The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 28, 2011

Top Stories of 2011: Strange twists of April 27

By Kelly Kazek
kelly@athensnews-courier.com

- — In the weeks following the tornado outbreak of April 27, residents began bringing torn pieces of paper and muddy cancelled checks to The News Courier office.

But these items were not trash — they were dropped from the sky by the violent storms and brought to reporters out of curiosity or in hopes of finding the owner.

Some examples:

• Donna McPherson of Owens found a page from a yearbook showing students wearing basketball uniforms. The name of the school on the jerseys was Phil Campbell, a community 80 miles away.

• Lt. Brad Curnutt with the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office found a checkbook that belonged to a person who was killed by the EF5 in Phil Campbell.

• Jessie Cox found a utility bill from Smithville, Miss., — a town also struck by an EF5 on April 27, on Salem-Minor Hill Road and Keri Laurence found a Town of Smithville check in Coxey. Smithville is 128 miles from Athens.

• A.J. Price and Wes Hughes found a Hackleburg Housing Authority document at the Sportsplex.

Patty Bullion of Lester started a Facebook page called “Pictures and Documents Found After the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes” to help return items to their owners. It now has 98,800 followers posting prom photos, marriage certificates and Army discharge papers.

Travel of debris in tornadoes is common but it is more unusual for items to be found long distances from the storm, said John Snow, Regents’ professor at the University of Oklahoma, who studied the phenomenon of debris transport for three years. Often, though, the debris may be branches or leaves so people have no idea how far it’s traveled.

The majority of debris falls within a mile or two of the storm but Snow found in a study that a small fraction of debris can travel 100-150 miles. The items that travel long distances are sucked up into the funnel, traveling tens of thousands of feet into the air, before dropping back down to earth.

Here are a few of the stories reported in The News Courier after the storms:

Wrangler jeans a message from 90 miles away

When Pastor George Whitten and his wife Virginia were surveying the grounds of Fairview Baptist Church, Virginia came across a pair of brand new Wrangler jeans blown there by an April 27 tornado.

George realized the jeans had come from the Wrangler distribution plant VF Corp. in Hackleburg, about 90 miles away. The plant was leveled by the same twister that traveled into Limestone County and killed four people here. Linda Knight, the only employee killed inside the plant that day, had been a member of Antioch Baptist Church when George was pastor there.

When he made the connection, George was struck by an unusual sensation.

“All of a sudden, it dawned on me that’s where Linda was when she got killed,” he said. “It was sort of like Linda sent me a little message and said goodbye, Brother George.”

George took the debris-spattered pants and wrote a message on one leg, “We’re praying for your family and we love you. From Fairview Baptist Church.”

Then, each of the congregants signed the jeans. George, who attended the funeral service for Knight, 57, in Hackleburg, took the jeans and presented them to her husband Roger and son, Rodney, who is an Alabama State Trooper.

In the days after this story appeared in The News Courier, people called from all areas of the county to report finding Wrangler jeans of all sizes with the tags still on them.

Coupon caught between wall, roof

Many victims of the storms reported homes being picked up and set down on foundations, or rotated on foundations. Gary England, who lived on Eastland Drive, showed a News Courier reporter where a necklace lay on the carpet, caught between the floorboard and wall. A drawing by his grandchild and a coupon were caught between the wall and ceiling, where the roof had lifted and come down, trapping the blowing objects. England was in the home with his wife, Dianne, and their son and daughter-in-law, Andrew and Angela England, and their Labrador retriever, Maddy. All were unharmed but the brick home was heavily damaged.

Family Bible found

In May, a local woman named Anne Johnson found the birth certificate of John Lynch, who was killed on April 27 by a tornado in Hackleburg.

John’s brother, Alvin Lynch of Muscle Shoals, soon sent an email to Editor Kelly Kazek: “Thank you for the kind article I found it on line and have printed out a copy for our family. It’s things like this that helps bring closure to this difficult time in our lives I know (John’s son) Tony will be pleased to know many will be praying for this family tragedy. After you and I spoke yesterday afternoon I received a call from a neighbor of John’s, that his family Bible has been found and it has some papers and pictures in it. I will go down today and pick it up and maybe some papers that Tony still needs might be in the Bible. I know the pictures will be treasured…”

‘I Fear No Wind’

Of all the items that fell from the sky April 27, an East Limestone resident found a scrap of paper particularly inspiring. It included a portion of a page from a hymnal bearing the words: “…storms I’ve braved, I’ve anchored in Jesus, I fear no wind or wave…”

Lyrics of the chorus to the hymn, “I’ve Anchored in Jesus,” are:

“I’ve anchored in Jesus; the storms of life I’ll brave.

I’ve anchored in Jesus; I fear no wind or wave.

I’ve anchored in Jesus, for He hath pow’r to save.”

Special quilt returned to owner

Carrie Morgan’s quilt, which had teal squares outlining photos from her youth, survived a fire that burned her Phil Campbell home in 2006. After the fire, the quilt, sewn by Reba Smith as a Christmas gift for Carrie when she was in high school, was stored at the home of Carrie’s mom, Fern Morgan, in the East Franklin community. 

After the storm, the family discovered much of the tiny burg of Phil Campbell was gone. Twenty-six people were killed there. Carrie learned her mobile home had escaped damage but Fern’s home was demolished and the special quilt was gone.

Though saddened by the realization, Carrie was too grateful her family was unharmed to worry about possessions.

Then, several days later, Carrie received a phone call. Someone said they saw a photo of her quilt posted on the Facebook page Pictures and Documents Found After the April 27 Tornadoes.

In Athens, Leah Meyer and her husband Stan noticed an object in a far corner of their yard off Timberline Drive. The same EF-5 tornado that struck Phil Campbell had traveled another 80 miles to hit Tanner, then the East Limestone community, before crossing the Madison County line into Harvest and then into Tennessee. Along its 132-mile path, the monster, mile-wide tornado dropped debris collected from the towns it had recently leveled.

When Leah saw the mud-caked quilt, she says: “I took a look at it and it just touched my heart. It had pictures of girl from grade school to high school with the name ‘Carrie Lynn’ embroidered on it and the year, ‘2000.’ When you see something like that, you say, ‘We’ve got to find out who this belongs to.”

Leah posted a photo of it on the Facebook page.

In June, the Meyers and Morgans met in Phil Campbell at the site of Fern’s demolished home where Leah returned the quilt to its owner.

Carrie said she plans to pass along the quilt to her children, along with spirit of survival that goes with it.