Editor's note: The tornadoes brought many people to a crossroads, where they had to face questions about life and self, the future and sometimes the past. Today's crossroads story is about family and faith.
The hail pounded on the patrol car roof.
Chief Deputy Mike Edmondson gripped the steering wheel tighter as the wind tried to force him off the road in DeKalb County, Ala. Leaves, grass and insulation swirled around the windows as he sped south across state Highway 75.
The tornado was on the ground in the southern side of the county, dispatchers had just crackled over the radio.
Minutes earlier, Edmondson had helped pull a mangled man from the remnants of his home. His body was in pieces. Edmondson had watched another woman take her final breath. He had loaded bleeding people with broken bones onto doors and anything sturdy enough to haul them to an emergency vehicle.
These tornadoes on April 27, 2011, were nothing like the 31-year-old officer had ever seen.
But there was no word from his young wife, Jody, who was at home just south of him with their 5-month-old daughter.
The Edmondsons had been married for only two years. They already had been dealt a devastating blow when Jody was diagnosed with cancer just months after their wedding. But doctors had removed all the cancer. She was healthy again, and their new daughter was perfect.
They had to be OK, but he couldn't shake the thought that he would find them gone. His heart pounded faster. He felt helpless.
Edmondson used to have faith in God, but he hadn't prayed in years, hadn't seen the inside of a church in a decade. It wasn't that he had lost his faith; he had just stopped caring.
But there on the highway, Edmondson prayed: "Lord, you let me make it through this and I promise I'll live for you for the rest of my life."
His cell phone rang. His older brother, William, had driven to his house. He was with Edmondson's wife and daughter.
Seven tornadoes ripped through DeKalb County that night.
Bodies were loaded into vans to be hauled to the morgue. Many were taken to a local fire station to be identified. A damage survey showed that DeKalb was one of the worst-hit counties in Alabama. The final death toll reached 35.
Seven days after the storm, Edmondson stepped into Sheriff Jimmy Harris' office and said, "Look, I gotta go take care of something. I've got to leave."
Harris glared at him. But he let his chief deputy off early that night without any questions.
Edmondson left and drove to Union Grove Baptist church in Crossville, Ala. He knew the church's pastor, Zach Richards, because he was also a chaplain for safety workers.
"Will you pray with me?" he asked the pastor.
The two men walked to the front of the empty sanctuary to the altar. The men knelt, and Edmondson prayed, asking God to forgive him.
As Edmondson looked up from his prayer, Richards heard a content sigh escape from his lips. Edmondson's eyes seemed lighter, his face relieved.
The first Sunday that Edmondson was free from work, he walked through the doors of the church he had attended as a teenager, Macedonia No. 2 Baptist Church, with his wife and daughter. Pastor Lawayne Levans was surprised to see him.
A year later, Levans said he has seen a miracle take place in the chief deputy's life. Every Wednesday evening, Edmondson leads a group of teenage boys. He has a heart to mentor teenagers addicted to or struggling with drugs, Levans said.
"It's amazing how God can take tragedy and make victories out of them," he said.
Now Edmondson shares his story at churches, youth groups and sheriff's office events, every chance he gets.
"No doubt, [God] got a hold of that car and shook it with me in it," he said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...