Note: This story was updated on April 26 to remove an incorrect reference to Andrew Ellis' high school.
A decade of birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmases and Mother's Days have passed since at least 362 tornadoes tore across the Southeast, leaving more than 340 dead, including at least 79 in the tri-state Chattanooga region.
It'll be 10 years on Tuesday.
For Wendy Ellis and her son, Andrew, the scars are still there, still painful, but the 10-year milestone does feel different. There's more perspective, more appreciation and much more passion for now and tomorrow than regret for yesterday, and what can never be changed.
What can't be changed is the loss.
Ellis' eldest son, mother, grandmother and a cousin all perished in the storm as it raged through Hamilton County's Apison community in the darkness on April 27, 2011. In Apison, nine lives were lost, among them four generations of Ellis' family.
Ellis, who wasn't at her grandmother's home when the tornado struck, and her son, Andrew — 8 years old in 2011 — were left in the aftermath, Andrew with a broken femur, brain trauma, crushed foot and a severe injury to his elbow and months of recovery ahead, and Ellis with the loss of nearly all she loved.
As that tragic day marks its 10th year, there are milestones for the family. Andrew is about to graduate from high school and plans to go to culinary school, and Ellis said she now looks forward to life and taking it as it comes. The mother and son, as her son reaches adulthood, are discussing moving to Florida.
"He was 8 then, and now he's 18," she said. "It's a milestone, definitely. So much has changed. It's definitely a different type of feeling. I always tell people, it's not one of those things you ever get over, but you learn how to get through it. It's always going to be there with you. It's how you deal with it."
"Andrew's goal, ultimately, at 8 years old [after the tornado] was to just get back to school," Ellis said. "That's what motivated him to learn to walk again and get back to where he needed to be."
Her son flourished despite injuries that at first left him with what doctors told Ellis was just a 50% chance of survival.
"It's a huge milestone to go from laying in a hospital bed not knowing if you're going to make it or not to walking across the graduation stage. It's going to be very exciting," Ellis said.
Day of destruction
The deadly outbreak began to take shape days ahead of its destruction in the Chattanooga region as a powerful low-pressure system combined with moist and unstable atmospheric conditions to produce the conditions for an onslaught that left $11 billion in damages in 13 states between April 25 and April 28, 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Chattanooga region, that outbreak came calling early and continued for 15 hours as wave after wave of storms raked Southeast Tennessee, Northeast Alabama and North Georgia, some communities more than once, according to Times Free Press archives and weather service data. More than a dozen tornadoes tore at least 47 tracks across the tri-state area. By the end of the day, the youngest among the dead was 3 months and the two oldest were 90.
Although storm damage was reported farther west the day before, the first reports as April 27, 2011, dawned locally in DeKalb County, Alabama, where an EF1 touched down from 7:30 to 7:55 a.m. EDT, causing some damage as it headed toward the tiny town of Pisgah, where it would claim its first lives. In an hour, the storm reached Dade County, Georgia, where homes, a bank and an elementary school were damaged in the county seat of Trenton. The storm then continued northeast.
Just a few miles away, Chattanooga firefighters Scott Rouse, Capt. James Stone, Ricky Mizell and Jeff West were looking out the bay doors at Station 20 in Lookout Valley. They saw the skies darken with a massive funnel cloud that bore down on the community just after 9 a.m.
Station 20 was once a bank.
"I think our clock stopped at 9:05," Rouse said. "When we saw it coming and really getting bad, we were out there in the bay to start with, and we had all the doors shut. We decided to get out of the bay because all the glass was out there.
"We got in the captain's quarters, which is where the old bank vault used to be, because we thought it would be our safest place," he said. "When it was over, we stepped outside. It was weird. There was no traffic on the road, and there was a calmness. Eerie almost."
The destruction around them included power lines, structures and trees, he said.
"We were very fortunate that nobody got killed," he said. "The Lord was watching out over everybody."
Even as Rouse and the other firefighters stood outside Station 20 that evening, nine hours later, debris was still raining from the sky, he recalled. It's a sight he won't forget.
And the storms kept coming.
The storm system's battering waned around Chattanooga about midday, but the next wave brought more. A tornado touched down in Marion County about 2:40 p.m. and another one dropped near Ooltewah a little after 3 p.m.and plowed its way into Bradley County, killing one.
Minutes later, a tree brought Chattanooga's first fatality when it fell on a woman as her husband and young son sheltered in a closet.
The weather service issued a warning at 3:30 p.m. that supercell thunderstorms were lining up southwest of the tri-state region. These storms spawned the deadliest tornadoes of the day and nightfall provided some of them the cover of darkness.
WRCB-TV Channel 3 chief meteorologist Paul Barys warned viewers at 3:45 p.m., "This is far from over. This is going to be a long evening."
About 5 p.m., as many as three tornadoes merged into a powerful EF4 tornado with winds up to 190 mph as it moved 24 miles toward Flat Rock and Higdon in DeKalb County, Alabama. In neighboring Jackson County, six people — including three from the same family near Flat Rock — were killed as the tornado leveled mobile homes and tossed their remains hundreds of yards. One sturdy block foundation home exploded as the tornado hit, though a mother and three children taking refuge in a hallway were unharmed.
