The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 25, 2011

Terror in T-Town: Local resident tells harrowing April 27 experience

By Kelly Kazek
kelly@athensnews-courier.com

— When Dr. Joe Cannon answered a cell phone call from his daughter on April 27, he heard the sounds of crashing and Lacey repeatedly screaming, “A tornado is coming.”

Then the line went dead.

It would be more than five nail-biting hours before Joe and Laurie Cannon could determine if Lacey, a freshman at the University of Alabama, was safe. Lacey lived in a home on Forest Lake off 15th Street in an area at the center of the devastation wrought by the EF4 tornado, one of 62 twisters to hit the state that day.

When Joe and Laurie got in the car for what would typically be a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Tuscaloosa to find their daughter, tornadoes also were criss-crossing Limestone County — and many other towns on their way to Tuscaloosa.

The drive traumatized Laurie. She lay across the back seat as Joe sat up front and their son, Jordan, 21, drove. A couple of times, they stopped to take shelter as tornadoes approached their route. Before leaving Athens, a massive EF5 twister began its tour of terror through Limestone County. The Cannons stopped at Valley Imaging, Dr. Cannon’s diagnostic center, and took shelter in the basement. When the twister passed, the group immediately got back in the car to head to Tuscaloosa.

Every path seemed to be blocked by downed power lines or trees or flooding. At one point, Laurie begged a state trooper to let them pass so she could get to her daughter. The trooper pointed to a downed power line across the road and said no one was getting through.

The group kept trying different routes until finally getting on Interstate 65.

All the while, Laurie wondered, “What has happened to Lacey?”

“My body could not stop shaking,” Laurie said.

The lake house

Lacey had finished classes that Wednesday and headed to her cozy house on Forest Lake Drive.

“She had gone home after classes and lay down on the bed upstairs,” Laurie Cannon said. While Lacey and other students had heard warnings of severe weather, the sky looked fine. It hadn’t even rained. At one point, Lacey realized the wind was getting loud. She turned on the television to find the cable was not working. She had no idea what was headed her way — until she heard the sound of a train.

“There weren’t any train tracks in her area,” Laurie said.

That’s when something urged Lacey to run. She raced down the stairs as the roof of the home began tearing away.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘When will this end?’ I was thinking, ‘When am I going to die?’” Lacey recalled.

She was trying to pull her yellow Labrador retriever, Mikey, into a closet under the stairs but the pressure kept the door firmly closed. Suddenly, a flying door struck Lacey in the face and she fell to the ground.

Mikey used his body to shield hers.

“My body was so numb from the adrenaline that when the door hit me, it never fazed me,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got outside that I realized I was bleeding. When I picked the phone up off the floor and it was connected to my dad, I was still stuck in my house.”

When the storm passed, a neighbor rushed into the rubble to find Lacey.

“My neighbor kicked the door in and, after I saw what was around me, the only thing I could say is, ‘Everything is gone,’ over and over again.” Lacey said. “I was in such a hysterical shock of what surrounded me that my only thoughts were, ‘When will I see my family next? Are they alive?’ I had no way to contact anyone and the thought of being alone at that point was panicking me to no end.”

Finding Lacey

On the interstate, Joe, Laurie and Jordan were still frantically trying to get to Lacey. Near Cullman, when another tornado was approaching, Laurie had received an unusual — and welcome — text message from a stranger in New York who had received a message from someone in Tuscaloosa that Lacey was injured but would be fine.

Though relieved, the Cannons remained determined to reach their daughter.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when they reached Tuscaloosa. The scenes of devastation were overwhelming.

Because of blocked roads — 15th Street was one of the most damaged areas — the Cannons parked about a mile from the house and began walking, bringing a chainsaw with them to cut trees and limbs blocking their path.

“When we got to the lake area, there was enough light to see the reflection of the lake and we could see all this debris in the water,” Laurie said. “I saw refrigerators in the water, bobbing up and down. It was eerie.”

Lacey had been taken from the scene by a friend, but returned after dark to see if her parents found a way through.

“I was walking over trees and around cars,” Lacey said. “I had no idea where I was. I was just trying to go in the direction I thought my house was because there were no street lights and nothing looked the same.”

Finally, as she approached the area where she thought her house had been, Lacey heard Laurie calling her name.

By the time the Cannons got to Lacey, she was covered in mud and insulation, and her face was bleeding, but she was otherwise unharmed. The dog, Mikey, was also unharmed.

That wasn’t the case for 47 people who were killed in Tuscaloosa on April 27. Countless pets died or were displaced, as well.

Lacey was happy to be alive, and to find her family safe and sound.

“I had the biggest sense of relief and assurance,” she said. “I was so happy to see them.”

Lacey decided not to return to the University of Alabama this semester. She enrolled at Calhoun Community College and will wait to see how the future unfolds, she said.

“When my house was destroyed there was no doubt in my mind” she would come home, Lacey said.