One year later: A minute-by-minute look at the April 27 tornadoes

One year later: A minute-by-minute look at the April 27 tornadoes

The twisters descended at dawn on April 27, 2011. The storms wouldn't stop until long after sunset.

April 22nd, 2012 by Kate Belz in News

A still frame from a video shot by Tony Walls outside his office on April 27, 2011, shows the monster EF5 tornado bearing down on the town of Rainsville, Ala.


The year since the April 27 tornadoes has been better, but not easy

The drive of their lives

'Little moments of love'


A number of events are scheduled to mark the events of April 27, 2011, and memorialize those who died.



• Memorial candlelight service - A vigil for the 14 tornado victims from the Apison/Cherokee Valley Road area will be held at 10944 London Lane from 7-9 p.m. A monument to the victims will be unveiled at the event.


• Home dedication - Ron and Stella Yarber, who lost their home in the storms, will cut the ribbon to their new house built under the auspices of the Bradley County Long Term Recovery Organization. The event will be held at 4 p.m. at 1849 Lead Mine Valley Road.

• Recovery 2012 - A praise and worship service will be held at Lee University's Conn Center at 7 p.m.


• Storm to Strength: One Year Later - A community worship and memorial event will be held at the Ringgold High School Gym at 29 Tiger Trail. A free dinner begins at 6 p.m. and the worship event starts at 7 p.m. The service will feature music, testimonies from survivors and a time of remembrance for those who died. A community choir will sing two traditional hymns. All those interested are invited to participate in this singing. Rehearsal is at 6 p.m. April 27 at RHS. For more information, email or call 706-935-4777.


• Volunteer Appreciation Block Party - A party and cookout will be held at the Dade County Courthouse square from 4-9 p.m. The party includes free barbecue, a motorcycle and antique car show, gospel singing and bluegrass and country performances. A memorial will be dedicated at 5:30 p.m.


• Memorial service - A one-year anniversary service will be held at the Flat Rock Community Center at 7 p.m. CDT. For more information, call 256-506-7257.



• Memorial celebration - A memorial celebration will be held at 10944 London Lane from 1-6 p.m. It will include food, music, games and a time to honor volunteers and first responders.


• Concert and celebration - Carrie Hassler will headline a concert and celebration in Pikeville starting at 4 p.m. CDT. Other performers also will be featured, along with carriage rides and a table holding the World's Largest Moonpie. The event is free, though people can make donations to ongoing tornado relief. Hassler's new album, "The Distance," will also be released.


• Day of service - Bradley County is encouraging community members to participate in a day of service to commemorate April 27. It will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Volunteers may report to the Food Lion on APD 40 for assignment.


• Benefit ride - A benefit ride will be held through tornado-affected areas to help fund a monument and serenity garden at the Rainsville Civic Center. The ride will kick off at the Rainsville Civic Center at 10:30 a.m. CDT. All riders welcome.

• Monument unveiling - A memorial service and monument unveiling will be held in remembrance of DeKalb County tornado victims. The service will be held at 2 p.m. CDT in the northwest end of the DeKalb County Schools Coliseum, 1504 Main St. East.



• Moonshine Mudrun - A 5K mud run followed by a day of games and music will be held May 5 to benefit victims of the April 27 storms. The first wave of races will start at 9 a.m. at Joey Street's farm, 156 Joe St. in Rising Fawn, Ga. Afterward there will be a sled pull, a kid's race course and a "Dash for Cash," along with other games. Registration for the races is required. For more information or to volunteer, call Ryan Faircloth at 423- 432-4888 or visit

For 15 hours on April 27, 2011, the tornadoes multiplied in number and ferocity. Mountains couldn't wear them down. They hurdled rivers, zigzagged through state lines and skipped across time zones.

As the day wore into night, the TV forecasters' voices grew hoarse. Emergency workers' radios crackled incessantly with new tidings of disaster: a new area hit, another vital road blocked, another person who needed help - fast. Dispatchers with 911 call centers grew weary and frayed as they stayed glued to their chairs for hours on end.

