Just before 3 p.m. Friday, April 19, 1968, the 2,016 residents of Greenwood had no idea a deadly tornado was coming their way.
The tornado and the system that produced it headed east from north central Texas, coming across eastern Oklahoma into western and central Arkansas, according to the National Weather Service in Tulsa.
Although the tornado was only on the ground about four minutes, the city was devastated. Rated an F-4, it swept through the heart of the city, killing 14 people and injuring 270. The twister demolished 450 homes, the three-story courthouse and city hall.
‘No Warning Whatsoever’
Among those who died was the grandfather of then-23-year-old Wilma Cabe, who was pregnant with her daughter. Cabe had left her two sons, Greg, 5, and Jeff, 2½, with her mother while she went to a local beauty shop.
“There was no warning whatsoever,” she said. “Nobody was expecting it at all; if that’d been the case, I would not have left my boys.”
Cabe said she and the other women in the shop took shelter in a back storage room while her sons, mother and grandparents were hiding in a basement storage unit underneath her grandparents’ home.
Falling bricks and debris from the house’s foundation badly injured Cabe’s sons, mother and grandmother. Her grandfather did not survive.
Cabe and her husband picked up their family and drove to the hospital, speeding through the wreckage as fast as possible with the car’s horn blaring.
“They told us whenever they X-rayed our oldest one that he just looked like somebody had taken a board or something and beaten him because so many bricks and things had come in on him,” Cabe said. “That’s why the youngest one got his jaws broken — because there were a lot of bricks from the foundation that came in on him.”
Jeff required surgery, but Cabe’s grandmother, mother and sons eventually recovered.
Cabe, now 68, retired last year after nearly 10 years as Greenwood city clerk. Born and raised in Greenwood, she now lives in the same spot where her parents’ house was destroyed 45 years ago.
“There’s a lot of it I don’t even really remember because it was such a confusing and traumatic time,” she said. “It just seems like a dream, actually, at this point, but it wasn’t.”
‘Nobody Knew What To Do’
Sandra Traylor, assistant to Greenwood Mayor Del Gabbard, said she was in Fort Smith when the tornado hit, but her dad was on his way to work along U.S. 71 when he noticed something was wrong.
“It just got black as midnight outside about 2:30. It just got still and then all of a sudden — boom,” Traylor said. “It got as still as it could be and then it hit.”
When Traylor received word the tornado had struck, she called her husband, gathered her children and headed that way. They couldn’t get into town on U.S. 71, so they took Arkansas 96, got out to the bridge and walked the rest of the way, through the destruction.
“(The people) were just walking out there and there was all kinds of stuff everywhere,” she said. “It’s like they were lost or something and they were in shock. Nobody knew what to do really.”
They made it to her parents’ house and saw the selective, seemingly fickle nature of a tornado firsthand.
“It raised the roof off my mom and dad’s house and broke all the windows out, on Bell Road, and then the rent house which was to the right of that, it flattened it, and all the barns and outbuildings,” Traylor said. “When it got out that far out of town, it would, like, flatten one house and leave the next, flatten one house and leave the next. It was just the weirdest thing.”
Nobody in Traylor’s family was hurt, but the tornado still had a significant effect on their lives, she said.
‘Everybody Came In To Help’
Greenwood parks and recreation director Doug Kinslow was a fourth-grader, walking home from the elementary school when he literally got caught in the middle of the storm.
“It was blowing so hard I actually grabbed hold of an old holly bush they used to have — the real sticky kind,” Kinslow said. “I grabbed hold of that thing just to keep from getting blown and that’s what I remember — real quick, my feet coming off the ground and being blown sideways.”
A neighborhood friend, Mr. Walker, allowed 10-year-old Doug to get into his parked car to seek cover until the worst of the storm passed.
Kinslow then continued home, which was about two blocks from the elementary school.
“As I turned the corner to where my house should’ve been, there was just kind a big pile of rubble and about two corners of the wall standing,” Kinslow said.
Kinslow’s father was standing outside, and his mother and one of his sisters had taken refuge in a bathtub.
“I remember looking at him and saying to him, ‘Where’s our house?’” he said.
His father left to go find Kinslow’s sister and brother, who were still at the junior and senior high buildings.
Kinslow’s family was OK, coming away from the storm with only minor scratches, but their house was destroyed.
“Our kitchen was gone — the walls, the ceiling — but the sink was still sitting there, and the cabinet,” Kinslow said. “My mother … she had some poke sallet in the sink soaking, and the poke sallet was still in the sink but we just didn’t have a house around it.”
The house had just been built, he said. It was 19 days old.
A few blocks away, the home of Kinslow’s grandmother looked like something from the Wizard of Oz, twisted off its foundation. The tornado also destroyed his father’s barber shop.
“Our car ended up on top of Mayor Ed Hall at the time’s truck, and I do remember at the time as a 10-year-old thinking when I heard that — I don’t know if I was worried about our house being gone at the time — but I knew we were in trouble because our car was on top of the mayor’s truck,” Kinslow said.
Despite the wreckage, Kinslow said he fondly remembers going to the First Baptist Church that had trailers full of clothes for families, and meals down at the schools.
“The outpouring of help from everybody was amazing. Family came in; people drove in from all over the country,” he said. “Just everybody came in to help.”
A distant relative offered Kinslow’s family a place to stay, and they began rebuilding their home almost immediately. Within a matter of months, the family moved back into the same location.
‘It Can Never Really Be The Same’
The recovery effort began immediately that Saturday.
Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, Lt. Gov. Footsie Britt, the Red Cross and countless citizens and charitable organizations came to the city to do their part.
Total damage was estimated at $1.5 million, which would be about $10 million today.
In a Sunday, April 21, 1968, report, Times Record reporter Tom Blake described the devastation and subsequent rebuilding effort:
“This historic community, known for its public spirit and civic accomplishments, appeared on the road to recovery Saturday.
“Prevailing was an air that physical scars wrought by a vicious tornado be erased, and Greenwood be rebuilt.
“But it can never really be the same.
“Annaled will be the tragic happenings of that dark, disastrous April 19th afternoon.”