Longtime Marlboro County residents will never forget the March 1984 tornado
By Lynn McQueen
March 28, 1984, began as just an ordinary day in Marlboro County. But it ended as a day that residents, young and old, will never forget.
It was the day that a powerful tornado ripped through the county, its 200-mile-per-hour winds reducing homes, apartment buildings, and even a shopping center to rubble and leaving nine people dead in its wake. It was a natural disaster unlike anything the county had seen before, or has seen since.
March 28 marked 38 years since the great storm. Time has erased most visible signs, but the tornado lives on in faded newspaper clippings, dog-eared photos, and the hearts of those who lived through it.
“I just think about how lucky we were,” said Linda Martin of Bennettsville. “When that day comes around, I just think about how blessed we were.”
Today, Linda is a customer service representative at Marlboro Electric Cooperative. Then, she was a little girl on a routine trip to the local Roses store with her mother and brother. “I had a science fair at school, so we were shopping for poster board,” she recalled.
Roses was in the Northwood Village Shopping Center on Oakwood Street in Bennettsville. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and nothing about the day gave even a hint of what was about to come. “We had no idea,” said Linda. “It looked kind of dark, but it didn’t look like a bad storm or anything.”
But then, she recalls, the sky suddenly got very dark. The wind began to howl, and rain pelted the roof of the building. “We heard someone say ‘take cover,’ and my mother pushed us under a table,” she said. “All of a sudden we heard a loud noise, and then the building was just gone.”
From their hiding spot under the table, her impression was that the world went black. “We could hear everybody hollering and moaning, kids crying. A few minutes later, we could hear sirens.”
There was a flurry of activity as police, rescue personnel and volunteers searched through the rubble and helped people outside. Linda remembers walking out with her family and realizing there was no door to walk through any more, just open space and devastation.
“Cars were on top of cars in the parking lot,” she said. “My mother’s Malibu was on top of another car. There was debris everywhere, cars flipped over in ditches.”
People milled around in the rain, soaking wet and covered in shattered glass. Someone called Linda’s father, who was working at a nearby plant at the time, and he came immediately and took them to a relative’s house.
Fortunately, no one died in the shopping center that day. Elsewhere, the news was more tragic, as the tornado claimed a total of nine people in the McColl and Lester communities: Kathy Williams LaBean, 23, her three-year-old son, Colin, Ruth Turner Nolan, 45, her daughter Denise Nolan Clark, 21, Ruben Hamp Shelley, 71, Oneta Norris Deaver, 64, Jimmy Starling, 21, Vester “Pete” Quick, 66, and Beatrice M. Brand, 64.
The LaBeans, coincidentally, were Linda’s aunt and cousin. She recalls that once her father had seen to his wife and children, he had the grim task of identifying his sister and nephew in McColl.
Dixon Odom, now retired from his position as Bennettsville’s fire chief, was a young firefighter on duty the day of the tornado. He recalls the early part of the day as being “absolutely beautiful, gorgeous, nothing but sunshine.”
But as the day wore on, bulletins started coming in about the potential for bad weather. The siren on the old water tank downtown began to wail the signal for a tornado watch, and sometime after 6 p.m., the signal was changed to a tornado warning.
Within minutes of that warning, heavy rain and hail moved in, and Odom and his partner struggled against strong winds to close the doors of the fire station. Soon after, the station lost power.
From that point on, radio calls began to come in, hinting at the extent of the damage. “We got the call that the shopping center was flattened,” said Odom. “Then we got a call for every department in the county to respond. I knew then that something was very wrong.”
With the county in total darkness, first responders took charge. Within two hours of the tornado strike, an emergency command center was set up at the site of the shopping center, where the rescue efforts of more than 300 people were coordinated throughout the night and well into the next day. Assistance came from surrounding counties, Army and Air National Guards, SLED and news helicopters, and others.
A second command post was set up at the fire station on East Main Street. Odom recalled that, as time went on, calls came in from outlying areas and began to paint a picture of how serious and widespread devastation really was.
“We got calls from Lester with people screaming for help,” he said. “We tried to send people over there, but there were telephone poles and trees in the road. (Rescue workers) were using chainsaws to cut their way up there.”
Eventually, crews from Hamlet, NC, were able to reach the small Lester community. Once they arrived, they radioed back to Bennettsville: “We need ambulances up here, bad.”
Odom also fielded a call from McColl’s fire chief, who had a horrifying question to ask: “What do we do with all these bodies?”
“That’s when the impact really hit me,” he said.
In 1984, the county was served by Marlboro General Hospital. Only one phone line was open, so a resident set up his HAM radio on top of the emergency room ramp, allowing hospital officials to communicate with other counties and with the emergency command center.
Shelters were set up at Bennettsville and McColl High Schools. In the tornado’s aftermath, individuals, churches and businesses from across the state and nation poured in assistance to those left homeless, devastated and bereaved.
Thirty-eight years later, there are only a few tangible reminders of the tornado to be seen. One is a monument to the victims on the grounds of McColl’s Town Hall. Another is a 28-foot long I-beam that a resident of Springdale Drive in Bennettsville found driven into the ground just steps from his front door. He left it intact, and had a small monument erected with the date of the tornado, the approximate time, and these simple words: “In God We Trust.”