When you talk about “The Tornado” in Huntsville, everyone knows which one you mean. It’s the one in 1989, on November 15th. The one that leveled building from the Parkway, along Airport Drive, and on through Jones Valley. Only a lucky few in Huntsville at that time were unaffected by the tornado.
I was not in Huntsville then, but my family was. I was sitting down for dinner at the Fraternity House in Auburn. My mother was at home in Southeast Huntsville, about 4 miles south of the path of the Tornado. My brother, however, was just topping the road at the top of Airport Road, where it becomes Carl T. Jones. My father was at a doctor’s office in front of Crestwood.
My brother made it home to Mom with little trouble. The Tornado rocked his car, but he wasn’t aware that it was a tornado at the time. He had a brief scare and little else. Seeing as he was only 16 at the time, and a new driver, that is a stroke of luck.
Father was less fortunate. The nurses at the doctor’s office gathered everyone up in the two story building and moved them into a closet. Dad was the last to enter, and the one to close the door. Almost. According to him, he never got the door fully closed before the tornado hit. The wind pulled at the door and Dad held it mostly shut as it passed. At some point, the roof of the building left, but the people in the closet didn’t realize it till after it was over and they could look up into the sky. The top of the door jam broke and slammed into my Father’s shoulder. He was the only one in the closet to receive an injury.
Dad’s group of 10 or so left the closet to find it the only part of the second story still standing. The roof was gone. All other interior walls were gone. According to Dad, there wasn’t even much debris on the floor. It was just wiped clean. Dad was the only male present at the time, and being a good southern man, insisted on helping those women down from the building.
The only staircase left was full of debris, and initially they decided to wait until help arrived to get them down. When it started to snow, Dad knew they had to get down without help. He carefully climbed down the stairs and cleaned off the debris as best he could. He then used a flashlight one of the women had in their purse to guide people down one at a time and get them outside. He repeated the process for each woman until they were all out of the building. They then walked to Crestwood Hospital where a command center of sorts had been set up.
I got the word from another Fraternity Brother that Huntsville had been hit. I managed to get through to Mom first, and gave her a list of names and numbers to start calling. Lines within Huntsville and into Huntsville were full, and getting through difficult. Mom called down to the house with updates. Fairly quickly the only member of the fraternity with family still missing was me. Dad couldn’t get through to Mom to let her know she was okay.
Ultimately Dad never did get Mom on the phone. Instead, on a whim, he tried me at the House. He almost didn’t get me there. The Brother answering the phone was trying to keep the line clear for Mom to call with news, and Dad had to quickly explain who he was. After getting the bare details, I managed to get ahold of Mom and tell her Dad was okay.
Waiting at Crestwood, Dad ran into a friend. The two of them were fine, Dad probably should have gotten a stitch or two in his shoulder but he didn’t want to tie doctors up from the more seriously wounded. He bandaged himself up with the help of one of the nurses from the doctor’s office and started trying to figure out how to get home. His truck was totaled. The camper on the back was just gone, the truck was beat all to pieces and three tires were flat.
Dad’s friend suggested they see if it would start, so they tried and it did. They then put the spare on the back, giving them two good tires. They then stole two tires off another truck that had been wrapped around a tree in the parking lot. With four good tires, they tried to drive home, only to find all the roads blocked. The radio told them that the roads were all closed anyway.
But luckily the front windshield was still intact, and Dad had a sticker for the Army post. He drove north, away from the damage and home, to cut through the post and come out far south of the damage. He then drove his friend home, and then himself. He got home around midnight.
I didn’t get back to Huntsville till that weekend. I drove up with the other Huntsville Brothers to see if we could help, but by then everything was well under control and the damage had quickly turned into a macabre tourist attraction.
That’s my story of “The Tornado.” What’s yours?