published Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Kennedy: Tragic moments in state's history

A book landed in my office mail last week called "Tennessee Tragedies," by Allen Coggins (University of Tennessee Press, $39.95, www.utpress.org).

Coggins is a former Tennessee Emergency Management specialist who spent 20 years combing through libraries and newspaper archives to dig up facts on the worst disasters in state history.

I was about to toss the book into the "donate to the public library" pile when it fell open on my lap to Page 113. I looked down at the book and immediately felt my stomach start to churn.

There, on the page, was a 1977 photo of a disoriented deputy sheriff standing inside the charred remains of the Maury County jail in Columbia, Tenn., my hometown.

Forty-two people died on June 26, 1977, in a jail fire. I have always been haunted by the thought of inmates caught behind bars in a cloud of suffocating black smoke.

I was home from college that summer day, and I remember that I was taking an afternoon nap when sirens woke me up. Looking out the kitchen window in my parents' house, I saw a column of smoke rising from the jail, which was about eight blocks away.

A 16-year-old runaway from the Midwest had set a mattress on fire inside the jail, sending toxic cyanide and carbon monoxide fumes throughout the concrete building, according to the Coggins book.

At 19 years old, it was the first time that I was an eyewitness to chaos. Years later, as a reporter, I would learn to run toward tragedy, but at 19 I simply slumped into numbness.

"Tennessee Tragedies" contains 351 pages about horrific fires, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, lynchings, violent strikes and explosions through the Volunteer State's history.

Flipping through the book, I was struck how many of the events I had heard of, or had even covered as a reporter.

In 30-plus years inside a newsroom, you see a lot of things, talk to a lot of people. Ultimately, those experiences carve their initials in your character. Here are some entries from "Tennessee Tragedies" that stirred my memories.

* Benton Fireworks Factory Explosion (May 27, 1983). I was a green reporter at The Chattanooga Times when I was sent to Polk County to help cover the explosion of a fireworks operation there.

The blast, which was heard as far away as Chattanooga, killed 12 people and rained body parts over several acres of farmland. "The body of one man crashed through a roof and landed in the attic of a nearby home," Coggins reports in his book.

I have two visceral memories of the event: a severed human arm on top of a telephone pole, and a local man whom I overheard expressing his disgust that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had sent a black reporter to cover the story. My brain was unable to fully process either piece of information.

* Severe Winter Storms of 1993 (March 12-18). The so-called "Blizzard of 1993" was, according to Coggins, "the storm of the century and one of the all-time worst natural disasters to affect the eastern United States."

While there is no doubt the freak March snowstorm, which dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Chattanooga, was the cause of great hardship, it was also one of the most galvanizing experiences of my lifetime.

For days after the blizzard, The Chattanooga Times ran page after page of reports called "Heroes of the Storm" -- vignettes about people who went to extraordinary lengths to deliver food, medicine and heating fuel to people stranded by the storm.

My favorite reporter memory of the Blizzard of 1993 was interviewing stranded spring breakers on Interstate 75 who were trying to walk through knee-deep snow in flip-flops.

* I-75 Fog Wreck (McMinn County, Dec. 11, 1990). The deadliest highway accidents in Tennessee history, this fog-induced pile-up involved 99 vehicles. According to newspaper reports, 12 people died and 56 others were injured. The slow-motion tragedy took almost 30 minutes to unfold and fast-moving cars and trucks plowed into the carnage hidden by a fog bank.

"A Chevy Blazer was so tightly sandwiched between two tractor-trailer rigs that it could have fit into a telephone booth with room to spare," according to Coggins' research.

* Lasting memory: Years later, I interviewed a survivor of the fog pile-up who was trapped in a van and remembered the excruciating silence between collisions that seemed to never end. The psychological torture of not knowing if the next second would end your life must have been unbearable.

* Tornados of 2011 (April 25-28). Last spring's Super Outbreak of 2011 resulted in more than 320 deaths and thousands of injuries nationally. While only 38 deaths were officially recorded in Tennessee, the Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama state lines formed the crosshairs of the outbreak. In the Times Free Press circulation zone, which includes parts of North Georgia and northeastern Alabama, 81 were killed.

For all who witnessed the tornadoes and their aftermath, it will forever change the way we look at the sky. For those who covered the story, it was the breaking news event of a generation.

Oddly, my lasting memory will be the stories of people who found tornado artifacts from hundreds of miles away.

As I wrote at the time: "When the sky rains down lockets, quilts and family photographs, somebody in charge seems to be suggesting we join hands. I think they used to call this a miracle."

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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