It was close to 8:30 p.m. and Willie and Marvin Quinn had just returned from church. They sat down to read Bible verses to each another, like they do every night, when Willie got the phone call from her son, Ralph.
Ralph, his wife and two teenage sons had been driving from Bradley County to Apison Pike when hail, thunderous winds and a fusillade of lightning forced them to take cover at a hospital in Cleveland, Tenn.
“Momma, are y’all all right?” Ralph asked nervously.
“Yeah. We’re fine,” the 75-year-old said, comforting him.
She didn’t realize a tornado, carving a deadly path, was about to land on top of her.
Lights inside the small, white house, flickered on and off. A massive lightning bolt struck outside the window. A sound like a freight train echoed in the distance.
“Come, get in the hallway. Let’s pray,” Willie yelled to her husband. “The tornado is here.”
On their knees, she kept one hand over her husband’s head. Debris battered her back as the side of their house, the one she helped build in five weeks in 1969, the one she raised her children in, collapsed and shed its roof.
“Lord, we are in your hands,” she prayed until it passed. “We are in your hands. Take care of us.”
Across the road, her neighbor, Paul Dennington, was pinned — conscious — under a tree. He is partially deaf and had walked out on the porch of his doublewide trailer, unaware of the storm, when the funnel cloud came down on him. In two seconds, he said, the trailer was ripped out from under him and shredded into shrapnel.
Willie’s other neighbors, Tracy and Robert Mills, hid in a hallway of their house, which was all that stood the next day.
After the storm had passed, they screamed for Tracy’s father, Lamar Foster, who lived in a trailer next door. They found him behind a 20-foot-high pile of jumbled cars, shards of metal and glass, broken wood, mattresses and clothes. He was alive, but one leg was fractured and blood dripped from his face.
None of them has insurance and they have nowhere to go. Their pets are missing. Their homes are gone. Their memories are blown over the miles around them. But they all count themselves lucky.
— By Staff Writer Joan Garrett
Tammy Garrett pointed across the green fields along McGee Road in Apison, gesturing toward giant, mangled piles of sheet rock, siding and furniture.
“That was a gorgeous house,” she said. “And that one over there, oh, they always kept that house so beautiful.”
Now they’re just the guts of homes.
On Thursday, residents were just starting to wade through the rubble, slowly sifting for belongings, perching on walls without ceilings to get a clearer view.
On nearby Clonts Road, where four people were found dead, tattered remnants of the neighborhood were splayed across the green hills. Shredded houses. Cars flung upside-down onto what had been kitchen floors. Cellphone towers bent in half.
Garrett helped her brother clear the damage at his rental property, where the roof was torn off the barn and all the fences snapped.
— By Staff Writer Kate Harrison
At Apison Elementary, as about 250 volunteers showed up Thursday to help their neighbors dig out from the tornadoes, Lt. Robert Starnes of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office gathered them to tell them what to expect.
“You’re liable to see some things you’ve never seen before,” Starnes warned. “There is the possibility that there are going to be some dead bodies. I’m trying to prepare you.”
But there was no way to prepare any of the workers for the sights that met them as they turned down roads like McGee Road and Clonts Road, only to find razed neighborhoods and whole groves of splintered trees.
Workers combed through the area, knocking on the door of every home, asking residents if everyone was accounted for.
At Ronald Sedman’s wrecked home on McGee, crews found everyone OK, but at least five cows and two calves on Sedman’s property had vanished.
Sedman, 80, is still trying to digest the scene before him.
“There’s never, ever been anything like this,” he said. “There’s stuff scattered all through my property; I don’t know whose it is.”
— By Staff Writer Kate Harrison
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...