CONTRIBUTE TO DISASTER RELIEF
The Times Free Press has begun a local storm-relief effort, Neediest Cases: Southern Storms.
Donations from individuals and businesses can be sent directly to the newspaper and will be channeled to the American Red Cross. Donations also can be made online at http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/neediestcases/2011/.
Next week, the newspaper will begin publishing lists of Neediest Cases: Southern Storms donors along with a running tally of all donations made.
RAINSVILLE, Ala.—A grandmother. A father. An aunt. A granddaughter. A son.
Their families name them one by one and share stories of their lives — at least 32 people snatched away in the storm that left a path of destruction 25 miles long across DeKalb County, Ala.
“It’s worse than Iraq,” said Derek Rosson, a Marine who completed two tours of duty during the war. “You know the people — my grandmother, our neighbors across the street who were like family.”
Rosson gestured across County Road 515 to a barren wasteland swept clean of little more than splinters of wood. Two days ago, the area was filled with a mobile home park and several houses.
“Yesterday, that field had bodies everywhere,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of death and terrible things, but this was the worst.”
The tornado left a littered wake of debris and snapped trees along the length of DeKalb, starting in Grove Oak and stretching to the Georgia line. The storm essentially paralleled state Highway 75, running between one-quarter mile to several miles east of the roadway.
The National Weather Service from Bessemer had a survey team on the ground Friday, but has not yet classified the strength of the storm.
At least 32 were killed in DeKalb and more than 100 injured. Officials continued search-and-rescue operations Friday, trying to reach rural areas and searching for some people still missing.
Officials at first said 36 people died in the storm, but later changed that number to 32. Chief Deputy Michael Edmondson said the number reflected only those brought to the emergency management agency’s office command center at Farmer’s Telephone Cooperative and not those taken to area hospitals.
Diane McMichen, a spokeswoman for DeKalb Regional Medical Center, said they know some of the most seriously injured victims who were transferred to Chattanooga, Huntsville and Birmingham hospitals did not survive, but she did not have any numbers.
The tornado’s devastation spread through rural areas and the east side of Rainsville, with hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed. Two school buses were picked up and tossed about one-quarter of a mile, across a demolished Huddle House and into an empty field. Through huge holes in the roof, big patches of daylight were visible inside the DeKalb County Coliseum. A mural on a wall with the Alabama Crimson Tide elephant was the only thing remaining of the nearby Wing House. The wall highlighting the Auburn Tigers had collapsed.
In some of the hardest-hit areas — Marshall Road, Skaggs Road, Lingerfelt Road and County Road 515 — home after home was lifted off its foundation and smashed into neighboring fields and woods. Dozens of people dug through muddied clothing, twisted tin and splintered boards, looking for a few mementos to salvage — some memories of the life before they lost everything.
• Kandice Setterfield
• Evelyn Johnson
• Robert King
• Lisa Pack
• Tami Glasgow
• Chase Glasgow
• Rhonda Smith
• Tommy Evans
• Identity unknown
• Adam Carroll
• Donald Christian
• Dorothy Christian
• Jo Ann Darnell
• Joshua Poe
• Brenda Prescott
• Mary Raper
• Bobby Raper
• Chris Black
• Pam Black
• Cody Black
• Chelsea Black
• Holly Readus
• Robert Jones
• Jack Estep
• Rhea McClanahan
• Donny Walston
• Jerry Williams
• Mai Crumley
• Ronnie Zach Davis
Bledsoe County, Tenn., which had four fatalities, and DeKalb County, Ala., which had 32, have not released the names yet.
“Nothing is forever”
Residents in Rainsville were picking up the pieces Friday, the sound of dozens of chainsaws echoing through the area. City workers cleared debris from the streets, and utility companies worked to clear downed power lines. Crews do not expect power to be restored to some areas for days, maybe even weeks.
But the devastation was difficult to comprehend for the small town of nearly 5,000. On Friday, County Commissioner Dewitt Jackson tried to clean out the worst debris from the coliseum. Seeing dozens of bodies, many of whom he knew, brought into the temporary morgue at the fire station, shook him to the core.
“It’s pitiful, so devastating,” he said as he dragged a piece of mangled tin out of the rainsoaked building. “All the bodies and bringing people in to ID the dead.”
One man lost his mother, father and wife, he said. A good friend lost a brother. A woman, her granddaughter and infant great-granddaughter were killed. One man was found wrapped in barbed wire, still alive. He died later.
“I can’t see how much more people can handle without just going off,” Jackson said. “You don’t realize how bad it is until it hits this close to home.”
He spent Thursday cooking for victims and rescue workers because that’s “what do you do, you go cook for them.”
“Life goes on. You pick up the pieces and remember that nothing is forever.”
But at that point, Jackson could no longer continue talking.
“There are no words,” he said.
Mary Wells clutched every picture and piece of paper her family brought to her, laughing at the pictures and memories.
Wells sat at the edge of a wheat field that was thrashed to bits and littered with the contents of a dozen homes. Her sister-in-law and her husband, Gene and Marcella Bullock, both were killed when their mobile home on Marshall Road was blown off its foundation and scattered across the field. Many other family members in the area, including Wells, lost everything in the tornado.
“We are glad they went together, because they would never have survived without each other,” Wells said.
Gene and Marcella were grammar school sweethearts, but went their separate ways to different states and marriages. Years later, they met again and it was love at first sight. The two had been married nine years. She was 64; he was 65.
“We have good memories of them, and we are thankful for that,” Wells said. “And everything else we lost is just stuff.”
Jerry Rosson saw the funnel cloud coming over the woods to the southwest and knew he didn’t have much time. He called for his children and their friends and raced for his mother’s home.
Twelve people piled into one tiny bathroom. Rosson put his arms around his family, holding on with all his might as the strength of the wind pulled at all of them and the walls were blown away.
Despite his best efforts, his 8-year-old daughter was sucked from his arms and blown into the field.
“Everything was just exploding. I could see Shelby flying across the field,” Rosson said, shaking his head. “It happened so fast, and I was just worried about everyone else.”
Shelby, who was not hurt seriously, hit the ground running and screaming for her father. Several others in the bathroom also were pulled out and suffered broken ribs and scrapes. Rosson had a broken ankle.
But his mother, Esther Rosson, was killed. She was 81 and had survived cancer and losing her husband only three weeks ago.
“She would do anything for you,” Jerry Rosson said. “She loved to cook.”
No one could make iced tea like his Gramma, said Derek Rosson, Jerry’s son.
“She would hound you if you didn’t eat,” Derek said.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...