And still the tornadoes kept coming.

Weather maps became mazes of dark red polygons as tornado warnings blanketed the Southeast. Tornado-ravaged counties in Alabama sent out mutual aid requests to counties in Georgia and Tennessee, which were already overwhelmed with their own mounting disaster.

And then the reports of fatalities trickled in. First it was just one in Alabama, then one in Chattanooga. Then the numbers exploded, climbing until 81 lives were listed as lost in the region around the city.

As we look back one year ago to April 27, the Chattanooga Times Free Press chronicles the events in the voices from the day - victims, dispatchers, first responders, meteorologists and news agencies - through 911 call recordings, radio traffic, broadcast tapes and social media feeds.

The terror and chaos of that day resonate in the panicked, bewildered voices of people who called 911 in the minutes after their homes were blown apart.

The wonder and weariness echo in the recordings of the weathermen, and in the radio traffic of the first responders venturing into raw destruction.

They are voices filled with frustration and anxiety, grief and awe. And yet the recordings of the day also reveal a remarkable resilience: People desperately trying to help their neighbors; dispatchers gently calming terrified victims; first responders hastily improvising in the face of surmounting obstacles. All trying to carve some order, any order, out of a day of utter chaos.

• 7:30-7:55 a.m. edt 6:30-6:55 a.m. CDT


Tornadoes have touched down throughout Alabama in the pre-dawn hours, but the first twister to reach the tri-state region is an EF1 tornado spinning into DeKalb County. It uproots and snaps some trees.

• 7:58-8:36 a.m. (6:58 a.m.-7:36 a.m. CDT)


Kathy Haney, 46, is killed as an EF1 tornado with 110-mph winds sweeps through the Pisgah area, destroying her trailer and crushing her and her husband under a piano. The tornado tears through 26 miles of countryside parallel to state Highway 35 in Jackson County and into northern DeKalb County.


Hamilton County officials activate their Emergency Operations Center on Amnicola Highway.

• 8:10-8:22 a.m. (7:10-7:22 a.m. CDT)


An EF1 tornado runs from DeKalb County into Jackson County. Shortly after, another EF1 strikes near Mentone, Ala., moving along the ridgeline of Lookout Mountain.

• 8:36 a.m.

WRCB Channel 3 meteorologist Nick Austin announces new tornado warnings for Bradley, Hamilton and Marion counties. "All morning these storms have really been moving at a very, very fast clip. Right now is the time you want to go down in that basement or the lowest level in a very sturdy shelter. Stay away from windows."

• 8:40 a.m.

WRCB meteorologist David Karnes: "I don't like to dramatize things too much; I know people get antsy about weather, anyway. But this is one [storm] to be antsy about, certainly."

• 8:40-8:48 a.m.


Several homes, a bank and an elementary school in the Trenton area are damaged in an EF1 tornado. It lifts just before reaching the Tennessee state line.

• 8:55 a.m.


Scott Rouse, a firefighter with Chattanooga Fire Station 20 in the Tiftonia area, spots a huge funnel cloud descending over Lookout Mountain. The firefighters in Station 20 take cover from the EF2 tornado in the vault of the fire hall. When they step out minutes later, the area is a wasteland of splintered trees, snapped telephone poles, shattered glass and crushed buildings.

• 9:04-10 a.m.


An EF1 tornado rips through Ashland Terrace near Red Bank. Another EF1 tornado touches down near East Ridge, while a third tornado hits along North Hickory Valley Road near Harrison. Less than an hour later, a fourth EF1 tornado hits Hamilton County, near Birchwood.

• 9:45-9:48 a.m.


Several homes are destroyed as an EF2 tornado touches down on Mount Zion Road.

• 11:07 a.m.

10:07 CDT

Tweet from Alabama EMA (@AlabamaEMA)

"Another round of severe weather is expected later today. Be aware of your local forecast & local conditions. Know your risks."

