18 November 2007


Earlier this week, I wrote about the November 15, 1989 tornado that hit Huntsville. I also mentioned that I had tried my hand at writing about it. That got me motivated to go back and look at what I had. Following is the result of piecing together typed passages, hand-written passages, and even incomplete (and sometimes incoherent) hand-written notes. The problem is that right now, too much is dependant upon cited information. And the fact that I am lacking the citation info as my stack of copied articles is a hottt mess. I'll go back sometime I'm sure and redo it with less use of cited sources. One of the main passages that is ORGINALLY mine is the interview with Patrick Newman. He's a friend of mine from high school.

The following was/is intended to be an intro to a longer piece of work. Maybe a book? Regardless, it certainly needs work and rewriting. But, to my surprise, the passage is not NEARLY as cringe-inducing as I thought it would be. Obviously if it is going to be an intro to a longer work, it needs much revision. But as it is, it's still not horrible. Which is saying something considering how this is pieced together from first draft scribbling. Of course, again, I got a lot of info from other articles and interview. I'll need to get my own hands dirty and do some groundwork if I'm going to make this into anything useable.

Well, enough talking about it. Here's what I had, warts, strange handwritten notes (the numerous 'finish' marks), and all.

The Finger of God

"And beholding the Lord’s wrath, the magicians said unto Pharoah, This is the finger of God." (Exodus 8:19)

“He increaseth the nations, and destroyeth them: He enlargeth the nations, and straighteneth them again.” Job 12:23

On the afternoon of Wednesday November 15, 1989, the clouds over Huntsville, Alabama grew dark, a breeze stirring the unseasonably warm air. What was considered “Indian Summer” showed no signs of the violent energy that was building in the overcast skies above. While residents enjoyed the unusual weather, in the upper-reaches of the atmosphere, clouds expanded and winds swirled, setting the stage for one of the deadliest days in the city’s history.

The National Weather Service, as well as the meteorologists at local television stations, had warned of a potentially violent outbreak of severe weather for the late afternoon and early evening. The day before, the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC), the office responsible for monitoring severe weather situations around the country, had issued a report from their Kansas City, Missouri office indicating the strong possibility of a severe weather outbreak throughout Alabama and Northwest Florida. The report placed Northern Alabama, including the cities of Huntsville, Decatur, and Muscle Shoals, under a “High Risk” of severe weather.

The morning of the 15th, the NSSFC reemphasized that the situation was dangerous and urged locals to closely monitor the weather situation. The residents of Huntsville, no strangers to outbreaks of severe weather, kept an eye on weather reports and went through the routine of preparation. Just after 12pm, the school system held a city-wide tornado drill and businesses reviewed severe weather plans with their employees. But the routines were familiar and the residents otherwise went about their daily business.

By mid-afternoon, as schools let out and workers began planning their trip home, the sky had begun to darken. A line of thunderstorms had entered northwest Alabama and was bearing down on Muscle Shoals. Reports of heavy damage from the storms were trickling in from Mississippi. The local television stations began cutting in to regular programming to keep the populace updated.

Just after 4 PM, the sky above Huntsville was roiling black, an unusual early darkness even for an autumn afternoon. Rush hour traffic bustled at its usual stop-and-go pace along Airport Road in south Huntsville. The heavily populated stretch ran for a mile and bookended by two busy intersections with two major north-south thoroughfares: Highway 231 on the west side and Whitesburg Drive on the east side. Airport Road crossed the Whitesburg intersection, becoming Carl T. Jones Drive, climbing Garth Mountain and spilling into the large Jones Valley neighborhood on the east side of the mountain.

At her downtown office, Karen Jones was concerned about Andrew, the youngest of her three sons. Her husband Ed was supposed to pick up Andrew from Jones Valley Elementary School, located on the east side of Garth Mountain. Worried that Ed and Andrew were caught in the approaching storm, Karen left her office in north Huntsville and headed south, searching for them.
Patrick Newman, another student at Jones Valley Elementary, was on the playground outside the school. He and his younger brother Chris were one of thirty-seven students participating in the school’s extended-day program. As the storm approached, some of the teachers herded the children inside. Also present were a group of painters, assigned that week to repaint parts of the second floor of the school. One of the painters, Billy Dupree, was returning from time off for treatment of leukemia. The cancer had been in remission for several months and Dupree had finally regained enough strength to return to work.

