Back home in Michigan, Jan and Fred Gabriel can't stop telling friends and family members about the wild April night they spent in Ringgold, Ga.
Road-weary from their ride home after wintering in Fort Myers, Fla., the couple booked a room April 27 at the Days Inn at Exit 348 on Interstate 75 just a few hours before an EF4 tornado tore the hotel to pieces and gave them a terrifying story to tell.
"It's something we won't forget," said Fred Gabriel, a retired Chrysler employee from Metamora, Mich.
Every year, the couple stays a night in Cleveland, Tenn., about halfway between their summer and winter homes. But on that Wednesday, the snowbirds felt tired and stopped 30 miles short. They checked the Holiday Inn Express first, but decided it was too pricey and went across the street to the Days Inn.
After settling in, Gabriel left his wife to get coffee at the McDonald's next door. As he walked under a blackening sky, all the lights around him went out. When he turned to go back to the motel, he saw his wife open the door to their room and yell that the storm cloud and flying debris were right behind him.
Gabriel ran into the room and huddled with his wife in the bathroom, holding the door shut as the storm tried to rip it away.
"If I was by myself and that motel door was locked, I might not have made it," he said.
When they opened the door, they saw the motel was a wreck, with parts of the walls and roof torn down. The metal door to their room was curved and bent like a misshapen coat hanger. Glass, insulation and debris littered the carpet.
The McDonald's where he had planned to get coffee lost a chunk of its roof and had its windows blown out.
"I'm surprised more people didn't get killed when you see the damage," Jan Gabriel said.
In the parking lot, one car was flipped over and another tossed onto the sidewalk. Their own Dodge Caliber was riddled with dents from debris, its windshield smashed.
Inside the car, the Gabriels grabbed their jewelry, cameras, computers and Wii game console to stash them in the hotel room in case looters found the car before they returned.
They went to another hotel before being evacuated to the shelter at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. Jan Gabriel made a quick call to her daughter Kris Wargo, 650 miles away in Chesterfield, Mich., before her cell phone battery died.
"I just started crying and said we had been in a tornado but we're OK," she said.
Wargo said she and other family members didn't know exactly where her mother and stepfather were during the storms, but when she got the call, she knew instantly something was wrong.
"My mom is a pretty tough gal," Wargo said. "She doesn't cry unless it's warranted."
But with such a short phone call, she could only guess at the details.
"I didn't have any information until 7 a.m. the next morning," she said. "It was a long, torturous evening."
The next day the story spread through the branches of the family tree. Friends called to say they had seen the hotel, the McDonald's and even the Gabriels' orange Caliber on television.
"They saw our car several times on CNN," Jan Gabriel said. "We weren't hurt at all, and they were very happy about that."
While word of their safe escape spread around Metamora, located just east of Flint and north of Detroit, the Gabriels had to figure out how to get home.
After returning to the hotel room for their valuables, Fred Gabriel hailed a taxi to get to the Chattanooga airport for a rental car. After a day or two in the rental car and plenty of conversations with their insurance company, the snowbirds bought a new Dodge Journey at a dealership in Cleveland, Tenn.
Gabriel credited authorities, his insurance company and the Dodge dealer for making it easy to get back on the road.
Despite losing their car, he and his wife were delayed only three days in getting home.
"The Ringgold police and fire department did a great job," he said. "Everybody was great out there. It was unbelievable how fast everything went."
Aside from the car, they lost only two umbrellas and a pair of eyeglasses.
Now back in Metamora, Fred Gabriel burned a DVD of photos from the storm damage and shared it with friends.
"They were glad we were OK," he said. "You don't get hit by a tornado every day."
Wargo said it was a week later before she saw her mom. Appropriately enough, the reunion occurred on Mother's Day.
"It was a nice hug," she said.
But the memories affect them as they've seen reports of deadly tornadoes in Missouri and Massachusetts. While news stories about storm victims had made her feel "awful" before, Wargo said she felt a new twinge of pain for the people of Joplin, Mo., because she knew firsthand what some of those families were going through.
"It's still pretty crazy," Wargo said. "What these people are going through, it touches us."
Jan Gabriel said they would think about stopping in Ringgold next winter on their way south to revisit the scene. But the Catoosa County city won't be the only thing they take a look at on their way down.
"We'll check the weather more thoroughly next time, I think," she said.