• 11:45 a.m.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd on WRCB: "If you don't have a place of shelter in your home now, if you have a neighbor or relatives or children at school - by all means, get them now, get whatever provisions you need, and please be in by 4 p.m. tonight. Don't be out. The pictures, the video footage, people who are interested in that can see that later. Today's not the day to be out rubbernecking and seeing what's going on."

• 12:08 p.m.

Chief meteorologist Paul Barys on WRCB: "Till round three has passed I'm still going to be concerned about it - and that's going to be most of the day and into the night. But you do have two, three, four hours right now depending on where you are ... so if you need to do something, get some batteries for your radios, folks. Cause you're going to need them. This line could produce just as bad a situation if not worse than the one we had this morning."

• 12:24 p.m.

Tweet from Chattanooga police (ChattanoogaPD)

"Tiftonia is unbelievable."

• 1:06 p.m.

Tweet from Chattanooga police (ChattanoogaPD)

"Please advise people to STAY AWAY from the Tiftonia area if they don't live there. People trying to take pictures are hindering recovery."

• 12:48 p.m. (11:48 CDT)

Tweet from Alabama EMA (@AlabamaEMA)

"Alabama EMA activated at level one; five fatalities confirmed."

• 2:41-2:47 p.m.

1:41-1:47 CDT


An EF1 tornado touches down near Haletown.

• 3:08-3:15 p.m.


An EF1 tornado touches down near Ooltewah and tracks out of Hamilton County into Bradley County, running about 15 miles and killing one person.

• 3:30 p.m.


A tree topples onto the home of 46-year-old Mai Crumley, killing her while her husband and 9-year-old son huddle in the closet. She is Hamilton County's first fatality.

• 3:30 p.m.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service warn that supercell thunderstorms are lining up southwest of the tri-state region. These cells will spawn the deadliest storms of the day.

• 3:45 p.m.

"This is far from over. This going to be a long evening." - Paul Barys, analyzing a line of storms moving east from Mississippi and western Tennessee.

• 5:01-5:57 p.m. (4:01 p.m.-4:57 p.m. CDT)


Up to three tornadoes merge into a monster EF4 twister with wind speeds up to 190 mph as it moves 24 miles toward Flat Rock and Higdon. By the time it reaches Walker County, the twister will have claimed the lives of 13 people.

Six people - including three from the Whited family near Flat Rock - are killed in Jackson County alone. The tornado levels mobile homes and tosses their remains hundreds of yards. One sturdy block foundation home explodes as the tornado hits, though a mother and three children taking refuge in a hallway are unharmed. At this farm alone, up to 19 cattle are killed and two chicken barns are swept away.

The violent tornado plows across the northern tip of DeKalb County in the Shiloh community, killing five more people and scores of livestock.

The twister continues into Trenton, Ga., demolishing part of the town, killing two and injuring more than two dozen. It then tracks across Walker County, causing severe damage in Flintstone before ending its hour-long track.

• 5:30 p.m.

TVA's 3,274-megawatt Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama loses outside power after more than 300 giant power towers are blown down. The power trip automatically shuts down the reactors, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency reports. The plant is forced to run on emergency diesel generators' power.

• 5:46 p.m.


Caller: "Just sit still. Just sit still. I've got 911."

Dispatcher: "Dade County 911."

Caller: "Hey, hey, my house is down. I've got people trapped."

Dispatcher: "Where you at?"

Caller: "Back Valley Road. My house is gone. I've got people trapped in the rubble. Back Valley Road. [To third party] Don't move. Don't move. Let them come and get you out."

• 5:48 p.m.


Caller: "We're stuck in the middle of the road and there's a power line on the car."

Dispatcher: "Where you at?"

Caller: "We're on [inaudible]."

Dispatcher: "Calm down. Quit screaming. I can't understand you. Where are you at?"


Dispatcher: "Where you at?"

[Call disconnected]

• 5:49 p.m.


Caller: "Uh - tornado just hit over us over here at Village Green Apartments. The buildings are gone. All the buildings are gone. People are hurt here."

