CROSSVILLE, Tenn. — Bunny Howe had her 9-year-old twin grandsons and three dogs in an interior hall and had gone to the front door to look out at the weather after tornado warnings were sounded in Cumberland County.
“I saw it pick up my black horse and put it down. I saw the truck trailer get picked up and turned over. Then I saw the other tractor truck picked up and coming toward the house.”
Howe said she dove for the hall and threw herself on top of the boys, just before she felt the house seem to lift.
“We were actually in God’s hands. I could feel it,” she said.
Howe and the boys — and even the horse — were unharmed by the EF2 tornado that splintered her husband’s race shop where he built and repaired drag racing cars. The Howe’s house is still standing, though now it is covered completely with a blue-tarped roof.
It was one of at least 30 tornadoes across seven states in the deadly Leap Day outbreak of tornadoes that killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the Midwest, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Just up the road from the Howes, the family of Melissa “Lisa” Evans Beaty on Hollow Drive in the rural Rinnie community was not so blessed.
The twister, with 125 mph winds, scooped up the late-model doublewide where Beaty and her husband, grown son and two grandchildren were huddled in a bathroom.
The wicked Cumberland County wind flipped the home, end-over-end, off its hilltop and slammed it into the lower end of the yard about 100 feet away.
The home’s steel frame was bent double around a huge tree trunk.
Beaty lived long enough to ask rescuers about the two little girls she lain atop in the bathtub, and to ask about her son and husband. Then she died on the scene. She was 46.
“She sheltered those babies,” said her sister, Michelle Bullard. “She saved them.”
Beaty’s husband, Ricky, is hospitalized in Knoxville with severe head and pelvis injuries.
Her son, Samuel Beaty, was found walking out of the rubble with his uninjured 2-year-old daughter some distance down the road.
Bullard and another of Lisa Beaty’s sisters, Charlotte Jones, said Samuel told rescuers he didn’t know where he was or how he got there. He was treated for head injuries at a local hospital and released.
The 5-year-old granddaughter was hospitalized briefly for observation and released.
Tom Johnstone, a weather warning coordinator with the National Weather Service’s Nashville office, said the region can expect more strong storms today.
“There’s potential for it to be worse,” Johnstone said Wednesday after visiting the Rinnie community and estimating that the killer tornado there left at least 1,000 trees uprooted or snapped in its five-mile march through Cumberland County.
Beaty was one of three people killed in Tennessee, two of which were in Cumberland County.
Carolyn Jones, another grandmother who lived in the Rinnie community, had taken refuge in the basement. Her husband, on his way to the basement when the tornado hit, was pulled from the home’s rubble with fractured ribs, a black eye and bruises.
The name of Tennessee’s third tornado victim, from DeKalb County, has not been released. Her body remained trapped Thursday in the remains of her Smithville home. Authorities said an EF1 tornado there threw the house over a hillside onto a steep and unstable embankment.
Keith Garrison, emergency management director for Cumberland County, said five people were treated at hospitals for injuries. He said at least seven homes were destroyed and 50 were damaged.
Near Crossville on Wednesday night, Jimmy Howard stayed out in his greenhouse near U.S. 127 repotting flowers because he thought the storms would pass just with a little rain and wind,
He said that was before the wind began howling “like a jet engine” and a tree crashed onto the greenhouse.
Thursday, he looked around his yard and pointed to his house where all the siding had blown off the front.
“I’ve got some damage, but I’m lucky compared to these other folks,” he said, gesturing toward the Howe’s and the Beaty’s homes.
Jones, Cross and Bullard picked at the debris of their sister’s place, hoping to find pictures and other endearments.
“I had just texted her before it happened, and she was all right,” Jones said. “She wanted to know where I was, and she said they were just waiting it out. She said they were OK.”
But not long after that, Beaty’s mother had called Jones and her husband to ask them to go check on the family. She told them she’d heard the Beaty’s address called out on the scanner, and she couldn’t get anyone in the house when she called them.
Jones’ husband, George, and Cross found the grisly scene when they picked their way through the tree-strewn Hollow Street.
The street, named for a large forested ravine below a cave spring, now looks like a bowl of spilled toothpicks.
Staring at the rubble Thursday, Cross tried to find reason.
“Just stress to people to take these tornado warnings seriously,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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, ...