'We all lost so much'

photo DeDe Stone crouches beside the graves of her sister, Debbie Gibbs Fox, and brother-in-law Harold Fox, who were killed in Bledsoe County during the April 27 tornadoes.

PRECIOUS LIVESWhen a series of storms and tornadoes blasted through the tri-state area on April 27, 76 people lost their lives during the storm or in the days after due to storm-related events. Three students from Northeast Alabama died in Tuscaloosa, bringing the total deaths to 79 for Southeast Tennessee, Northeast Alabama and Northwest Georgia. Here is a brief glimpse of who those people were, provided by the families and friends who continue to grieve their loss two months after they died.TENNESSEEGEORGIAALABAMA

The youngest was 3 months old. The two oldest were 90.

They were teachers, students, ministers and factory workers. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, some entire families and more than a dozen married couples.

Precious lives. Stolen away by the whirlwind of storms that exploded homes and leveled communities in wave after wave of destruction on April 27.

In the days that followed, after more than a dozen tornadoes pummeled the tri-state area, the focus was on the living. Hundreds were injured, thousands without food to eat or a bed to sleep in.

The living had to be cared for first.

Two months later, the living have found at least a semblance of order in their lives - clearing away the rubble and going back to work, paying the bills each month and making plans for the future.

But there are holes ripped into their lives that will never go away. Every day, the families and friends of the 79 people who died in Southeast Tennessee, Northeast Alabama and Northwest Georgia miss the smiles and the hugs of their loved ones.

They remember the talent and promise of their children, the wisdom of their parents that can never be replaced or rebuilt.

Separated by hundreds of miles - from Rainsville, Ala., to Ringgold, Ga., to Bledsoe County, Tenn. - they are bound together by one terrible, tragic day that never will be forgotten.

"It was so unexpected, so sudden. You had no warning," said Donald Christian, who lost his 70-year-old father and stepmother, Donald and Dorothy Christian, in Apison. "I can never call him for advice again. It's hard, knowing that there won't be any more happy birthdays, no more happy holidays. And there is this sense, this feeling that there is no justice to seek. We all lost so much, but there is nothing we can do."

"I miss her more than life itself. I'm real angry, but you can't fight the wind," said DeDe Stone, whose only sister, Debbie Fox, 43, and brother-in-law died in Bledsoe County.

The rage of the storm killed the young - 3-month-old Chase Glasgow died in his aunt's arms - but many of those killed were elderly. They lived in the communities where they grew up, worked and cultivated gardens for decades. They left behind children and dozens of grandchildren. Fourteen married couples died together on that day and at least two entire families were killed in their homes.

"Life is so cruel. In one day, it takes away the child you had for 26 years," Cathy Mitchell said.

Her 26-year-old daughter died in Ringgold, leaving behind a husband and 4-year-old daughter.

"But you have to continue," Mitchell said. "You have to buy food, to cook, to pay the bills. I get through every day because I am a firm believer that the Lord's work is being done. It's horrible that innocent lives are taken, but there is a reason for it."

Two months have gone by, and it doesn't get any easier for the Readus and Mitchell families. When Mitchell talks about her daughter, it is usually in the present tense.

"We are a very close and loving family - every day I would hug her and tell her I love her," Mitchell said. "That is what I miss most. In the morning, she sits in the kitchen with her cup of coffee and we'd just talk."

On the evening of April 27, her daughter, Holly Readus, answered a phone call from her cousin, who lived on Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga. The weather was bad and her cousin, who was home alone with her two children, was scared. So Holly packed up her daughter, 4-year-old Ava, and headed across the state line.

"That is just the kind of person Holly is. Her heart is bigger than any person I could ever imagine. Even if she had known she was going to die, she still would have gone," Mitchell said, sitting in the Ooltewah home where Holly and her husband, Chad, lived with Mitchell and her family.

As the storm got worse, Readus told her cousin they should go downstairs. That's where they were when the storm hit, crashing the house down around them.

According to Ava, Readus threw herself on top of her daughter to protect the child from the worst of the storm. All five of them were buried in debris, but four survived. Only Readus died.

Six other people died within half a mile on Cherokee Valley Road, where the tornado destroyed dozens of homes and sucked up concrete slabs in its path.

A stay-at-home mom, Readus was the family's organizer, the one who threw the birthday parties, made the cake, the costumes and the party favors. And she always knew where to find the best bargains.

She was an animal lover who was always bringing home stray cats and dogs to be nursed back to health or calling the police department to ask them to pick up a duck injured on the road.

"She wanted to do so much," Mitchell said. "She was so excited about buying a home with Chad. She had just applied for a new job. She loved being a mother."

Ava, her long curly hair tamed into dangling braids, sits in her father's lap as the family talks about Readus.

Chad and Holly met at McKee Foods, where they both worked. They were married six years.

