Willie and Marvin Quinn are smiling again.
And on Friday — Day No. 72 after one of nine tornadoes swept through Hamilton County in late April, tearing their house down around them — being able to smile easily is almost like coming home again.
“For weeks I felt like I was somewhere else and the people who were supposed to be here, weren’t here,” Willie Quinn, 75, said as she stood between the elderly couple’s borrowed travel trailer and their new house, watching a crew from Sequatchie Cement Co. pour a garage floor.
Over a period of months 42 years ago, while her husband, now 80, was at work, Willie Quinn and her father-in-law built the house in Apison that an EF4 tornado demolished in seconds as the couple huddled and prayed inside.
The new house is going up with volunteer builders, the generosity of friends and strangers and about $30,000 in disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Most of the volunteer labor on the modest two-bedroom, two-bath home is being coordinated by two men who met in Apison on the weekend after the tornadoes swept through.
Don Riddle, another Apison homeowner, was trying to cut a tree off his house when Eric Schoonard, one of the directors of Southern Adventist University’s maintenance and services department, walked up and asked if he needed help.
“I said, ‘Yeah, you can if you’ve got a big crane or something to lift this tree.’ He said he’d be back in a little while, and about 20 minutes later, here he came with a forklift.”
In the hours and days that followed, both men went on to help others in the blown-away community.
Riddle said he’d known the Quinns for years and, when he went to check on them after hearing their house was destroyed, what he saw broke his heart.
“They were sitting on the front porch — about all that was left of their house — and they looked like lost puppies,” Riddle said. “They’re way beyond retirement, and it hurt to know they would really have no way to recover. I told them then that I didn’t know how, but I would help them build back their house.”
Schoonard was working in the community with a group of volunteers from Southern Adventist, so the group and Riddle teamed up to take on the Quinns’ house.
“I think it’s providential that we’ve connected,” said Schoonard, a third-generation builder. “Don is a great guy with big heart, and it’s been great working with him.”
The House Raising
Southern Adventist workers and volunteers set the foundation for the house and framed it in a matter of days.
The university paid some of the workers during the framing time. The university also paid for the workers who installed new heating and air-conditioning equipment at the house.
Schoonard was at the house Friday afternoon and evening to install windows himself.
“I love to help people, and the Quinns are such sweet people,” he said. “My wife and I took them to pick out bathtubs, and I went back out there on the Fourth of July. Mr. Quinn said to me, ‘I don’t understand. You never take any time for yourself.’ I said, ‘Mr. Quinn, I have a house. I’m fine.’”
Perhaps as important as doing the building, Riddle and Schoonard have tried to help the Quinns stretch $30,000 to cover materials for the house. That has been a tall order, they said.
“You can’t build a house for that, but between Don and I, we are trying to make sure the right choices are made. So far we’re doing all right,” Schoonard said.
And there has been other help, as well, Riddle said.
A Methodist church in Apison is paying for the siding. An Ooltewah church is buying a stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer. A cabinet company in Dalton is providing cabinets and countertops. A local plumber donated his time and the piping to rough in the home’s plumbing.
“I would be hard-pressed to name all the people who’ve helped,” Riddle said. “The tornado was an unnerving and life-changing thing, and it’s good to see that people still care.”
The self-fulfillment is pretty rewarding, too, he said.
“It feels good. I’ll put it that way. It feels good to know you’ve helped your fellow man.”
Riddle hopes that the house will be ready for the Quinns to move into in mid-August.
But, of course, that’s dependent on the time schedule of volunteers — especially skilled tradesmen, who are all very busy now with the growing amount of insurance-funded rebuilding going on in the region.
Mike Fisher, a heating and air-conditioning worker for Southern, was under the Quinns’ new home last week, readying ductwork.
“We’ve adopted this house,” Fisher said with a grin. “It’s on our work board: ‘Tornado house — the Quinns.’”
Willie Quinn flashed him a big smile and stuck her hand out — meeting him for the first time.
“These guys are wonderful,” she said. “I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
“This house is away ahead of what we had before,” her husband said.
In a few minutes, Willie Quinn looked back at the house.
“So far, I’ve not drove the first nail in that one,” she said, motioning toward their home. “I’m going to have to get one in someplace.”
Her husband grabbed playfully at her elbow.
“Oh, yeah, get you a hammer,” he said with a grin.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...