published Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Bledsoe County family struggles with loss

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    Pitts Gap, Tenn., tornado survivor Linda Jones descends into her family's newly-installed storm shelter. She says she is still so unnerved by the April 27, 2011, tornado in Bledsoe County, Tenn., that killed her mother and aunt that she huddles in the underground sanctuary almost every time it rains.
    Photo by Ben Benton.
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The storms, rebuilding and recollections

PITTS GAP, Tenn. — Every morning they awaken with fresh wounds.

Every day it's as if the tornadoes struck just yesterday.

On most mornings, Bill Thompson must go to physical therapy in Chattanooga to treat shoulder injuries sustained when he was caught up in electrical wires, slammed repeatedly against the ground and blasted nearly skinless by debris flung by the April 27 tornado.

The pain, the need for rehabilitation, the devastated landscape around his home. They're vivid, daily reminders.

Despite his lack of motivation, it's one of the things Thompson knows he must do since the EF4 tornado that claimed his wife, Pat, and sister-in-law, Loretta Winters Bellos, and turned his life upside-down.

Thompson's insurance provider replaced his modular home, but he only furnished it with a bedroom suite with a television sitting on a night stand. His clock and phone sit on the floor.

He's lost without his wife. and no amount of time will change that.

"I don't plan nothing. I've got no plans at all," he said. "I've got no reason to do it. I'm just not interested in doing it anymore."

Thompson and his daughters, Linda Jones and Carol Ware, say they just deal with their loss day by day.

The tornado comes

Earlier on April 27, sisters Pat Thompson and Loretta Bellos had been discussing travel plans. They were going to become much closer neighbors since Bellos' husband had died just a few months earlier. Bill Thompson had cleared some of their mountaintop land so his sister-in-law could join the rest of the family in Bledsoe County, Tenn.

Those plans were erased in seconds.

When the tornado struck Thompson's house, the living room window blew out just before the house exploded and vanished in the wind, taking his wife and her sister with it.

At Jones' home next door, she, 20-year-old Delayna Sarver and her 20-month-old daughter, Kyla, sought refuge in a large fiberglass tub. With them inside, the tub was blasted out of the house 100 feet before it crashed to the ground, ramming Jones' foot through the bottom and injuring her knee.

Help still was six hours away as the survivors extricated themselves from the rubble and started looking for each other and the missing sisters.

Slow emotional recovery

Thompson, 66, said he would like to be able to recover, but "I don't know how I can. Just like she [Jones] said, 'We've been robbed.'"

Each day starts with the memories. Thompson never looks forward to a new day.

"I just dread it. Because I lost my wife. She's not here," he said. "They keep telling me it's going to get better, but so far I haven't seen it.

"The memories come back. It's just an empty feeling," he said, his eyes fogging with the memories. "You know, we used to get up and we didn't make any plans, we would just decide. We would have breakfast or we might go somewhere and have breakfast."

They had known each other since first grade, lived on the same street in North Chattanooga, dated after they graduated high school and became a tight-knit couple for 46 years.

"We might sit out on the porch drinking coffee and say, 'Let's go to lunch.' And we might go to Gatlinburg to have lunch -- just drive up there with the motorcycle or the car because we could do what we wanted to," he said with a sigh.

"And now, I don't want to do anything."

For his daughters, Jones, 46, who survived the storm with injuries, and Ware, 43, from Soddy-Daisy, each day's trials are a constant reminder of what they lost.

A storm shelter juts from the ground behind Jones' house, one new safeguard against a potential return of deadly storms. But it can't protect them from memories.

Jones now has trouble organizing and staying on task. She'll often tell people the same thing repeatedly, she said.

"Life just sucks right now," Jones said, breaking down.

And how many times has she said that?

"'Life sucks?' I say it daily. Or I say, 'Is this what's left a year later? This is the life that I've been left with? I'm crazy and can't function.'

"Not that I was ever normal to begin with," she managed to laugh, "but I would like to at least go through the day without the tears."

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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