RINGGOLD, Ga.—The first responders assumed everyone was dead.
As they scanned the ruins where Ruby Tuesday had stood minutes before, all that remained was the stone-framed entrance and the back three walls of the kitchen.
“We were really shocked” to find out everyone inside had survived, said Chad Hullender, a paramedic with Angel Emergency Medical Services and one of the first people on the scene after an April 27 tornado plowed through the interchange of Alabama Highway and Interstate 75.
Michelle Campbell, a shift manager at Ruby Tuesday, has trouble believing it herself.
“I’m just amazed we weren’t sucked right out of there,” Campbell said, standing outside the rubble a week after the storm.
Stories that a manager at some eatery had acted quickly and saved everyone have bubbled up around the community. Some residents thought everyone had made it inside the restaurant’s cooler.
Campbell said she and nearly two dozen others made it only as far as the kitchen.
As the tornado-breeding storm was bearing down on them, Campbell remembers pacing back and forth, the clouds’ rumble growing louder and the sky getting darker. Shadows bounced off the walls as the restaurant lights flickered. Then it went black.
Campbell watched from a window as a gray funnel peeked over a nearby hill and headed straight for the building. A tractor-trailer was sucked up and flung across the parking lot. The sound of glass cracking echoed off the walls.
“Everybody get to the back!” Lindsey Weissinger, another manager, yelled from the back of the room.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” Campbell screamed simultaneously with Weissinger.
Several guests darted past Campbell toward the kitchen as she used her hand to guide them. As Campbell turned to follow, a windblown blast knocked her several feet forward. The pastor of Ringgold Church of God flew against her, slamming into her back. Campbell fell to the floor on top of a guest.
The guest underneath Campbell tried to wiggle out, but she held the woman down as a roar that sounded like a freight train flew through the restaurant walls. Panicked voices screamed “It won’t open; it won’t open!” as they grasped for the cooler’s handle.
Campbell looked up as the roof was sheared away, then debris rained down and everything went dark.
About 15 guests and eight restaurant employees lay buried in the kitchen. No one moved. But when Campbell heard a sinister hissing, she knew everyone needed to get out.
“We could hear spewing, and we didn’t know if it was gas or what,” she said.
Campbell called to a bartender to grab her key and open the back door. When the door opened, devastation was all anyone could see.
Yet the survivors were barely injured. One woman had to get stitches, but that was the worst injury, Weissinger said.
“I couldn’t be more proud of how everybody pulled together,” she said. “It was one of those things that you have to act right then.”
A week later, Ringgold Church of God Pastor Carroll Allen returned to the site. While the restaurant’s sturdy doorway still stands, the walls have buckled inward, covering wooden tables and chairs. The roof fell onto everything.
Behind the kitchen walls, a single green fence — where the survivors crawled after escaping the rubble — is unscathed.
“[When I] went to look at it, I realized the miracle was even bigger then I thought,” Allen said.
He recalled that the voice of a woman yelling for everyone to run came only seconds before the tornado rammed into the restaurant. When he heard the order to move, he bolted from his chair and ran toward Campbell before being flung across the room.
“If I had been two seconds longer, I would have been buried in the dining room,” he said.
Grateful for the quick thinking, Allen still believes it was a miracle that saved them.
“I believe an angel of the Lord pushed me,” he said.
Campbell agrees that divine providence intervened.
“It’s only by the grace of God that we got out of there,” she said, shaking her head.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...