published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

One rescue begets another and another in tornado’s aftermath

David Clark stood up from the wreck of his travel trailer, hoping flashes of lightning would help him find the path to the log-and-timber home he’d been building by hand for eight years.

All he saw was sky.

He turned in every direction and waited. Still sky.

“Finally I realized it was gone,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘I’ve got to get to Mary Beth.’”

Mary Beth Sanders is the tiny redhead whose small house Clark also had built on a former slice of his property near the New Harmony community.

The shorts and headlamp he had grabbed as he jumped out of bed when he heard the EF4 tornado approach were gone. He still had his glasses on, and as the lightning strobed, he could see the peeled-away walls of the trailer lying around him like battered flower petals.

Barefoot, soaked and freezing, the 52-year-old walked until he felt the cutting gravel of his half-mile-long driveway. But that path ended within just a matter of feet into an unending wall of twisted and downed trees.

“I crossed the creek and picked my way through the pasture until I found her driveway. Then I turned and turned again, waiting for lightning, trying to see her house. But it was gone, too.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be a body hunt, not a rescue anymore.’”

Clark said he stood, dazed, with “zero expectation” of finding the young woman he and his wife, Jill Plumer, had befriended years before and taken in like family. Plumer had stayed in Chattanooga that night to help man the YMCA as a storm shelter if it was needed.

Clark and Plumer had even sold Sanders a corner of their property. Clark, a carpenter who felled and sawed his own lumber, built Mary Beth’s frame-and-timber house.

Finally, Clark said, he regained enough presence of mind to yell out his friend’s name.

“She answered,” he said, taking a deep breath. “She was under her truck.”

Sanders called the sound of Clark’s voice “heaven-sent.”

“I was worried about him and Jill,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on back there, but I knew it couldn’t have been good.”

She was in her pajamas and had just taken the first bite of her supper at the coffee table when she heard things hitting the side of her house.

“I grabbed my dog and ran behind the piano,” she said. “Then the floor collapsed, and I dropped four or five feet into the crawl space.”

The next thing she knew, screaming wind was blowing her across the ground.

“I hunkered down and waited for what was coming,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be here.”

After an emotional moment, Clark and Sanders began walking toward the home of Harold and Debbie Fox.

But through blinding lightning flashes, all they found was another litter-strewn field. Emergency responders would later find the couple’s bodies in trees.

One more time, Clark and Sanders began walking, this time toward the home of Howard and Bonnie Blankenship. There one rescue in the ravaged community begat another.

As Clark and Sanders reached the yard, Blankenship and his wife were making their way around the house to search for them. The Blankenships took in their homeless neighbors, dressed them, hugged them and sheltered them for the night.

“That naked man coming up through the yard — that was a beautiful sight,” Blankenship said with a laugh Thursday as he and Clark took a break after cutting a tree away from the Blankenships’ roof.

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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