The worst was still to come.
About 7:30 p.m., an EF5 tornado, the deadliest storm of the day, ripped a 34-mile-long path in Northeast Alabama, killing at least 25 in the Rainsville area, where some homes were swept completely from their foundations.
The tornado left destruction and snapped trees along the length of DeKalb County, starting in Grove Oak and stretching to the Georgia state line that essentially paralleled Alabama Highway 75, running between one-quarter mile to several miles east of the roadway.
Altogether, 35 people died in DeKalb County from the tornadoes or storm-related events, most of them in the Rainsville area. The county had seven tornadoes that day, including a long-track EF5 with winds topping 260 mph that stripped bark from trees and lifted an 800-pound safe from its anchors and hurled it 600 feet into the woods.
As 8 p.m. passed, a monster loomed in the growing darkness, this time in Catoosa County, Georgia. A dispatcher told emergency personnel, "[T]here is a tornado on the ground in the area of Lafayette Street and Ringgold city."
Ringgold City Councilman Randall Franks was sitting at home with the windows open when he felt the air pressure change. It was about 8:26 p.m. He didn't hear the train-like sound people talk about hearing when a tornado comes, so he went outside and looked up.
"About a couple of football fields in the air I saw something fluttering, and I realized it was the hood of a car," Franks said. "I went back into my house and got into the bathtub and stayed in there until I heard the sound and the tornado passed. I grabbed my slicker and my rain poncho and my flashlight, and I headed out."
He started going from house to house checking on neighbors, and for about a mile the only problems he saw were downed trees.
Then he and Clarence Muse, deputy director of Catoosa County Emergency Management Agency, converged on a property at the same time. It was dark, but all they could see was rubble.
The search for the homeowner was the first of many that night.
Sometimes he'd be calling out for a homeowner who seemed to be missing, only to find the person sitting in the living room of a house across the street.
Cell towers were down, and no one was driving around because trees and telephone poles and electric lines were blocking the roads. The only way to communicate was going from one door to the next, asking people what you could do to help and telling people what you knew, Franks said.
He and other volunteers helped people whose homes were hit to get to triage areas if they were injured or into shelter if their homes were uninhabitable.
Anna Ruth Montgomery was playing cards with her grandchildren at her home on Sparks Street in Ringgold when her daughter called to tell her a tornado was coming.
"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 said she was praying so hard 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 the tornado seemed to have stopped, Montgomery told her grandchildren to wait when they asked if they could get up. Then the wind seemed to start back up again, although it had never really stopped. They'd just been in the eye of the tornado.
"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."
They came out uninjured, 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."
As the deadly storm raged northeast across the Georgia state line into Tennessee, it headed straight for Apison with EF4 winds up to 200 mph. Authorities estimated more than 100 people were injured in the Apison area along with nine deaths, including the four members of Wendy and Andrew Ellis' family.
The survivors in Apison, Ringgold and the Cherokee Valley joined together in September 2012 to dedicate a large gray monument bearing the names of the dead alongside the engraved image of a tree that now stands at the intersection of East Brainerd Road and Loudon Lane.
As the tornado plowed across the Bradley County line, five more lives would be added to the day's death toll, bringing the total there to at least nine as the storm destroyed at least 260 homes and seriously damaged 180 more as deadly winds carved a path along Old Alabama Road, Leadmine Valley and through the Blue Springs Road area in the southwest part of the county, and left Blue Springs and Michigan Avenue elementary schools with major damage.
Among the victims was a visiting mother from Michigan who died at a home on Blue Springs Road with her 3-month-old son in her arms.
The storm dealt out its last deadly blow to the Chattanooga region as at least one funnel cloud touched down in the Sequatchie Valley, and residents of the mountaintop communities of Pitts Gap and the New Harmony in Bledsoe County, Tennessee, were pounded by a pair of funnel clouds that combined into a massive EF4 that would claim four lives — two sisters and a young couple — and leave thousands of oak trees, homes and families twisted into knots.
That storm cut a 22-mile-long path from near Dunlap in Sequatchie County to the Bledsoe-Rhea county line and left more than 200 homes damaged, 28 of them destroyed. In the days following the storms, then-Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier defined the destruction.
"When I say destroyed, I mean from the foundation up, it's gone or flattened."
Barys, at Channel 3, was more than a quarter century into his career when the super outbreak of April 2011 happened, and that day ranks at the top of the major weather events of his 36 years as a Chattanooga meteorologist.
Over his career, Barys said attitudes toward tornadoes have changed dramatically since the mid-1980s. What stands out in Barys' mind when he looks back is how the storms of April 2011 shifted public understanding of the local tornado threat and the advances in weather technology.
For years many people thought the surrounding mountains protected them from tornadoes, he said, but April 2011 brought the light of stark reality to that perception. People have become more trusting of weather technology over the years, too.
"We had pretty good technology 10 years ago, but we've got a lot better technology now," he said, noting high-tech advances that showed the "debris ball" in last year's Easter tornado on the station's weather radar. The debris ball is an indication that the tornado has touched down.
