Wendy Ellis wipes tears from her face at her home in Rossville. She lost four family members in the tornado that struck Apison on Wednesday.Staff Photo by Jenna Walker
How do you picture 340 tornado victims?
Does the number make it difficult?
Can you connect 340 nightmares?
Wendy Ellis can connect four at once.
Her son, cousin, mother and grandmother.
Four generations, four deaths in as many seconds.
Adam Carroll, 17; Joshua Poe, 31; Brenda Prescott, 56; JoAnn Darnell, 77.
None of the relatives shared a last name.
They shared a last moment.
The houses, the cars, the possessions lost in the storms that devastated Dixie can be rebuilt, repaired, regained. But the human cost suffered by Wendy Ellis and countless people like her is a loss for all time.
Ellis, 34, said she saw the red, yellow and purple blotches on the TV weather screens Wednesday. She watched local news anchors, but their message never quite connected.
“They forewarned us, but you don’t think it’s going to be us,” she said.
The lights went out inside her one-story Rossville home about 3 p.m. — not good for a woman with two sons used to charging their phones, playing video games and scrolling Facebook.
Ellis said the boys persuaded her to drive them to her mother’s trailer in Apison, where electricity hummed.
The sky was relatively calm. Ellis elected to drop them off and drive home to Rossville, since “five people would be in a three-bedroom mobile home.”
The next day, after work as a placement specialist at Elwood Staffing, she would return for her boys.
When they arrived, Ellis’ older son, Adam Carroll, stepped inside the trailer without a long goodbye.
A stocky wrestler who went by “Tex,” Adam dated two girls. He donned a cowboy hat, painted his body blue for Ringgold High School football games and hung out in his “man cave.”
He couldn’t wait for college, his mother said.
Andrew Ellis, Adam’s 8-year-old half-brother and Ellis’ younger son, lingered outside for a minute. A creative boy, Andrew often struck a pose for pictures, loved Georgia football and played outside until bedtime.
“He looked up to his brother,” Ellis said.
As Ellis walked away, Andrew did what many boys his age do.
“He has a tendency to tell me he loves me no matter what, and hugs me,” she said. “That’s what happened.”
Listening to the radio at home about an hour later, Ellis heard about a tornado hitting Apison with 190-mph winds.
The announcer got specific: Clonts Road.
Ellis called her mom, cousin and sons.
Nothing but voicemails and silence.
She bolted back to Apison.
“It was natural instinct for me to go that way,” she said.
She ran into police roadblocks and pulled into Apison Elementary School, which slowly became a triage center.
By then, two of Ellis’ uncles had ignored police barricades at the corner of East Brainerd Road and Apison Pike, following the railroad about a mile toward 4607 Clonts Road.
They found the bodies. Adam looked as if “he was sleeping across a tree,” according to the two uncles, Ellis said. A tree had fallen onto Joshua Poe, Ellis’ cousin, killing him. Ellis’ mother, Brenda Prescott, and her grandmother, JoAnn Darnell, also died at the scene.
In all, the week’s storms killed at least 344 people across six southern states. Eight died in Apison, Hamilton County’s most affected area, where the tornado obliterated once-sturdy neighborhoods as well as trailer parks.
“Without a grid you didn’t even know if you were looking at the right address,” Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson said Friday. “There’s nothing left.”
Walking in a cow pasture hundreds of yards away, Ellis’ uncles stumbled upon Andrew alive with a broken right femur — the long bone in his leg — and deep cuts all over his body.
Early Thursday morning, when the morphine wore off after hours of surgery at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, Andrew wondered aloud when he could go home, Ellis said.
According to family members at the hospital, Andrew said he remembered “Nanny covering me in the bathtub ... when all of a sudden, here come that big wind.”
He doesn’t know about the deaths.
“He’ll probably have to have therapy,” said the boy’s grandfather, Richard Carroll, who drove from Atlanta after the tragedy.
“I don’t know how I’m going to tell him,” Ellis said. “But he’s just an angel ... to be the only survivor in that setting.”
Ellis said she’s grieving but isn’t bitter because “everything happens for a reason.”
She began thinking about whether she would have done anything differently.
No, she said, tearing up and motioning toward the pediatric intensive care unit, where her creative, funny, younger son held on to life.
“Now I’ve got one up there,” she said. “If I had stayed at the trailer [and died], what would have happened to him?”
On Thursday, Ellis began dealing with death, crying more as the shock wore off.
A Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy phoned to ask if her mother, Brenda Prescott, had any birthmarks or tattoos.
“It’ll probably be closed caskets,” she said. “I wanted to remember them how they were.”
As a student at East Ridge High School, Ellis became pregnant with Adam. She “refused to become a single-mom statistic,” got her GED and depended on her own mother, Prescott, to be a rock for Adam.
“My mom was everybody’s mom,” Ellis said. “For [Adam] to pass with my mom — I know it sounds terrible, but I’m glad it was him and not Andrew. ... Adam would have done something drastic.”
Ellis went home Friday. She walked through her sons’ bedrooms, occasionally talking about “my little one” and “my oldest one” in the present tense, as if both were coming home.
She wore a duplicate of Andrew’s hospital bracelet and a black band Adam wore to Ringgold High School: “SENIORS 2012 — Celebrate all you’ve achieved.”
She picked through Adam’s closet. Held his cowboy hat to her face. Breathed in his scent.
Selected a blue polo shirt for his final outfit.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Adam Carroll and Richard Carroll are not related to writer Chris Carroll.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...
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