Back on Airport Road, Patricia Nixon, an employee at Gates Cleaners, a dry-cleaning service, asked John Lewis if she could step outside for a quick cigarette break before the rain got too bad. Lewis obliged, happy to have his wife Wanda visiting the business. At the same time, Dr. Elliot Marcus, an Emergency Room doctor at Huntsville Hospital, was returning home. He headed south on Whitesburg Drive and slowed as he met the heavy traffic at the intersection of Whitesburg and Airport Road, waiting to turn left onto Carl T. Jones Drive.

A television camera for ABC affiliate WAAY, perched atop Monte Sano Mountain on the north edge of the city, was filming the impressive lightning display of the approaching thunderstorm, street and house lights shining in Jones Valley below, the Airport Road area hidden from view by foothills. At 4:30 pm, there was a blue flash behind one the smaller foothills and the lights in the valley went out, the sky and landscape meshing together in an endless canvas of black. Reflected in the blue flash was a spinning, low-hanging cloud. Lightning flashed again and then power was lost to the camera. Below, one of the deadliest tornados to hit the state of Alabama was raking across southeast Huntsville.

Originally touching down at the Redstone Arsenal U.S. Army base in west Huntsville, the funnel dragged in a northeast direction at almost 45 miles per hour across the grounds of the old Huntsville airport and a golf course. The Huntsville Police Academy was also in the vicinity, the K-9 unit sustaining the heaviest damage.

As the tornado crossed the intersection of Highway 231 and Airport Road, it slammed into a large power station, the collision resulting in the blue flash captured by the television camera. With winds topping 250 miles per hour, the tornado plowed into the Westbury Apartment complex, leveling over a dozen buildings. After demolishing the apartments, the tornado slashed through an adjacent strip mall. At Golbros, a jewelry store, workers sought shelter by locking themselves in the walk-in safety deposit locker. FINISH.

Still outside behind Gates Cleaners smoking, Patricia Nixon saw flying debris and heard the typical freight train-like rumble associated with tornados. “I saw the black clouds and ran inside…I was yelling, ‘It’s a tornado, it’s a tornado!’” John Lewis instructed the other employees and customers to take cover. He and his wife Wands took cover under a table, holding each other. One of the employees said of the Lewises, “I heard them whispering to each other.” As the tornado tore through the business, the roof collapsed and the people inside were buried under piles of bricks and plastic-sheathed clothes. Hours later, while the others were pulled from the rubble, shaken and injured but alive, rescue workers found the Lewis still in each other’s arms, crushed to death by the collapsed roof. The Lewis’ son John said later, “A woman who was inside when it hit told us that the last thing dad said to [mom] was that he loved her.”

The tornado skipped up Garth Mountain, briefly lifting off the ground yet still uprooting trees on the west side of the mountain. Had the tornado kept its course, it would have hit Jones Farm, a large but unpopulated stretch of land that occupied much of Jones Valley, only skirting the neighboring community. Instead, the tornado took a sudden left turn over the crest of the mountain and headed directly for Jones Valley Elementary School.

Teachers hurried students from the second floor to the lower level. When the tornado slammed into the school, the winds swirled and lifted many students into the air. The teachers acted quickly, grabbing and covering all the children they could. The painters did likewise, shielding the children from debris.

Patrick tried to make it inside the building. “One minute I was running with the wind,” he said, “and the next minute I was running against the wind, not moving even though I was running as hard as I could.” Flying debris knocked Patrick unconscious but miraculously a yellow awning landed nearby that protected Patrick from even more flying debris. Still, Patrick was pelted with shards of glass, cutting his back and severing his right thumb. His brother Chris suffered a broken leg.

Miraculously, and thanks in part to the quick action of the teachers and painters, there were no fatalities inside the school.

