1984 storms rattled region

Dixon Odom recalls that March 28, 1984, dawned as a "beautiful morning."

"The sun was shining, it was warm," says Odom, longtime fire chief in Bennettsville, S.C.

By the end of that day, Odom was helping oversee a recovery and rescue operation in what meteorologists consider the worst tornado outbreak in Carolinas history.

It happened March 28, 1984 -- 25 years ago today.

The National Weather Service says severe thunderstorms and possibly tornadoes are forecast for much of the Southeast today. But forecasters say today's storm system pales in comparison to the one 25 years ago.

Twenty-four tornadoes crushed the countryside that day on a path from the South Carolina-Georgia border, then northward through the Sandhills and coastal plain of North Carolina.

By the time the last tornado moved into the Atlantic Ocean, 57 people were dead -- 42 in North Carolina, 15 in South Carolina -- and more than 800 injured.

Classic outbreak

"It was a classic major tornado outbreak," says Lara Pagano, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Raleigh.

None of the two dozen twisters reached F5 level on the Fujita scale, the strongest classification of tornadoes. But there were seven F4 storms, with winds of up to 260 mph, including a twister that rumbled through Bennettsville, S.C., where Odom was on duty as assistant fire chief when the storms struck.

Louder than a siren

"We had been sounding our sirens since 2 in the afternoon, when they issued a tornado watch," he recalls. "About 6:30 p.m., they issued a warning, so we started sounding a different siren alert."

Odom says the storm was so loud that he couldn't hear the siren.

"A few minutes later, we started getting calls from the boys who live on the north side of town," he says.

That is where the Northwoods Shopping Center stood. A mile-wide funnel cloud roared through the shopping center and a nearby apartment complex, leveling them in seconds. Most of the seven deaths and 100 injuries in the Bennettsville area happened there.

"We couldn't get to the scene from the center of town, because of the damage," Odom recalls. "We got crews to arrive from the north, from Rockingham and Hamlet [in North Carolina's Richmond County]."

Odom called nearby Robeson County, across the border in North Carolina, and asked for help. But people there were busy. Another F4 twister had hit, damaging nearly every building in the town of Red Springs.

"The downtown area was ripped apart," recalls Martha Pearson, who works in the town's billing department. "It was absolutely amazing."

That tornado killed four and injured 395.

Earlier, a tornado roared across Interstate 77, flattening trees in a quarter-mile-wide path that motorists traveling between Charlotte and Columbia could see for years afterward.

Meteorologists say the tornado outbreak was the result of a familiar set of circumstances -- a strong low-pressure system, and strong winds blowing from different directions at various levels of the atmosphere, creating a twisting motion.

Pagano says many newcomers to the Carolinas think of killer tornadoes as a Midwest phenomenon.

"But they can happen here--and they have," she says.