• 5:53 p.m.


Caller: "I think a tornado just hit us - we got trees down everywhere."

Dispatcher: "Are you hurt?"

Caller: "No. We're just scared. The building beside our house is gone."

Dispatcher: "I believe there was one. We've got a lot of damage right here in the city. If you're not hurt..."

Caller: "Is it over with? [Crying] I'm scared."

Dispatcher: "There are still some storms, but I believe the tornado has passed. Just take cover."

• 5:55 p.m.



Dispatcher: "Dade County 911. Where's your emergency?"

Woman: "Um, Highway 11 South Main. I was just wondering if anyone's coming out here to clean up and help everybody."


Dispatcher: "Listen to me, OK? What's going on down there right now?"

Woman: "Everybody is gone. That's what's going on. There's nothing's left."

Dispatcher: "OK, listen to me. We're going to get someone down there as soon as we can."

• 6:05-6:31 p.m.

5:05-5:31 p.m. CDT


One is killed when an EF4 tornado touches down northeast of Fackler, Ala., and runs for 20 miles. It crosses the Tennessee River as it moves into Marion County. The tornado twists and levels 24 high-tension electrical truss towers along County Road 96.

• 6:28-6:58 p.m.


Three people are killed when an EF1 tornado with 130-mph winds touches down near Cleveland. It passes into Polk County, then dissipates in McMinn County.

• 7:04 p.m.

The VIPIRcast on WRCB's radar records almost 1,000 lightning strikes every 10 minutes.

• 7:19-7:56 p.m.

6:19-6:56 p.m. CDT


An EF5 tornado - the deadliest tornado of the day - touches down in the Lakeview community before heading northeast on a lethal 34-mile track, eventually killing 25 people. Winds strip bark from trees and rip houses from their foundations in Rainsville, Ala.

Along Lingerfelt Road, a large two-story brick home is smashed, with several of its foundation anchors ripped from the ground. An anchored safe weighing 800 pounds is picked up and hurled into the woods 600 feet away.

The family in the home survived in a nearby storm pit. Their neighbors hide with them as, above ground, their trailer disintegrates.

The twister crosses into Georgia near Fox Mountain and continues to the northwest of Rising Fawn, Ga., before lifting.

• 7:25 p.m.

Paul Barys, WRCB

"This is the cell that we've been watching. This has got 104-mph winds over Sand Mountain. You should be hunkering down. ...You're probably a professional at this now if you live on Sand Mountain ... this cell again will be moving into Walker, Dade, up to the northern part of that viewing area."

• 7:50 p.m.

EPB reports close to 100,000 customers without power, the most in its 72-year history.

• 8 p.m.

The National Weather Service issues blanket tornado warnings for all of Eastern Tennessee.

• 8:08 p.m.

Tweet from Alabama EMA (@AlabamaEMA)

"Fatality count continues to rise, please take this weather serious!"

• 8:08 p.m.

7:08 p.m. CDT


Woman: "I'm sorry to bother you - we live in a trailer. Is there anywhere we can go that they've got a shelter?

Dispatcher: "No, no ma'am, not that I know of. Do you have anybody next to you that has a basement?

Woman: "No - I live in a trailer park.,"

Dispatcher: "My best advice to you is to get the mattress off the bed, go in the bathroom and get in the bathtub with the mattress on top of you."

Woman: "OK, thank you."

• 8:15 p.m.


Tobey Hill, dispatcher with Catoosa County 911: "All Catoosa County emergency service units be advised - there is a tornado on the ground in the area of Lafayette Street and Ringgold city."

• 8:16 p.m.

Catoosa County Fire Department Battalion 3 Chief Steve Quinn is in the parking lot of Station 1 as a black funnel cloud spewing debris moves over the hill and up toward Ringgold. They rush into the station and hide as the winds rip the front door off the building.

"It just went over Station One," he tells dispatchers. "It's headed straight up Ooltewah-Ringgold Road."

• 8:16 p.m.

