Ringgold survivors sift through storm wreckage

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RINGGOLD, Ga.-Through his handheld police scanner, Gary Parsons heard that tornadoes had killed several people on Cherokee Valley Road.

Parsons and his sister rushed out of their house at 1 a.m. Thursday, driving the few blocks to the homes of their sister, Norma Hodges, and cousins, the Blacks.

But Cherokee Valley was blocked off. Swerving on back roads, dodging mangled limbs and electrical wires, they finally reached the homes and their headlights speared what was left - piles of rubble.

"When we got out there, the houses were demolished," Parsons said.

Parsons' hopes rose when a police officer told him his sister was still alive and being treated at Parkridge Medical Center in Chattanooga. But when the body of his cousin, Chris Black, was found several hours later in a ditch, his heart sank.

"When they found Chris' body, we assumed everyone was gone," he said.

He was almost right.

The bodies of Chris, his wife; Pam, 21-year-old son, Cody; and 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea; were found by Thursday afternoon. But a flicker of good news came for the brokenhearted relatives when they heard that Cody's daughter, Beatrix, known as BB, was staying with her mother in Ringgold and had survived.

"The little baby made it, praise the Lord," said Stan White, another cousin.

The four members of the Black family and an 86-year-old former high school principal were among the eight fatalities identified by authorities Friday afternoon.

CONTRIBUTE TO DISASTER RELIEFThe Times Free Press has begun a local storm-relief effort, Neediest Cases: Southern Storms.Donations from individuals and businesses can be sent directly to the newspaper and will be channeled to the American Red Cross. Donations also can be made online at http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/neediestcases/2011/.Next week, the newspaper will begin publishing lists of Neediest Cases: Southern Storms donors along with a running tally of all donations made.

Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander said seven of the victims lived on Cherokee Valley Road within 200 yards of each other, and most were killed when their houses collapsed around them.

Also killed were Holly Readus, 26; Robert Jones, 47; Jack Estep, 61; and Rhea McClanahan, 86.

Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said officials are confident they have thoroughly combed through the residential areas and all reports of missing people have been reconciled.

He didn't rule out the possibility of more bodies being found in the commercial area near Interstate 75. And some of the families of people killed in that area may not know their loved ones were in Ringgold when the storms hit, he said.

"We have an unknown factor with the interstate," Summers said.

Mourning losses

Hullander said most of Estep's family members were still being treated Friday at local hospitals.

McClanahan, who was Hullander's high school principal, has a street named after him near Tiger Creek Elementary School and presided over Ringgold High School for years.

"He's been an icon in our community," Hullander said.

The victims' names weren't released until Friday afternoon. Before that, speculation and rumors spread about who had been killed.

Rumors had circulated that Lance Carter, who worked at the Kangaroo gas and convenience store on Battlefield Parkway, was killed when the store was flattened. When he walked into the store, co-worker Tracy Daugherty teased him about his rumored demise.

Funeral arrangements• Visitation for the Blacks will be Monday at Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The funeral will be Tuesday at 11 a.m.• Visitation for Readus will be today from 2-8 p.m. at the Heritage Funeral Home chapel in Chattanooga. Her funeral will be Sunday at 2 p.m.• Arrangements haven't been made for McClanahan and Jones and were unavailable for Estep.

"You're alive," Daugherty said, eliciting a weak laugh from Carter.

"I've been getting reports of people dead and I was talking to them," Carter said. "That was the first I heard that I was dead."

Carter said he arrived to work 10 minutes after the storm hit and watched as one of his co-workers was pulled out of the bathroom, wounded but alive.

First look

Hundreds of Ringgold residents and business owners were allowed back into the city Friday morning, but Summers said it would probably be Monday before the city was fully reopened.

Authorities were still advising residents to boil water to protect themselves from disease, but officials said the water treatment plant was back online. More than 200 electrical workers spent Friday replacing power poles and restringing lines around the city.

Ringgold City Councilman Randall Franks said the city was "resilient" but acknowledged that leaders and residents have a big task ahead of them.

"It's going to take a lot of work to bring Ringgold back," he said.

Near a police checkpoint at U.S. Highway 41 and Battlefield Parkway, Jose Barrera waited to get back to his house.

Barrera said he was lying in the bathtub, covering his wife and 1-year-old son, when he began to feel the house pull upward. At the same time, a tree smashed through the house, which he thinks is what kept his family from being lifted into the sky.

"It was something that I hope to never, never live again," Barrera said. "I thought I saw the end."

After the storm subsided, the Barreras took refuge with family members.

"I didn't have time to grab anything so I just grabbed my baby and took off," he said. "He didn't have any shoes or nothing."

Some residents grew frustrated at not being allowed into the city to get medicine or other supplies.

Glendon Honeycutt, of Rossville, was ordered into a side parking lot by deputies and a state trooper at the Highway 41 checkpoint. He said he had waited an hour with a friend who needed to get to her apartment for medicine.

"It'll be another hour before he even looks this way," he said of the trooper.

City leaders urged residents to be patient.

"There are still things out there that can hurt you," Franks said.

Adding up the Impact

The Kangaroo on Alabama Highway was one of many destroyed businesses near the I-75 interchange. Heading south from the city on state Highway 151, the devastation gets worst.

The playground at the McDonald's looks like mangled Legos; the Hardee's and Pizza Hut are defaced, the ground littered with debris. Cars are tossed around the parking lots and toppled onto one another. All that is left of the Ruby Tuesday is a pile of rubble.

On Friday, a group of employees from the Walter Jackson Chevrolet dealership gathered in a circle outside the Kangaroo. The dealerships' owner, Danny Jackson, said he had called a quick meeting to hand out his employees' checks and let them know what kind of shape the dealership was in.

Many vehicles were tossed about; most of the front building was gone. One truck had a beam stuck through the windshield.

About 70 vehicles were damaged, Jackson said.

Before they left work Wednesday, workers had placed about 30 cars in the storage building to protect them from the weather.

"I was worried about the hail," Jackson said, shaking his head.

Getting home

The number of residents seeking shelter at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School dropped from 107 Wednesday night to 86 on Thursday.

Just before noon Friday, Ken Parker and his daughter, Jennifer, were at the school trying to find a shelter for themselves and their miniature schnauzer, Bear.

"I don't know how long we'll be here," Parker said. "A day, maybe two."

The Parkers live near Ringgold High School, one of the hardest-hit areas in the storm. Their duplex took damage to the roof and gutters but was sturdy enough for the family to stay the night. They headed for the shelter Friday morning because they had no power and no water.

"Everything's gone," Parker said. "I had neighbors telling me it looked like a war zone, and we went through it. It did."

Colin Downey, a Red Cross worker stationed at the shelter, said spirits remained up, despite people going through the "worst time in their lives."

"They want to get in, clean up and get going," he said.

And some just want to get on the road.

Fred Gabriel and his wife, Jan, thought they had outrun the storm on their way from Fort Myers, Fla., to their home near the Canadian border in Metamora, Mich. A little after 8 p.m. Wednesday, they checked into the Days Inn on Highway 151.

Gabriel left his wife in the room and started to walk next door to McDonald's. On his way there, the lights went out. He hurried back to the room and took his wife into the bathroom. As the door shuddered and bucked, he grabbed the knob and played tug-of-war with the storm to keep it closed.

"You knew something was really going on out there," he said.

When the storm ceased, they heard an amazing stillness before leaving the bathroom to look at the devastation. Even their car was totaled.

"We thought it was a good place to stay the night," she said, sitting outside at the Fort Oglethorpe shelter. "That was a mistake."