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People walk through C & D Tires and Services in Athens, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 after a tornado swept through the area early Wednesday morning.

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Tornado injures 20 in McMinn County

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ATHENS, Tenn. — Wednesday's early morning tornado outbreak led to deaths in other places, but it may have ushered a person into the world in McMinn County.

Firefighters found a pregnant woman in a tornado-ravaged area along County Road 307 northeast of Athens, and according to local officials, the mother and her new baby were healthy at a local hospital by the middle of the day.

"That family's house had been destroyed, but they made it to the hospital and gave birth this morning," McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said. "So there were 20 injured and one brand new life.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways."

Many agreed it took an act of God to prevent any tornado-related deaths from touching this tight-knit community halfway between Chattanooga and Knoxville.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado with a preliminary category of EF-2 touched down in Athens.

The high-speed storm ripped through the heart of town, damaging businesses along South Jackson Street and South White Street.

But the worst of the damage came along County Road 307, where several homes were damaged or destroyed. The road remained closed all day. Gentry estimated 30 structures were damaged or destroyed in total.

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Three killed, more than a dozen injured in Northeast Alabama storms

Local volunteer fire departments responded first, helping rescue several people trapped in their homes. The urban search and rescue team from the Chattanooga Fire Department was requested around 6 a.m.

By the time they arrived, most people were believed to have been rescued. However, the team spent the morning scouring severely damaged homes for trapped residents just in case, according to Special Operations Chief Daniel Hague.

Some of that same crew had been on Talley Road in Chattanooga last week, extricating students from the Woodmore Elementary School bus crash that killed six students and injured many more.

"It's been a unique time," Hague said, noting that the department has also been working wildfires locally and in Gatlinburg.

Hague was one of several elected and emergency officials who spoke at an afternoon news conference.

McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy said the response and cooperation of emergency personnel was "phenomenal."

"We are extremely fortunate that we have not had a fatality at this point," Guy said. "That's something that I think we're blessed to be able to say, considering that massive amount of damage that's out there in some of these residential areas."

The Red Cross established an emergency shelter at Keith Memorial United Methodist Church near the town square. Two people displaced by the tornado prepared to sleep on cots there early in the afternoon as venue coordinator Emily Petro manned a welcome table nearby.

"We have things that may seem simple, like water bottles, snacks and even a hot meal," Petro said. "But when you have individuals who in a matter of seconds have lost all of their belongings, something as simple as a bottle of water, a hot meal, or just coming out of the rain to a warm, dry place is something that can provide comfort.

"That's what we're here to do."

The area surrounding the Eastside Shopping Center at the intersection of White and Elizabeth streets sustained considerable damage, including the toppling of a Save-A-Lot grocery store roof.

Pete Mullins, pastor of Genesis Baptist Church in the same plaza, said he first heard about the storm through an alert on his cellphone.

When he heard the Save-A-Lot's roof had fallen in, he knew the storm had come to his church's back door, he said.

Mullins arrived at 6 a.m. to inspect the church and, though the building had some damage, he believes services will be held Sunday.

"You don't like to see what you see in here," he said late Wednesday morning. "But at least there's a building."

Others in the neighborhood weren't as lucky, he said, pointing to a historic home on a ridge above the church.

There, a 19th-century brick home sat without a roof. Jim Long and his family had been working to refurbish the old house while living in a newer home next door.

"There were a lot of people who wanted to see this house restored," Long said as he and a few others worked to clear downed tree limbs from the property. "We'll just have to wait and see what we can do about it."

The Daily Post-Athenian newspaper's main office on South Jackson Street was "among the commercial buildings that sustained the most damage," according to a Facebook post.

"I can tell you that the building suffered severe damage, mostly to the roof," said Andy Brusseau, a Post-Athenian reporter. "There's a lot of water damage inside."

He said the newspaper planned to continue publishing by working out of the Advocate and Democrat newspaper office in neighboring Monroe County.

The county mayor said buildings can be rebuilt and humans can heal. But Gentry said he hoped the memories of neighbors helping neighbors live on.

It's what the community was already doing when the storm struck.

A sign attached to the door of the Dollar General in the Eastside Shopping Center encouraged customers to donate with the relief efforts for a different East Tennessee disaster.

"Purchase a case of water to donate to the Gatlinburg firefighters, rescue squad, etc.," the sign reads.

A crew from the nearby Englewood Volunteer Fire Department was in Gatlinburg when the tornado struck. It was the second crew the department had sent since Sevier County was ravaged by wildfire on Monday night.

"Most of those crews have had no sleep," said the department's chief, Bill Roach. "They're wore out. They've had very little sleep. I know I've had two hours since Monday morning. We're to our limits."

Roach said he hoped Wednesday night would finally bring rest.

"But," he said, "we serve our community, and we do it with pride. So we'll be there."

Gentry was asked if it was planning, or maybe luck, that kept the storm from causing any deaths in his county.

"I don't believe much in luck," he said. "And I don't get into why the good Lord allows things to happen. He's a much higher authority than I am, so we're just going to thank him. At the same time, our heart goes out to those that did have fatalities. I don't know why. None of us are deserving of grace.

"We'll take it and give thanks."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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Athens, Tenn., storm damage

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