Staff file photo / Anna Ruth Montgomery sits outside of her Ringgold home on May 2, 2011, as she waits for Marietta Tree Services and Landscape workers to clear trees from her yard. She and her grandchildren were in the only part of the house still standing as the tornado passed through.

Ten years after an EF-4 tornado hit Ringgold, most homes and businesses that were destroyed have been rebuilt, and residents and officials feel they're better prepared for similar disasters. That night changed the city forever, and at least one aspect of that change was positive, said Ringgold City Councilman Randall Franks, who was also on the council when the tornado hit.

Prior to the tornado, Ringgold was typical of many small towns where people were becoming more inward-looking and tied up on social media, and less close with their neighbors and involved with their communities than they once had been, Franks said.

"The tornado allowed us as a community to go beyond all of that and come together as neighbors working to make a difference," he said. "If somebody was bad off themselves, they were off trying to help their neighbors. We were able to come together and rebuild a strong network of friends in this community.

"In this disaster, it created a tighter-wove fabric that still lasts today of people who care about one another."

Ringgold lost landmarks that can never be replaced, including three historic homes built in the 1800s. The city also lost Chow Time restaurant, where many local teenagers have fond memories of dates after football games, Franks said.

More than 5,000 acres of timber were also destroyed that night, along with Ringgold Middle and High schools.

Franks helped with the search and rescue efforts the night of the tornado, going house to house checking on neighbors, helping people whose homes were hit to get to triage areas if they were injured or into shelter if their homes were uninhabitable. People from all over the region came to help over the first three days following the tornado as search and rescue efforts continued, he said.

"We lost nine neighbors that night, but God blessed us in the sense that it could have been many, many more," said Franks. "An EF-4 is nothing to sneeze at, and they told us back then that it was just shy of an EF-5 tornado."

On Alabama Highway — Ringgold's main commercial corridor, located just off the interstate — the tornado destroyed many of the restaurants, gas stations and hotels that were filled with hundreds of people.

"They all walked away and we didn't have a single fatality, but yet all that was left standing was a cooler in a restaurant or just a pile of rubble," Franks said. "It was really amazing how we came through the night."

Anna Ruth Montgomery was playing cards with her grandchildren in her home on Sparks Street when her daughter called to tell her a tornado was coming.

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"I didn't believe her, because they'd been saying it all day on the radio, the television," Montgomery said. "So I jumped up and went to the window, and when I went to the window, the window blowed out."

She and her grandchildren huddled inside a hallway closet, and her grandson propped a mattress against the door.

"He said that's what they taught him at school," Montgomery said. "We got behind the mattress and held on, and we just sat in there and prayed."

She was praying so hard she said she didn't hear the tornado coming, but her grandchildren did.

"They asked me what they should do, and I said 'pray,'" Montgomery said.

After about 10 minutes, the tornado seemed to have stopped, but Montgomery told her grandchildren to wait when they asked if they could get up.

They were in the eye of the tornado, which still raged around them.

"It tore up the whole house. Everything," Montgomery said. "The roof was gone; the sides. There was nothing standing but the closet where we were with the mattress over us."

When they finally did emerge from the closet, they were unharmed, without even a scratch.

"God was there with us," Montgomery said.

Her brother's house next door and her friends' houses behind her and across the street were all destroyed by fallen trees.

"I didn't have nothing on my house," she said. "It just blowed away."

Montgomery had lived in the house since 1960, and her brother and his friend rebuilt it in the same spot after the storm. Her neighbors' homes were rebuilt by the Amish, she said.

Her brother put reinforced walls in the bathroom so Montgomery would have somewhere to go if another tornado came through Ringgold.

"Every time the wind come up and it gets dark, we all come to my house and get in the bathroom with our motorcycle helmets and our radios and pillows and all our important papers," she said. "We do it all the time, every time it's cloudy and they say a storm coming. We all get together because we trying to get prepared now because we know it could happen again."

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