Ringgold: 8 killed

Ringgold: 8 killed

April 29th, 2011 by Andy Johns and Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Stan White looks at an overturned sports utility vehicle, a large red X slashed through the white paint. He closes his eyes.

White, a longtime resident on Cherokee Valley Road, points to the paint and whispers "that's Chelsea's car."

Just an hour before on Thursday, the bodies of White's first cousin, Chris Black, and his daughter, Chelsea, were found near their house.

But Black's wife, Pamela, son, Cody, and Cody's baby daughter, nicknamed "BB," couldn't be found.

"[They] could be anywhere," White said, his eyes heavy.

The devastation on Cherokee Valley Road stretches for several miles. It got the brunt of the tornadoes that ripped through Catoosa County, authorities said.

The storms leveled dozens of houses and killed at least eight in the neighborhood. Neighbors say at least 15 people were still missing Thursday, but authorities couldn't confirm reports of missing people.

From a first glance when turning off U.S. Highway 41, the road appears untouched. But about a mile down, the trees start to look mangled. Come around a bend and the devastation explodes in front of you.

Trees along the hills sprout like spikes, blades of wood shorn by a cosmic lawnmower. Foundations of houses lay barren. Sofa cushions, house insulation and shoes lay scattered along ditches and in ponds.

On Thursday, dogs sniff through the rubble, trying to locate the missing - dead or alive.

Aipan Gajjar is watching the news from the third story of his father's hotel, the Baymont Inn & Suites right off Interstate 75, when the wind begins to roar outside.

Going to the window, Gajjar sees a funnel cloud swirling directly at him. Grabbing his aunt, Pushpa Champaneria, he dives into the bathroom next to the window and crouches inside with three other family members.

They huddle in the bathroom as the side of the room and the entire roof are wrenched off the building.

"We just started praying," Champaneria said.

On Thursday morning, drywall, food and clothes are flung on the floor of the wrecked room. The kitchenette's countertop is still intact and two tortillas still sit neatly in the toaster oven from the family's interrupted meal the night before.

Gajjar's father, Ravi, stands at what's left of the hotel's front entrance, saying nothing. Every window of the entrance is shattered. Most of the building's backside is torn off, and furniture sits in the obliterated rooms.

Ravi and his family have come back to salvage any belongings left inside.

But they can't.

"Everything's gone," he said, tears welling up.

- By Staff Writer Joy Lukachick

Most of those injured in Ringgold are people who happened to stop at the Interstate 75 exit to grab a bite to eat, stay the night or ride out storms.

On Thursday morning, cars are scattered around the area, suggesting that drivers abandoned them in a hurry. One minivan sits a gas pump near the interchange, the station collapsed around it.

A sack full of Krystals rests in the passenger seat of a badly beaten Jeep Cherokee that is tossed like - well, a bag of Krystals - onto a sidewalk.

Many of the former fast-food restaurants, gas stations and hotels are unrecognizable and county officials must identify the splintered heaps to the media.

During the tornado, four people were trapped in a bathroom at the BP station in Ringgold as the building tore to pieces around them, according to Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers.

- By Staff Writer Andy Johns