Homes were leveled to the roof lines, schools were reduced to piles of rubble, businesses were decapitated, nearly 60 people lost their lives and hundreds were left bloodied and sore. It happened 25 years ago yesterday.
When the skies had cleared, it was the largest and most devastating tornado outbreak to affect North Carolina and South Carolina during the last century. The 22 confirmed tornadoes killed 57 people, — 42 in North Carolina with 15 in South Carolina — and injured another 800.
As the ferocious storm raced through Robeson County, it left massive property destruction in the county’s northwest section, hitting Maxton and Red Springs the hardest. One child was killed in a church in Red Springs, and hundreds were treated for injuries.
“It only took a couple of minutes and it was over,” said Faye Watson of Red Springs.
Then she recalled the moments.
“All of a sudden we heard a whistling noise. It sounded like a train, and we realized it was a tornado ... We told the children to get down to the basement immediately. As we ran we grabbed some pillows, but by the time we got down there everything was pretty much over,” Watson said.
She and her husband, the late Earle A. Watson, along with their children, Alex and Pat, who were teenagers, were unharmed.
Their two-story brick house on West Second Avenue came through the tornado unscathed.
Watson was a stay-at-home mom. Earle was an insurance agent.
“So he was really busy during that time,” she said.
The tornado may have been quick but its path of destruction was vast, impacting the small town in all directions. Forests of trees were mowed down, tiny wooden houses flattened, an elementary school was destroyed, and power was not restored for several days.
The First Presbyterian Church, where the Watsons attended, was nearly hallowed out by the strong winds.
“I walked to the church, climbing over trees with my two children,” Watson said. “The wall was blown out. You could stand on one side and look through the church, and the steeple was down in middle of the sanctuary.”
In the midst of all that devastation, two small and vulnerable items were found unharmed, dry and intact.
“The remarkable thing was that the walls were blown out but the sheet music on the organ was untouched and the Bible was still laying there untouched on the pulpit,” Watson said.
She was a moderator at the church, and her husband was an elder. “I got that Bible and took it home with me until it could be returned to its proper place,” she said.
“Walking through the streets the next morning, there were trees down everywhere and it looked like a bomb had gone off in our town. It was completely devastating.
“I think we lost over 400 trees and so many of our homes were damaged,” Watson said.
The tragedy attracted the attention of neighbors and the nation, as food, supplies and volunteers began arriving soon after the skies cleared.
Red Springs resident William McNeill, who lived with his wife, Sherron, and daughter Kim, in a one-story home on 10th Street, remembers the sense of relief when the winds calmed.
“It was kind of a scary time when it hit. It came so quickly, nobody really had a chance to get prepared for it and once it was over with, even though we had a lot of damage, we were relieved we were all OK,” McNeill said. “We felt very, very lucky.”
McNeill credits a tight cropping of trees near his house for protecting his home, workshop and yard.
When the wind raged through the neighborhood, McNeill huddled on the couch with his wife and daughter, who was just a toddler.
“When the storm hit there was really nowhere to go, so we got in one spot ... . The lightning was extremely intense, and then you could hear the wind coming. It was over us and then it was gone, all in just a couple of minutes,” he said.
“It brought the town together, somewhat, in the effort to rebuild. No one thought the town was not worth rebuilding. The whole community came together, and really the whole country turned their eyes to us,” McNeill said.
McNeill clearly remembers waking up the next morning to the sound of incoming helicopters. They included the U.S. Army, the National Guard, the American Red Cross.
“Our complete power grid was destroyed — no one had electricity. I remember the line trucks rolling into town from other areas, many from up and down the East Coast — that was pretty impressive,” he said.
State and national lawmakers also descended on the town, including then Gov. Jim Hunt.
“It really was a devastating thing, and it happened so fast,” said Red Springs resident Fran Ray, who was attending services at the Baptist church on N.C. 211.
“The thing is, when you are reminiscing back over something, it makes you realize how blessed we were that we didn’t have a lot of people killed ... there were some hurt but it’s fortunate we didn’t have more killed than we did,” Ray said.
“Things happen and you see the Lord at work, and people came to the aid of Red Springs, many people helping us. It makes me so thankful that we live in a country where we’re free to help our fellow man ... .
“It was amazing how people came together and worked — people were just so generous,” she said.
Ray praised the quick action of the town’s mayor, George Paris, who still holds that position today.
Paris, a member of the National Guard, was in his uniform and making decisions in no time.
“It’s good that he was a colonel in the National Guard,” Ray said. “We had a thousand troops in here within a day, because George had the pull to get them in here.”
The North Carolina Baptist Men was one of the first groups to come to the aid of the residents. The organization set up camp next to the First Baptist Church. Its members manned a mobile kitchen and helped feed hundreds.
“They just magically showed up ... they did a yeoman’s job,” said Mayor Paris.
The paint was barely dry on the organization’s disaster relief trailer when it was driven into the heart of tattered Red Springs.
“When the tornado hit, they had just organized ... that was their first mission trip, the first time they went out taking their trailer,” Fran Ray said.
“They were a tremendous help to Red Springs, I can tell you that,” said Ray, who today serves as executive director of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
The tornado outbreak of March 28, 1984, was the most destructive band of tornados to sweep through the Carolinas since the Enigma tornado outbreak struck 100 years and 1 month earlier, according to records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Watson will forever remember that storm, and how it brought out the best in people.
“Every day, when the food would run out, we’d think that was it ... but the next day there would be more boxes of chicken, and sandwiches and drinks and everything you could think of,’’ Watson said.
“It was a massive outpouring. Other communities and towns and even states pitched in to help us. I think it was that outreach, that love, that helped us to get through the terrible thing we were going through.”