Michelle Campbell, a shift manager at Ruby Tuesday, looks out the window and sees a funnel cloud heading toward the building.

"Let's go, let's go!" Campbell screams as her fellow manager yells for everyone to get to the cooler in the back of the restaurant. The two dozen people there only make it as far as the kitchen. The restaurant is destroyed, but all survive.

The tornado wipes out restaurants and motels at Exit 348 on Interstate 75, kills 86-year-old Rhea McClanahan in Ringgold, then heads up Cherokee Valley Road, where it will kill seven people living within 200 yards of one another - including four members of the Black family - before continuing its deadly passage.

• 8:17 p.m.

Catoosa County 911 dispatchers wait inside the 911 center as the storm descends. The phones are silent as the winds whip overhead, lifting the ceiling tiles slightly before releasing them again. Less than a minute later, phone calls start pouring in. They won't stop until 2:15 a.m.

• 8:22 p.m.

First responder with Fort Oglethorpe Engine 8 in Catoosa County:

"All of Alabama Highway is completely on the ground. Every business - from the interstate to the bridge - is completely on the ground."

• 8:26 p.m.

Official with Sparks Command out of Catoosa County: "I'm going to need multiple ambulances, I've got four to six trapped. That's where I'm at right now."

• 8:29 p.m.

Paul Barys, WRCB

"See that red to the north of Ringgold. ... That's very, very disconcerting when you see something like that. ... That could be a tornado on the ground just north of Ringgold. You'll want to take cover rapidly, this storm is moving very, very quickly, moving to the northeast at 60 miles per hour heading into Hamilton County."

• 8:28 p.m.-8:40 p.m.


The twister out of Ringgold plows into the Apison area of Hamilton County. Eight people are killed in the rural area, including four generations of one family staying in a trailer on Clonts Road. More than 100 others are injured.

• 8:34 p.m.

Emergency responders are forced to shut down I-75 northbound after a tractor-trailer hauling bleach is twisted and flipped.

• 8:35 p.m.



Man: "[Sobbing] We're on McGhee Road. ... We got hit by tornado. ... We got hit."

Dispatcher: "You're in Apison? Stay with me, don't hang up."

Man: "Please, please hurry. We need help here."

• 8:36 p.m.

Official with Catoosa County Engine 2: "We've got massive damage here, and there's multiple people involved."

• 8:40 p.m.-8:58 p.m.


The 190-mph winds from the Ringgold-Apison tornado rip into Bradley County, killing five more people before it tracks into Polk and McMinn counties, where it dissipates almost one hour after it started.

• 8:48 p.m.

Paul Barys, WRCB

"This is time to hide in Bradley County. Cleveland, you're getting hit very hard right now. Take care of yourself."

• 8:50 p.m.


Man: "My house is gone from the tornado."

Dispatcher: "OK, where are you?"

Man: "Bradley County ... Wilhoit Drive. ... My house is totally gone. There's three of us in the house, but we're OK."

Dispatcher: "You're OK?"

Man: "I'm bleeding all over, though."

• 8:50 p.m.


East Ridge Public Safety Director Eddie Phillips to Catoosa County emergency personnel: "They've got reports that Friendship Road and Cherokee Valley Road - multiple injuries and multiple fatalities, and they need companies to go in there."

• 8:58 p.m.


Woman: "Yes, a tornado just hit us."

Dispatcher: "Ma'am, where you at?"

Woman: "I don't remember! [sobbing] I can't think about what's going on!"

Dispatcher: "OK, ma'am, let's see if we can find where you're at, OK?"

Woman: "My whole family is laying on the ground. ... I'm upset."

Dispatcher: "I understand, ma'am. Are they alive?"

Woman: "Yes. ... But my aunt's about gone."

Dispatcher: "How many people are injured?"

Woman: "Like - 10 people."

• 9 p.m.


Boy: "A tornado passed through my neighborhood - power lines are down and people are calling for help."

Dispatcher: "You can't see anyone but you can hear them calling for help?