Outside the school, however, Karen Jones met with tragedy. While her devotion to her family was admirable, Karen’s timing was disastrous. She reached the Jones Valley parking lot just as the tornado slammed into the school. The tornado tossed her car into a field 100 feet away where it landed upside-down, killing her instantly. Sadly, there had been no need for her trip to the school. Ed had picked up Andrew and the pair had returned home, unscathed, where they and Andrew’s two older brothers awaited Karen’s return. Instead, hours after the tornado had hit, a state trooper showed up on the Jones’ doorstep with the heart-wrenching news. “She did the only thing any wife and mother would do. She came looking for us,” Ed said afterwards.

Along Highway 72, between Huntsville and Scottsboro, Alabama, the funnel lifted back into the sky. The storm continued to cause damage as far away as Chattanooga, Tennessee, over 100 miles away from Huntsville, but the tornado never again touched down.

The storm left in its wake 21 dead, 439 injured, and over $100 million dollars of property damage. The tornado cut a swath across Huntsville and Madison County a half-mile wide and eighteen miles long.

Eyewitness accounts from storm spotters, local law enforcement, and the filmed evidence place the tornado’s touchdown in west Huntsville at 4:30. By 4:37, the tornado was spotted east of the Huntsville metro area, headed away from the city and towards a heavily wooded part of Madison County. At 4:39, the tornado sirens that could still operate finally sounded their wail of alarm.

By night, the landscape was dreamlike. The wreckage of the buildings, shattered glass, and smashed cars tossed everywhere gleamed and shone in the beams of the hastily erected spotlights that towered over the area, helping to guide rescue workers. The red and blue lights from emergency vehicles flashed and bled into the edges of darkness the spotlights couldn’t reach. Flashlight beams waved as rescue workers strained to peer into the rubble, searching for any survivors. Cars were tossed like toys thrown by a small child throwing a tantrum. Many were thrown distances of a half-mile or more from where they had been when the tornado hit.

As day broke, the haunting scene gave wave to grim, and sometimes gruesome reality. Body parts were found scattered about the area; a leg here, an arm there. The body of James Black, one of the first confirmed fatalities, was discovered leaning against a tree near one of the destroyed apartment buildings. He had been driving home along Airport Road when the tornado struck, flinging him from his car. It was several days before the family located his car, tossed almost a mile away by the tornado.

It was mid-morning when police released an initial list of fatalities. The list had seventeen names and would expand to include twenty-one by the evening. Fourteen of the deaths were motorists stuck in rush-hour traffic on Airport Road.

Perhaps one of the most tragic stories from the tornado concerned a survivor. Billy Dupree was one of the painters that helped rescue the thirty-seven children and teachers at Jones Valley. He and the other painters had been assigned to work at the school for the week, touching up paint around the premises. Dupree was also a cancer survivor, having been in remission from Leukemia for several months before the tornado. But the loss of blood from the injuries he sustained, as well as the emotional trauma from the experience caused him to relapse. FINISH

Despite working through the night, the daylight revealed to the rescue workers that they still had an insurmountable amount of work ahead of them. The hospitals were still treating the injured and the utility company struggled to restore power to thousands of residents. Hundreds of people stayed home, their workplaces destroyed by the tornado. Others were escorted by police to claim their totaled cars and destroyed property. With the exception of Jones Valley Elementary, city schools opened as usual.

Shortly after noon, the overcast sky over Huntsville grew darker. No one working along the path of destruction took much notice since the threat of sever weather had long since passed. What had been unseasonably warm weather the day before, with temperatures in the seventies, had given way to drier, colder air with a stiff and biting wind. The clouds lowered, hiding the sun that had earlier peeked its rays upon the destruction below. Workers felt cold pricks on their hands and the backs of their necks. Many stopped to look up. Some shook their heads in disbelief, others returned to their work, and some even let out smiles. Tiny white flakes fell onto the rubble, sticking for a moment and then disappearing. Less than twenty-four hours after the deadliest and costliest disaster in the city’s history, a rare autumn snow flurry fell on Huntsville, Alabama.

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