"She had such a beautiful smile," Chad Readus said. "And her personality. She would nag me to death, but we just enjoyed being with each other."

He added, "A lot of people are going through what we are going through. We aren't the only ones that are suffering."

If there ever was a perfect couple, it was John "Ob" and Elease Whited, neighbors say.

Married for 60 years in February, the two were inseparable. They lived in a small brown-frame house on County Road 95 in Flat Rock, Ala. A sign hanging on the door says, "Two old crows live here."

The garden they planted together still grows in the back yard. The snowball bushes, petunias and daylilies 75-year-old Elease planted bloom in the front yard.

The couple was laid to rest in a single grave in Overlook Cemetery, where the grass is starting to creep onto the edges of the heaped brown dirt.

"God knew they had to go together," said Kathy Ellis, who lived next door to the Whiteds for 25 years. "If there ever was a couple truly in love, it was Ob and Elease. I can't imagine how they would have lived without each other. They were two peas in a pod."

The evening of the storms, the couple left their small house and went to their daughter's much-larger home across the road. The Whiteds; their daughter, Shelba Shannon; and her former mother-in-law, Janie Shannon, died when the storm's fury splintered the house. The only survivor was Ronnie Shannon, Shelba Shannon's adult son, who was thrown hundreds of feet from the home and badly injured.

All that remains of the two-story house and large garage is a tumble of blocks and debris. The Whiteds' home was almost untouched.

Every spring, Ob, 77, would plow the neighbors' gardens and use his tractor to pull any vehicles that got stuck in the mud.

Eddie Fox, who lives across the road from the couple, recalled the last time she spoke to them, during a doctor's visit the week before they died. When the nurse called one of them, they both got up and walked into the examination room.

"They did everything together," Fox said. "If you saw one of them working in the yard, the other one wouldn't be far away."

On Wednesday, Fox worked around her recently installed mobile home, brought in to replace the one that was destroyed in the storm. She's getting the new home set up and hopes to move back to County Road 95 soon.

The communities of Higdon, Flat Rock, Pisgah and Shiloh, in southern Jackson and northern DeKalb counties, lost more than a dozen people.

"My daughter asked me how I can move back when all my neighbors are dead," Fox said. "It's hard, but we don't have any choice. We have to go on with life."

Every time he married a couple, the Rev. Bobby Raper would ask them why they were getting married. And then he would wait until they found the right answer - because they loved each other.

Teresa James is the owner of the Ringgold Wedding Chapel, where Raper was a minister for more than a year. During that time he married hundreds of couples, she said.

But there won't be any more.

"They are heartbroken he isn't here. Just this weekend, a couple came in because they wanted him to marry them," James said. "He was so good and they loved him."

Raper and his wife, Mary, were killed in Apison. The couple had been married six or seven years and lived next door to Mary Raper's mother. Bobby Raper loved to read, usually carrying around a briefcase full of books he picked up at area thrift stores.

Troy Simmons, who also serves as a minister at the wedding chapel, wears Bobby Raper's church mission ring every day to remember the friend he lost in the storm.

"Bobby was so full of life - no one was more joyful," Simmons said.

Just three weeks before he died, Bobby Raper had heart surgery. About a week before he went into the hospital, Mary Raper walked into the wedding chapel, crying, Simmons recalled.

"Mary was scared of losing him," Simmons said. "She said she couldn't live without him, said she didn't know what she would do without Bobby. God didn't let her go through that."

The first round of storms that swept through Georgia the morning of April 27 blew through DeDe Stone's home. One of the first things she did was call her sister, Debbie Fox, who lived in Bledsoe County.

"She joked that we're not in Kansas anyone," Stone said. "She always made you laugh like that. She loved life."

Less than 12 hours later, the second round of storms, more powerful and more deadly than the first, tore through Bledsoe, demolishing Fox's home. Debbie Fox and her husband of 11 years, Harold, were both killed. When rescuers found their bodies, Harold Fox was holding onto his wife.

"They were soul mates," Stone said.

Harold Fox, who was from Atlanta, met Debbie Fox during a trip to Bledsoe County. He moved to the area when they married. They had horses, five Jack Russell terriers and a koi pond full of fish.

A truck driver, Harold Fox was usually away from home during the week, so Stone and Debbie Fox would spend most of the week together, either in Bledsoe or Georgia. On weekends, Harold and Debbie Fox rode horses, had cookouts or sat around the fireplace and talked. They had just bought their first new vehicle, a Ford sport utility vehicle that Debbie Fox loved for its "new car" smell.

The couple loved to play jokes on Stone, with Harold Fox using his wife's cell phone to send Stone text messages. But Debbie Fox was a poor speller, so Stone always knew when Harold was behind the messages.

"I lost the best thing in my life," Stone said. "It's not believable, like they should still be here."