Boy: "Yes sir, I'm in the closet with my sister and brother, and my parents are outside looking for people."

Dispatcher: "You guys are in the closet, you're safe, you're all right?"

Boy: "Yes - but people are yelling for help outside."

• 9 p.m.


Woman: "The trailer is open ... there's trees around us ... it's destroyed ..."

Dispatcher: "OK, calm down for me. We've got someone on the way; are you all right?"

Woman: "No."

Dispatcher: "What's hurting?

Woman: "All over. I'm all over. My head."

Dispatcher: "Your head? How old are you?

Woman: "I'm 61. My son's 35."

Dispatcher: Is he hurt?

Woman: "I don't know. ... He's trying to get out. ... I ain't got the strength. I just need to know y'all are coming."

Dispatcher: "We're coming. We've got someone coming as fast as they can."

• 9:05 p.m.

Paul Barys, WRCB

"We are indicating on the radar - this is no joke - 104-mph winds with this [in Sequatchie-Bledsoe area]. That is going to knock trees down. If it's going to hit a house, it's going to do damage. If it hits a mobile home, it's going to flip the mobile home. If it hits your car, it could flip your car."

• 9:10-9:43 p.m.

8:10-8:43 p.m. CDT


An EF4 tornado touches down near Dunlap and heads into Bledsoe County. Several witnesses say they saw two tornadoes form during the storm. The higher elevations do nothing to protect structures in the Brayton Mountain area. Four people are killed as the tornado tracks across the New Harmony, Graysville and Pitts Gap communities. The twister then tracks northeast across Rhea County and dissipates near Spring City.

• 9:15 p.m.

Paul Barys, WRCB

"I can tell you right now, folks, that when you get up in the morning, and you actually see the pictures and you actually see the damage, it's going to be like nothing you've ever seen. ... This is going to be the worst outbreak of tornadoes in the Tennessee Valley. I've never seen anything like this. ... This is the day that you will remember - 'I survived the storms of April 2011.' ... And that's what we're getting right now. And it's not close to over yet. We've still got a few hours to go."

• 9:23 p.m.

Tweet from Salvation Army of Cleveland (@TSACleveland)

"ALL: We have been out meeting needs in the Bradley County/Cleveland area all evening, and have seen SEVERE damage."

• 9:28-9:35 p.m.

8:28-8:35 p.m. CDT


An EF2 tornado touches down near Dunlap, while another hits Spring City about the same time.

• 9:35-9:37 p.m.


An EF1 tornado touches down near Englewood and heads into Monroe County.

• 9:41 p.m.

8:41 p.m. CDT


Caller: "We took a direct hit from a tornado up here, on Brayton Mountain. ... There are some mobile homes out back that are completely gone."

• 9:46

8:46 CDT


Caller: "There's a trailer between us and my in-laws' house. And it's completely gone. There were people living in it. So we may need medical."

• 10:05-10:10 p.m.

9:05-9:10 p.m. CDT


The last tornado to hit the region - an EF2 - touches down 2 miles south of Fort Payne and runs for 3 miles through DeKalb County. It takes out two small barns and a large metal farm building.

• 10:22 p.m.

9:22 p.m. CDT

BLEDSOE COUNTY 911New Harmony Road

Woman: "My house is falling around me. My dining room's fell in, my bedroom's fell in. ... Can you get somebody in to get us out?"

Dispatcher: "OK, do you have any entrapment, ma'am? Anyone hurt, any injuries?

Woman: "No ..."

Dispatcher: "Everything's going to be fine, everything's going to be fine."

Woman: "Can you get somebody in to get us out?"

Dispatcher: "Yeah ... house is gone ... no injuries though, thank God for that."

Woman: "Not yet."

Dispatcher: "Be careful, don't venture out, OK?"

Woman: "Half of my porch is gone."

Dispatcher: "Yeah, There's a lot of houses damaged. A lot of them are missing. ... We've got everybody coming your way. We've got everybody coming your way."

Staff writer Mariann Martin contributed to this report.