Rye Cove, Virgina & The History Of Its Tornado

History of tornados in Rye Cove, Virginia. A school, over 70 years ago, was lifted without warning from the ground with students and faculty, who had just returned from lunch.

There was no warning. One minute the trees near Rye Cove Consolidated School swayed violently -- the next, the two-story wooden school house disappeared in a cloud of debris. Today, over 70 years later, when the sky darkens and a storm threatens, parents habitually appear at both Rye Cove schools to collect their children and whisk them home to safety. They are determined that such a disaster will never happen again.

The saga of the Rye Cove tornado began on May 2, 1929. The day dawned unseasonably cool. A light rain fell. In the morning students shivered at their desks. Rye Cove Consolidated School had no central heating so individual coal-fired pot-bellied stoves were lit to beat the unseasonable chill. There was no electricity either so carbide lamps -- much like miner's lamps -- hung at the windows to provide light.

Now it was almost one p.m. Principal A.S. Noblin hurried back to the school from his boarding house. He was apprehensive. A bad storm was roaring up the valley at his back. He had just reached the front door when his school began to splinter around him.

On a nearby mountainside, J.M. Johnson was grubbing brush. At first he watched the approaching tornado with fascination. When he realized that the rain-shrouded funnel was whirling directly for the school, Johnson started running toward town.

Jim Morrison's Model-A truck was rattling around the sharp curve entering Rye Cove when he saw J.B. Stone's store roof churn into the air. A torrent of wind-lashed hail clattered against Morrison's windshield. Seconds later it cleared enough for him to see. The schoolhouse was gone. Three of the Morrison children had been in the building!

Teacher Elizabeth Richmond was on the second floor, ready to begin class. A few moments before she glanced out the window and had noticed the sky growing dark. Richmond remembered a howling wind and feeling the building shudder -- then a sharp pain seized her as she was clobbered by her own flying desk.

The schoolhouse was a cacophony of roaring wind, smashing lumber, and terrified screams. The air was thick with shrapnel -- shards of broken glass, splintered wood, desks, pens and pencils, books, pieces of slate backboards, hot glowing coals, and heavy iron stoves. Twelfth-grader Roy Osborne dove for the doorway of a first story classroom. From the corner of his eye he saw Principal Noblin, at the front door, disappear in a avalanche of wooden beams. Then Osborne felt himself being lifted up. The next thing he knew, he was outside the building.

Fires from overturned stoves flared in the wreckage. Osborne heard the muffled screams of trapped children and teachers. He scrambled to his feet. Severe pain shot up his left arm and nearly took his breath away. Blood soaked his shirt sleeve. In spite of the pain Osborne rushed to the pond, an empty bucket in his good hand. Morrison's truck sputtered across the field and slid to a stop in front of him.

"The building's on fire!" Osborne shouted.

Morrison bounded from the vehicle. Huge raindrops slapped his face. "Form a bucket brigade," he ordered.

Parents from nearby houses rushed to the shattered schoolhouse, desperately calling out the names of their children as they picked through the wreckage. Some joined the bucket brigade.

Heavy rain in the wake of the tornado helped keep the fires from spreading. Morrison and another man used two nearby tractors, left by road workers, to pull debris away from the flames. Between the rain and the bucket brigade, the fires were extinguished in short order.

Then came another problem. One dirt road connected Rye Cove to the nearest town. The downpour had turned the rutted roadbed into a gummy bog. The storm had also knocked out the few telephones in town. Two men volunteered to go to Clinchport, eight miles away, for help. One jumped on a horse. The other climbed into his automobile. The man on the horse made it to Clinchport first.

The injured, the dead, and the dying, were carried to surrounding houses and barns. A preliminary tally was made of those already dead -- six-year-old Bernice Fletcher, ten-year-old Callie Bishop, and about eight others. Residents did what they could for the injured, but without medical help the task was overwhelming. Simple cuts and fractures were one thing, but some of the injuries were dreadful. A few of the men began discussing how they could get the injured -- more than 50 at last count -- to a hospital. They didn't know it at the time, but help was on the way.

As soon as word of the disaster reached Bristol, Virginia., the Southern Railway dispatched a special train to Clinchport to evacuate the injured. At Rye Cove, farmers hitched up wagons and carefully loaded the injured aboard. Then the pitiful, waterlogged caravan slogged its way to Clinchport.

By 5:30 p.m., the last of the injured were loaded aboard the train. King's Mountain Memorial Hospital's corridors were jammed with anxious parents. Frenzied journalists, desperate for the story, reported anything they heard without first checking the facts. Some newspaper accounts, Knoxville's for instance, reported the number of the dead as 50. Scott County Sheriff H.S. Culbertson finally sorted out the numbers. There was a total of 13 deaths and 54 injuries.

When word of the catastrophe at Rye Cove got out, donations poured in from around the world. The American Red Cross even built a permanent log cabin near the ruined school to render aid to families touched by the storm. That cabin still stands today, the painted red cross still visible on the front door.

There was no school term in Rye Cove during 1929-1930. The new Rye Cove Memorial High School opened in the fall of 1930 with A.S. Noblin, who had been pulled from the wreckage of the old school, as principal. A bronze plaque, naming the thirteen victims -- 12 students and one teacher -- was placed on the new building. The old bell from Rye Cove Consolidated School and the original bronze table, now stand just outside Rye Cove Middle School in a new memorial as a reminder of those terrible events almost 70 years ago.

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