The next night he hears wind roaring through the trees, the first thing Riley Wooden is going to do is put on his shoes.
The Bledsoe County football player and his family lost their house when tornadoes ripped through the area on April 27, a night he never will forget.
“I felt like I was going to be dead. I accepted it. I waited for it. Then everything stopped spinning,” the offensive lineman recalled.
The Woodens’ house in the New Harmony area of Bledsoe County was destroyed with them still in it.
“We had been watching [WRCB-TV weatherman] Paul Barys, and he said there was another storm coming through our area about 9:30 [CDT],” Wooden said. “The power went out and then came back on about 15 minutes later, long enough for us to hear him saying to seek shelter immediately. My brother and I had pulled a mattress out in the hallway, and then I got an eerie feeling. I heard the wind coming through the trees.”
He heard a loud pop, and the somewhat muted roar from outside the house suddenly was magnified. The home’s heavy oak door was blown off its hinges and sent careening toward the back of the house.
“Then [the tornado] took the roof off. My brother and sister and I had our eyes closed,” Wooden said. “I could feel stuff hitting me, and I felt like we were falling forever.”
It wasn’t the yank at the pit of your stomach you get on a ferris wheel. Wooden likened it more to clothes tumbling in a dryer as his home was wrenched from its foundation and tossed an estimated 250-300 feet.
“I felt like I was tumbling head over heels. I was tumbling, but it felt, too, like I was falling straight down,” Wooden said. “It was only seconds, I guess, and then everything stopped spinning. I worried that everybody else was dead. I heard yelling and screaming, and then I could see them screaming, but I couldn’t hear them because of the wind.”
He was able to see because of the incessant lightning that he said lit up the night almost like daytime.
“I saw my brother; he was OK. I saw my sister; she was OK. Then I saw Dad,” Wooden went on. “They were all other the mattress. I couldn’t hear my dad, but I was able to tell that he was telling me to get down.”
He dropped to the ground — barefoot, his hair pasted to his head and his sleeping clothes soaked. They were out in the elements for the better part of an hour. His feet were cut and bleeding and his father was lying under the mattress with a gash across his forehead, a huge nail in his knee and, as they found out later, some broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
Riley’s grandparents lived on the hill a quarter-mile away. His family could see that at least part of their house was still standing. His brother, Tyler, made his way up the hill to check on the grandparents and to try to make a call for help.
Then the temperature dropped and sleet began to pelt the family. Tyler managed to get their grandmother’s car down the hill and they eventually got out of the rain and still-howling winds. They needed to get to the hospital.
“There was a [mobile home] in the road,” Riley related. “We went another way, but there were a lot of trees across the road. We couldn’t get out.”
His uncle, who lived several miles away, finally got through to them.
“There were people out with chainsaws, and he told them to top the trees and move to the next one,” Wooden said. “Then he just picked up and moved or pushed the trees out of the way so an ambulance could get through.”
Bledsoe football coach Jason Reel said the Woodens live about “20-25 minutes” from the hospital but that trip “took them two and a half hours.”
Wooden’s father was airlifted to Erlanger hospital, and Riley had to have a couple of lacerations on his back stitched up. He and his brother went to the farm the next morning to see what they could salvage.
“My sister’s car that had been in the garage was in the living room,” Riley said, “and my brother’s truck had been slung into her car. My dad’s truck (a Dodge Ram) got flipped a couple of times.”
One of the barns was obliterated. Meanwhile, the nearby grandparents lost a door, and a neighbor’s house less than a half-mile away was untouched.
Wooden was sorer the next day than he ever could remember, saying that even a tough football game pales in comparison.
“I can hit big boys. I go against Brian Martin every day in practice, and he’s 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds,” Wooden said. “There’s nothing a man can do to hurt you like that. I’m 200 pounds and that wind picked me up like I was nothing. It slung a 600-pound stove 200 feet.”
It was a life-changing experience for him.
“He doesn’t take a day for granted,” Reel said. “I think that near-death experience has matured him. He might be unsure of how to proceed in some situations, but he is finding a way to get through them.”
Wooden learned how precious and fleeting life can be and believes he should live each day as fully as he can.
“I remember when I was out there on the ground that I prayed,” he said. “My dad was hurt and pretty much out of it. My sister was freaking out and the Lord was right there. It was like he was waiting for us to pray.
“I don’t take things for granted anymore. Whatever you have in this life isn’t going with you to the next. That house was one I’d lived in all my life, and in 30 seconds it was completely gone, and it almost took us with it.”
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...