Remembering the 1920 tornado


Late in the night of April 13, an EF-1 tornado touched down in western Marion County.
At 11:58 p.m that night, the tornado sirens blasted over the western part of Marion County. The National Weather Service in Birmingham issued a tornado warning after radar indicated a tornado 10 miles northwest of Hamilton that would impact Bexar and Shottsville.
 About an hour before the sirens sounded in Marion County, an EF2 tornado touched down in Monroe County, Miss., killing one person and injuring 19. Weather services had forecast a severe weather event in the days before April 13. It wasn’t a question of when the possible tornadoes would strike, it was a question of where.
The system dropped two tornadoes—an EF1 and an EF2—near Starkville in Oktibbeha County, Miss. As I followed the severe weather events that night and into the early morning, it became apparent to me the storm system was dropping tornadoes along a path eerily similar to another weather event all but forgotten to most people in Marion County— the deadly April 20, 1920, tornado.
That tornado is considered the fourth-deadliest single-track tornado on record for Alabama. The tornado killed 44 people in Alabama. That tornado was fresh on my mind because I had been researching it for my column in this issue of the Journal Record.
The tornado formed and first touched down near Bradley, Miss., where seven people northwest of Starkville died on that April morning in 1920.
Moving northeast, the tornado killed 10 more people near Cedarbluff in Clay County, Miss. The tornado entered Monroe County, Miss., and proceeded to ravage the western part of Aberdeen where 22 people died. The tornado then moved into Itawamaba County, Miss., and then over into Marion County, Ala., where it struck the populated Bexar Community at 9 a.m.
The next day’s edition of the Marion County News provided full coverage of the disaster.
Banks Fowler, who lived on a hill on the west side of Sipsey Creek in Bexar, described what he saw that morning.
“I saw the cloud and watched it come up the (creek) bottom,” Fowler told a correspondent with the Marion County News. “I could hear the cracking and snapping with the roaring. It looked like a fire on the ground in front of the wind.”  

Guy Cantrell was at home with his family that Tuesday morning. He ran across the hall to shelter the other members of his family.
“As I entered the hall I saw the stairs blow out. I was carried into the yard. A feather bed blew by me. I thought it would keep the sticks from hurting me, so I wrapped up in it, trying to keep under it. I came out with small bruises,” Cantrell told the correspondent.
“There seemed to be two puffs of wind,” J.P. Sanderson told the correspondent. “One carried things toward the west; in about a quarter of a minute everything came back. I tried to keep my family down on the floor. One of my boys blew out of the house, then blew back.”

The Montgomery Advertiser reported in the April 21 edition that the seriously-injured survivors and the dead alike, were brought to Hamilton where the courthouse served both as a hospital and temporary morgue.
“Most of the dead brought here were terribly mangled. Arms and legs in many cases had been blown completely off. It was quickly seen that Hamilton alone was not able to cope with the situation and help was called for. As a result, this afternoon and tonight physicians and surgeons are here from Guin, Winfield, Haleyville, Jasper, and Carbon Hill and there is plenty of work for them all to do,” the paper reported.
The paper reported the known dead: “The dead thus far known, all of whom were killed within ten miles of Hamilton, are as follows: SAM TAYLOR and wife, JIM TAYLOR and wife, Mrs. TAYLOR, mother of the TAYLOR boys, Mrs. TOM BYRD, COLBURN child 8 years old, MAX CANTRELL, RUBY CANTRELL, Children of E. L. CANTRELL, Mrs. MINOR, mother-in-law of E. L. CANTRELL, Mrs. VIVIAN CANTRELL, Mrs. IDA CANTRELL, Mrs. BESS CANTRELL, Son of J. T. SANDERSON, CLOVIS SULLENS, DECIE BLANCHARD, negro.”

From Marion County, the tornado continued on a deadly path to the northeast, where it struck Hackleburg and Phil Campbell.
After it formed in Mississippi, that single tornado travelled 130 miles on the ground before lifting near the Tennessee State Line. Almost half of the 44 deaths that occurred that day happened in Marion County. The final death toll for the county was 19.

The March 21, 1932, tornado, which killed 49 people in Alabama, is ranked as the third-deadliest single tornado to strike the state. The tornado devastated communities in and near Jemison in Chilton County.

The top two deadliest Alabama tornadoes both occurred on the same day during the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak. An EF4 tornado, known as the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado, killed 64 people in Greene, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. Earlier that day, an EF5 tornado, known as the Hackleburg-Phil Campbell tornado, killed 72 people in Marion, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Limestone and Madison counties.