High winds and tornadoes not only destroyed the homes and lives of countless Alabamians April 27, 2011, the fury also picked up belongings and memories of those in its path, tossing them in fields and yards throughout neighboring counties and communities.
After the winds died down and recovery was well underway, residents of Limestone County began picking up the pieces and discovered items belonging to others — sometimes 100 miles away — were left mangled in the aftermath.
Travel of debris in tornadoes is common, but it is more unusual for items to be found long distances from the storm, according to John Snow, Regents’ professor at the University of Oklahoma. Snow studied the phenomenon of debris transport for three years.
He told The News Courier the majority of debris falls within a mile or two of the storm, but 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.
After the storms residents found pictures and yearbook pages from Phil Campbell — a community 80 miles away.
Utility bills and other items from Smithville, Miss., a town also struck by an EF5 tornado on April 27, were found after traveling more than 128 miles.
Other finds include Wrangler jeans of all sizes with tags still on them that were dropped all areas of the county from the distribution plant in Hackleburg.
A hymnal page for the song “I Fear No Wind” was found with the words “… storms I’ve braved, I’ve anchored in Jesus, I fear no wind or wave…”
Pictures, quilts, Bibles, birth certificates and more were uncovered.
Facebook reunites victims with belongings
For almost a year, Patty Bullion of Lester has made it her mission to reunite victims with their memories. She created the Facebook page “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes.”
The page became a place for people who had found pictures, marriage certificates, army discharge papers and other documents to post what they had found as well as place for victims to reclaim lost items.
The page, which has nearly 98,000 followers, returned more than 2,000 pictures to their owners and, at times, items of those who died were returned to surviving family members.
Bullion plans to leave the site up through today. “I plan to take it down on the one-year anniversary as a sign of hope and recovery,” she said.
Some items were returned to their owners or family members, such as the birth certificate of John Lynch, who died on April 27 in Hackleburg.
In May 2011, Anne Johnson found the document.
John’s Brother, Alvin Lynch of Muscle Shoals, sent an email to The News Courier: “Thank you for the kind article I found it online 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) Toney will be pleased to know may 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…”
Other items found touched the lives of those who were left to discover them.
Morgan Borden of Athens said she found many pictures and several items after the tornado from Tanner to East Limestone. “The tornado touched down a quarter mile from my house so my family and I are extremely blessed,” she said. Morgan said she found one item in particular that was remarkable. “It was a DVD,” she said. “I had found many pieces of broken CDs and DVDs, but this one was neither broken or scratched, only dirty. I took it home and cleaned it off. I put it in the DVD player and the words that appeared on the screen were ‘Patricia Gentry.’”
She discovered Gentry and her husband had both died in the tornado that touched down in Phil Campbell.
“Once the name appeared I realized that she had died because I remembered seeing the names after I posted an arm patch on the Facebook page ‘Pictures and Documents found after April 21, 2011 Tornadoes’ and someone told me it may have belonged to Mr. Gentry because he drove a truck for Heilig-Meyers.”
Morgan said the DVD contained recordings of Mrs. Gentry singing gospel music. “The only thing I knew of Mrs. Gentry was that she was a beloved school teacher from Phil Campbell,” she said. “Hearing and watching that DVD has been such a blessing to me and my family. It still amazes me that the DVD was not broken, and this DVD traveled a good 70 miles.”
Morgan said she was struck by the fragility of the DVD. “I honestly feel in my heart that God wanted me to hear it,” she said. Through the Facebook page, Morgan was able to return the DVD to Gentry’s daughter.
“I also found a pair of new Wrangler jeans that came from the Wrangler plant in Hackleburg,” she said.
Other residents were not so lucky in returning items to their owners. A men’s black military uniform shirt bearing a Department of Army Guard shoulder patch was discovered on Pepper Road in Limestone County.
The uniform, with a neck size of 17 ½ inches, also bears a patch on each shoulder with three gold chevrons, possibly belonging to a sergeant.
The resident who found the shirt delivered it to The News Courier in hopes of finding the owner.
To claim the shirt, call The News Courier at 256-232-2720, ext. 104.