Barys said the two biggest weather events of his career are the super outbreak of April 2011 followed by the blizzard of 1993, when the South was frozen in place for days. He said the Easter 2020 tornado ranks third on his list of Chattanooga's major weather events.
The 2011 super outbreak spawned three EF5 tornadoes over four days in addition to 12 EF4s and 21 EF3s, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assessments. April 27, 2011, likely remains the "deadliest day for tornadoes" in the last 75 years, officials said.
The super outbreak killed the most people during a single tornado outbreak since 454 people were killed in an April 5-6, 1936, tornado outbreak. Before that, on March 18, 1925, 747 people were killed by tornadoes.
A look ahead
People from all over the region came to help over the first three days following the tornado as search and rescue efforts continued.
"We lost nine neighbors that night, but God blessed us in the sense that it could have been many, many more," Franks said of the Ringgold toll. "An EF4 is nothing to sneeze at, and they told us back then that it was just shy of an EF5 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."
Franks helped form Catoosa Organization Acting in Disaster, a relief organization dedicated to helping those with no or little insurance to rebuild their homes. For 18 to 24 months following the tornado, the group raised millions of dollars and helped repair and rebuild more than 160 homes, about 20 of which were completely rebuilt. They did so with the help of partners such as Christian Aid Ministries, Ringgold United Methodist Church and disaster relief organizations associated with almost every religious denomination, Franks said.
Montgomery had lived in her house on Sparks Street 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 of the rebuilt home so she'd 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."
Prior to the tornado, Ringgold was typical of many small towns where people were becoming less close with their neighbors or 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 people who've been residents for decades have fond memories as teenagers of dates after football games, Franks said. Ringgold Middle and High schools were damaged, and more than 5,000 acres of timber were destroyed that night.
"That was a change, and then of course the loss of the men and women that were so valuable to us as neighbors and family and to the community," Franks said. "We lost some young people that night who had their lives ahead of them, and that was probably the greatest tragedy of all."
Among them was 17-year-old Ringgold High School student Adam Carroll, the eldest son of Wendy Ellis.
Now 18, Carroll's half-brother Andrew Ellis proudly proclaims he never missed a day of school — perfect attendance despite five reconstructive surgeries on his elbow and months of rehab that summer — and he returned with his classmates at Cloud Springs Elementary School on time the fall after the storms.
He credits the example of his mother, who said she learned not to quit as a 16-year-old mother to her first-born son, Adam. She went back to get her GED and then went on to college.
Andrew smiles when he acknowledges his mentor mom.
"I'm getting ready to graduate from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, and I plan on after that to go to a college in Florida for culinary arts," Andrew Ellis said early Thursday morning as he waited at the family home in Rossville, Georgia, to head to class.
He likes the idea of starting out with a deli and moving up to his own restaurant. He figures he has the drive because of the example set by his mother and what he learned from surviving the tornado and making his way back to school.
He has a jolly laugh and lots of confidence. He's kept a promise — a promise made 10 years ago to his mother from his hospital bed.
"After I woke up I was like, 'Is this going to keep me back from going to school tomorrow?' and she was like, 'Yeah,'" Andrew said. "I was like, 'Well, I'll take this summer and then I'll be back in school on the first day."
Pain and fear from that night lingers at a distance now for Andrew Ellis, but it's there.
A storm or system producing tornadoes and triggering warnings — like the one that passed through a few weeks back — "was a little nerve-wracking," he said.
Memories from April 27 are hard.
"I got out of school from Cloud Springs earlier that day and my grandma called mom because they were letting out schools because they knew there was going to be storms, but we didn't know how bad they were going to be that night," Andrew Ellis said.
"Grandma was like, 'Hey just bring the boys up here to the house. They probably won't have school tomorrow because of the weather and we have power up here,'" he recalled. "Then mom dropped us off, and we all went inside."
Wendy Ellis had been called in to work so she had to leave, and the rest of the family sat down to watch the weather forecasters on television, he said.
"Then the power went out and when that happened, my second cousin, Josh Poe, walked up to the window in the kitchen — he said something and that's when a wind chime came through the glass door and shattered the glass. And that's when we heard the storm coming," he said, speaking a little faster.
"Then my grandmother, Nanny, she told me to get in the bathtub and she proceeded to get on top of me. That was the safest place we had at the time," he said, clearing his throat uncomfortably again.
"Then we were actually ripped out of the mobile home, and when that happened we were kind of sucked into the storm, and then we hit a hill at the side of the house, and that was when she was ripped off of the top of me," he said. "So I had to see that happen."
Andrew remembers "seeing red, and I remember feeling the wind, and I remember the impact of hitting the ground," he said. "After that it was like a big blur and then waking up in the hospital bed and seeing mom there."
After a couple of weeks at Erlanger hospital he was transferred to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, a Children's Miracle Network Hospital, where he spent three months learning how to walk again and going through speech classes, he recalled.
"I'm just glad to be here today and getting to walk across that stage will be a big step, a big accomplishment," he said, his smile genuine and his eyes full of hope for the future.
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.