into the church reporting that the twister was heading for the church.
They all held hands while they sang. The rain stopped and the electrical transformers outside exploded with a bang. The lights went off and everything was covered in darkness.
Then the tornado’s vortex smashed into the church and violent vibrations were felt as the church’s foundation shook. The building exploded and a wall collapsed. During this chaos Greg Jones shouted in a powerful voice, “In the name of Jesus, in the blood of Jesus.” The associate pastor’s shout was heard from above. Praise the Lord.
Amber Jones, who with her sister lay protected under their father, saw a clear vision of whiteness. For her the terrifying roar was replaced with soft voices, like whispers. Amber saw and heard angels, holding up the part of the church where they were huddled. How wonderful and amazing. The Open Door Church was totally destroyed with only a pile of rubble left where the church stood. But praise the Lord nobody was injured. How amazing is that.
Easter Sunday Service
The sun was rising on Easter morning as several hundred people gathered at the site of the Church for a sunrise service. As the sun began to rise, on the fourth day since the tornado wrecked its devastation. Pastor Rick Cooper reminded his congregational that everybody that had been in the church when the tornado hit the church had not been seriously injured. Each one of them that was saved was by Gods grace and a miracle.
Behind the makeshift altar in the car park stood a cross that had survived without damaged, he said that the people are the church. And although the church building had been destroyed it would be build again. As the sun rose to announce a glorious day, a violin was heard playing softly over the congregation. Softly the sound of ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,’ could be heard above the Chapel. A thanks giving to the miracle of salvation and to glorify God and reaffirming man’s hope in Christ.
Street after street houses were completely destroyed. It was a miracle that the tornado retreated just before Birmingham which was heavily populated. Odom’s people remained in full force for the next couple of weeks coordinating the massive cleanup and restoration of roads and services. Most important was helping people begin to rebuild their homes and lives.
© 2017 Anita Hasch