Still remembering the tornado that plundered Fairfield 40 years later

The M.K. Boykin Recreation Center, located at 1851 US Highway 321 N in Winnsboro, suffered significant damage. | National Academies Press

FAIRFIELD COUNTY – On March 28, 1984, tornadoes struck multiple towns across the northern half of South Carolina before entering North Carolina to continue their paths of destruction.

An unoccupied church building collapsed. | National Academies Press

An article in Time Magazine dated April 9, 1984 said, “Last week’s Carolina twisters skipped along erratically, touching here and there, missing big cities by pure chance but devastating small towns and farming areas into the northeast corner of North Carolina.”

The article referenced interviews with Winnsboro residents Ulese Bell, whose wife Maude did not survive the collapse of their house, and Norwood McClain.

McClain, a truck driver, described calling home from a truck stop and speaking with his son during the tornado.

“Jeromy, 14, answered and suddenly shouted,’ ‘Daddy, the house is shaking!'” the article said. “”I told him to get out. That’s the last I heard of him.’

“Jeromy turned up in a hospital in critical condition with broken back, arms and ribs. On Thursday his father poked through the rubble of his home, too heartbroken to pick up some family pictures he found. Said McClain, pointing to an area 30 yds. away: ‘I lost my 2½-year-old son over there. They found him in a ditch.'”

A masonry retail store in Winnsboro. | Photo: National Academies Press

According to the Department of Natural Resources, the tornado that hit Fairfield County started near Lake Monticello and ended near Lake Wateree. It killed five people, injured 49, and destroyed dozens of homes and several businesses along a 21-mile-long path that was nearly ¾ of a mile wide in some areas.

The damage to the county was widespread. In Winnsboro, a number of retail stores and workshops either collapsed entirely or suffered damage. Just north of Winnsboro, Richard Winn Academy suffered damage, mostly from the wind, but possibly also from school buses reportedly seen flying through the air during the tornado.

A video by Rod Wilkes of footage of the aftermath the tornado can be viewed on YouTube at

Richard Winn Academy greatly damaged in tornado

What remains of Richard Winn Academy. Photos: Richard Winn Academy 1984 Yearbook

A first-hand account, as told by Robert Stidham in the Richard Winn Academy 1984 yearbook. 

John McNeely and I arrived at Richard Winn early Wednesday evening. I was at the school for the SAT preparatory course, and John had come in hopes of finding the gym open so he could join in on a possible basketball game.

We had parked our cars in front of the school when the thunder and lightning started. I thought it would just be another storm, but when the golf ball size hail started pelting the ground and ricocheting in every direction, we decided that we should protect our cars so we moved them under the walkway in front of the gym.

We watched the hail for about five minutes and then we moved to the quadrangle to watch the balls of ice bouncing off the roof.

 For no reason, we casually walked out to the front of the school to get a better view of the storm. Within a minute, the sky turned an ominous black, and as we looked across the street into the LeGrand’s yard, we saw that their trees were bending so much that they were almost touching the ground. Within an instant it seemed that gravity released its grip and everything started flying. Leaves, metal, cardboard, boards, insulation, dirt, and trees were whirling everywhere.

John laid down near the front door and I knelt down with my back towards the wind and my hands covering my head. John was screaming about something but I couldn’t hear him.

Within a few seconds the porch railing that I was holding was ripped out of my hand and out of my sight. Without protection, it felt like the whole world was hitting me on the back and legs.

I yelled to John and told him I couldn’t take anymore so I got up and tried to run in one of the corridors. It was very dark in the hall and it looked and sounded like the walls were falling in. I figured it wasn’t a safe place, so I ran back to what was left of the front porch.

When I found John, he cautiously got up and we both turned around to look at the school. Most of the wall behind us had been blown down, so we could see that the rest of the high school had been leveled. Behind the high school, we could see the shredded gym.

What had been a formidable bulk of a building now looked like a hollow skeleton of steel girders. From these vacant bones, aluminum sheets swung and creaked in the eerie wind. Beside the gym we noticed the crumpled school busses that had been rolled over and smashed against the gym and school.

After taking in the school, we suddenly remembered that as the tornado hit, there had been a car driving down the road. We now saw the car with a huge sheet of the gym’s aluminum wrapped around it like bacon around a steak. We ran to the car and ripped the aluminum from its side. Inside the tiny car, there were people on the floor of the back seat, one on top of another, upside down, wide-eyed with awe.

We saw that they were alright and left them to untangle themselves as we rushed up the street to the Taylors’ to report what had happen and explore what disaster had occurred.

Richard Winn’s gymnasium | Photo contributed by Peggy Frick

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