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Traumatizing Twister

We live in an area where tornadoes occur. We’ve seen the destruction they cause and our hearts break because of it. On May 4, 1978 (in Pinellas County-Florida) one such tornado dropped out of the charcoal sky and struck an elementary school like a “car wreck” …killing three and injuring 96.

The tornado, part of a general storm system that cut across Florida that morning, struck the school at 11:48 A.M.

“It sounded like a big car wreck,” recalled Luella Gibson, a 9‐year‐old third grade pupil. “I was in the classroom and the lights went out. The wind started shaking the windows and the glass came flying in.”

One teacher explained what she witnessed in her class: “We were sitting there having our little rest period after lunch. I heard the ripping of the roof. I stood up. I realized what was happening. The roof was leaving us. I screamed, „’Get down. Get down and cover your heads!’. There was just this tremendous sound! Very few children even heard me.”

“I just slid across the room,” said one student. “The roof just blew off and it didn't come down. If it came down, I'd still be there. I'm glad I ain't dead.”

Bill Carlisle was sitting in his car 200 yards from the school. He saw the tornado coming. “It was just like a vacuum,” he said. “Everything went up in the air and the debris was just-flying around in a circular motion”.

Some other witness said the school looked like it had been bombed. Debris was hanging from electric wires. Pieces of plaster board and insulation were in the tops of trees. A tree about three feet thick had its top ripped off almost clean, as if by a giant saw. Brick veneer and concrete blocks were scattered.

Within seconds after the tornado struck, approximately 400 men and women attending a vocational school across the street were on the scene to help move the injured and frightened children out of the damaged structure.

Local officials said that although the area was on a tornado watch alert that morning, the twister struck without warning. “There was no notice and apparently no one saw it,” said James Johnson, operations coordinator for the Pinellas County Civil Defense office. “It was such a dark day, it looked like nightfall, so you wouldn't have had any chance to see it come out of the murk.”

John DuVal Jr., Garey Staly and Prescott Wilmot were the victims of the deadly storm. DuVal was killed on his birthday.

Most students were in the cafeteria (not their classrooms) when the tornado struck …which kept the death count low. The school sustained 3.1 million dollars in damage.

Five years ago, a plaque remembering these students was dedicated to Olney Arnold, the school’s principal at the time.

My heart broke reading (and writing) this story. Hug your babies a little tighter tonight.

As always, thank you for spending some of your precious time with us today! Have a wonderful rest of your week!

Article published on May 3rd, 2023 by Laurel Governal

HLEW Weather Rewind

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