March 21, 1932
It was the midst of an economic depression. Unemployment was rampant and Alabamians turned to news stories of high-profile crimes and royal weddings to distract them from their worries. Little-known political hopefuls were competing for attention before the party primaries. Overcome by misery as he pondered the fruitlessness of plowing his small Chilton County cotton-patch, Jack Latham was praying that the Lord would take his family into His arms, as he no longer had the means to support them himself.
March 21, the Monday after Palm Sunday, was a warm and muggy spring day, with temperatures near 80°. There were signs of a cold front on its way, pushing a line of storms into the area. A mild warning was issued in the newspaper weather reports. Those gifted with foresight brought their animals inside and hunkered down with their radios to ride out the approaching front.
By mid-afternoon, though, all hell was breaking loose. A series of storm cells mushroomed and began plowing their way up from Mississippi, unleashing massive tornadoes that tore apart 7,000 homes and businesses in several central and north Alabama counties. The deadliest twister pushed through Tuscaloosa and Northport on its way northeast toward Clanton. Other tracks crossed Shelby County and points south, with smaller tornadoes impacting almost every corner of the state. 268 Alabamians died that day. Some were pulled from their homes and thrown into the ground. Others were trapped in collapsing buildings.
New, smaller cameras made amateur storm-chaser photography possible. W. M. Russell of Boothton snapped a menacing shot of a dark funnel cloud traversing part of Shelby County. The photo later ran in the “Birmingham News”, along with numerous stories of personal tragedy and images of debris strewn across wide swaths of the state.
Columbiana was the hardest-hit town in Shelby County, with 15 dead. Sylacauga was also pummelled, with 29 dead inside the city limits and another 11 found in nearby rural areas.Luther Kelly, who had lost his first wife to a 1917 tornado, lost his second wife in the storm.
In Northport a group of seven townsmen ran for the shelter of a livery stable. The sole surviver of the ordeal described the approaching monster as sounding like “49 trains running wide open”. As many as two-thousand people in the Tuscaloosa area were rendered homeless. The old gymnasium at the University of Alabama was pressed into service as a temporary infirmary to relieve the overfilled Druid City Hospital. The clock at the flattened Tuscaloosa Country Club recorded the time of the disaster as 4:01 PM.
On that night of March 21, the wearied Jack Latham gathered his family in the parlor for their nightly Bible study. A loud, sustained noise interrupted him and he rose and went to the door. As soon as he opened it and looked out and shouted back, “My God! It’s a Cyclone!”
Several minutes later only the four youngest Lathams had survived. Katie, 7, woke up to see her mother, dead and mired in muck up to her neck in the newly-plowed field beside her. A neighbor rushed over and collected the survivors, who spent the next three weeks recuperating at Vaughan Memorial Hospital in Selma. They were showered with so much attention and so many gifts, that they were reluctant to leave after they were adopted by local business magnate W. E. Bruce.
In the days following the storm, Governor B. M. Miller toured the state and issued a proclamation calling on all citizens to pitch in and help their distressed neighbors. Gawkers streamed into the hardest-hit areas the next Sunday, Easter. Those surveying the damage in Chilton County were rudely interrupted by another tornado that afternoon which left 8 more dead and 50 injured.