published Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Knoxville man finds receipt from Ringgold storm victims

Four new graves at the edge of New Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery for the Black family. Parents Christopher and Pamela Hargis Black and their children Cody, 21, and Chelsea, 16, were killed on April 27 when a tornado hit their residence just outside Ringgold, Ga.
Photo by Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel
Four new graves at the edge of New Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery for the Black family. Parents Christopher and Pamela Hargis Black and their children Cody, 21, and Chelsea, 16, were killed on April 27 when a tornado hit their residence just outside Ringgold, Ga. Photo by Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel
  • photo
    Joe Jakubek shows a receipt that bears the name of a tornado victim in West Knox County. Jakubek was raking leaves when he found the receipt that bears the name of Ringgold, Ga., resident Christopher Black, who was killed along with his wife, Pamela, and their children, Cody and Chelsea, when a tornado struck their home on April 27. Photo by Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel

By Matt Lakin, Knoxville News Sentinel

RINGGOLD, Ga. — Put them together, and the pieces tell the story of four lives cut short in a single moment.

One by one, those pieces keep finding their way home.

An April 27 tornado that swept through the Southeast killed Chris Black; his wife, Pamela; their 21-year-old son, Cody; and their 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea, as they huddled for safety in the closet of their house near the Tennessee-Georgia line. Winds that topped 150 mph snatched up their only shelter, smashed it to the ground, and scattered the pieces of those lives for miles.

“It’s still kind of hard for me to believe sometimes,” said Chris Black’s sister, Patti Black Stephens. “Everything was just totally gone.”

Joe Jakubek picked up one of those pieces in his yard in West Knoxville last week. The tattered, faded scrap of paper, torn almost in half, nearly blended in with the leaves he’d stopped to rake.

Jakubek made out a name and an address — Chris Black, 370 Friendship Road, Ringgold, Ga. A quick search of the Web turned up the rest.

“The first thing that came up was the obituary,” he said. “It was almost like a message in a bottle from that family to ours. This guy was 47. His wife was 46. My wife is 46, and I’m 51. We have two children, one 18 and the other 16.”

On the wings of the storm

The paper — a jeweler’s receipt for a ring cleaned years ago — traveled more than 110 miles from the North Georgia valley where the Blacks and four others died in the region’s worst storm in four decades.

Father and son, mother and daughter lie side by side in New Friendship Baptist Church less than a mile from where searchers found their bodies. Cody Black had moved back in with his parents after a divorce. Chelsea Black, a junior in high school, was texting a friend when the storm hit.

The dried-out flowers atop the graves have begun to wilt. The headstones haven’t arrived.

Just across the hill, nothing stands of the Black house but a bare foundation, sprinkled with cinder blocks and remnants of a home — a shattered television, a broken welcome sign, an open Bible.

The rest of the house lies in a pile by the roadside a hundred or so yards away. Baseball cards, part of Chris Black’s lifelong collection, still litter the ground.

“We’ve found cards all the way up and down the road,” said Bert Kammer, whose daughter and son-in-law lived just down the hill and survived the storm. “When God calls us home, we can’t take our belongings with us.”

Kammer didn’t know the Blacks well but won’t forget watching the procession roll to the cemetery, four hearses in a row.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” he said. “This storm has touched so many lives.”

Bringing it home

SONGS FOR RINGGOLD

Christian singer/songwriter Sammy Ward has put together a five-song EP titled “Songs For Ringgold,” with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross to help relief efforts in Ringgold, Ga., his hometown. Sammy and other writers and publishers have waved their royalties and proceeds to ensure that the American Red Cross receives as much support as possible from this project.

“I wanted to do something so I could give back to my community,” the Ringgold native said.

Visit SammyWard.com for more information and to listen to or download these songs.

The storm touched Joe Jakubek, too — enough that he says his life won’t be the same.

“I have not been over the past 30 years a very spiritual man,” he said. “That’s about to change, because there’s coincidence, and then there’s other stuff. I was in church this past Sunday for the first time in years.”

He mentioned on Facebook that he’d found the receipt in his yard. Someone pointed him to a page, “Pictures and Documents Found after the April 27, 2011 Storms.”

Within two hours, someone else posted a link to Patti Black Stephens’ Facebook page. He sent her a message, and she answered.

The message didn’t come as a surprise. The sister spent the days after the tornado touched down sorting through debris scattered across the hillside.

“We found Cody’s whole closet about 100 yards from the house,” she said. “He was an artist, and we found drawings he’d made strewn everywhere.”

She’s heard from others who have found scraps from the Blacks’ lives, dropped like bread crumbs along the storm’s path through East Tennessee.

“There was a picture of Cody and Chelsea that ended up in Maryville,” she said. “My brother had a paycheck stub that someone found in Knoxville. I’d like to get all the stuff back I can. It kind of helps me deal with this loss, like I’m getting a piece of them back and bringing it home.”

Jakubek said he’s sending the receipt back where it belongs. He and his wife, Kelly, hope to leave for Ringgold next week to meet Stephens and hand over the receipt in person.

“I think it’s served its purpose,” he said. “Part and parcel, those two scraps of paper have helped make me a better person.”

Matt Lakin may be reached at 865-342-6306.

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