In Martha Carter’s living room, her 4-year-old great granddaughter looks up from the couch and asks: “Nana do you miss me when I’m gone? Do you cry for me?”
“Yes I do. I miss you so bad,” Carter tells Beatrix Black.
Carter clings to the child they call Bebe. She is Carter’s last link to her oldest son, Chris Black, who was killed along with his wife, Pam, and two children, Cody and Chelsea, in the April twister that mowed across Ringgold and through Cherokee Valley Road.
Bebe is Cody’s daughter. But she lived with her mom after the young couple divorced. Now Bebe’s mom, Tabitha, brings the child to visit her great grandmother every few months and the little girl begs to stay.
The child’s affection is a comfort for Carter, who still struggles with all that was lost. Carter and the rest of the family cling to the good memories and try to find ways to heal.
“We can’t give a reason for why [God] took Cody from his little girl, why he took a whole family,” said Pam’s sister, Connie Wilson. “When it’s an act of God what do you do? You can’t take anybody to court.”
Chris Black, 47, moved his family to Cherokee Valley Road in 2006 and had a home built for them. He was a doting father and husband. He helped take care of his mother, who lived a street over.
Pam, 46, delivered mail and was well-known in the community. She loved working in her yard and the smell of fresh-cut grass, said her sister.
The Blacks’ 21-year-old son, Cody, had recently moved back in with his parents. His young marriage had lasted only about a year and he needed financial help. But he had gotten a job at T-Mobile and started classes at Dalton State College.
Their daughter, Chelsea, a 16-year-old junior at Ringgold High, was energetic and at the top of her classes, Wilson said. Even though she had to carry insulin for diabetes and an inhaler for her asthma, the teen didn’t let her health get in the way of her dreams, her aunt said.
Chelsea would have graduated this year and had plans to go to college in Chattanooga.
They were all together in their home watching the news when the tornado hit Ringgold.
Wilson will never forget the night of April 27. The lights went off but flickered back on later in the evening in her Rossville home, long enough to see on the news that a “bad” tornado had hit Cherokee Valley Road.
She called her sister’s house phone. No answer. The cell phone. Nothing. All night she redialed the number.
At 6:30 a.m. Wilson’s phone rang.
“Their house is gone and I can’t find them,” her brother said breathless over the line.
They were told to go to Hutcheson Medical Center at 9 a.m. Pam’s body was there in the morgue. They were sent to Heritage Funeral Home. Chelsea was there. Another funeral home turned up nothing. Then to the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office where they were told some people were still missing.
The sheriff’s office called at 1:30 p.m. Cody’s and Chris’s bodies had been found and were being kept at a make-shift morgue. Law enforcement told Chris’s sister not to look at him, but let someone else ID the body because of the shape he was in, Wilson said.
In all, seven Ringgold residents died on Cherokee Valley Road — one of the worst-hit areas in the region. Dozens of houses, including Carter’s, were damaged, and the valley looked like a giant weed eater had mowed down the trees along the ridge.
The Blacks were buried side by side at the New Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery. Their land where their house had been was cleared. Bebe will inherit all that’s left.
Everyone grieves differently. Some don’t want to talk about what happened. Others find it comforting to remember. Wilson wants to talk about her sister, niece and nephew every chance she gets. While Carter has days where she can and days when it’s too hard.
“I’m just trying to take one day at a time,” Carter said. “I just tell Jesus to give me peace and comfort.”
But the questions are hard to cope with, how two generations were taken.
“They were all ready to go,” said Wilson. “We just feel like their lives were taken so quickly it was hard to comprehend. Nobody can get their head around it.”
But God gives the family strength to continue. Their faith is the key.
Wilson said letting people know that her sister and her family had made peace with God helps keep their memory alive and their story going.
She feels like her sister would say: “Just love me and go on. That’s all.”
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...