Hard to believe it's been 18 years since Huntsville experienced its worst tornado in the city's history. I remember the day in pretty vivid detail. Kind of hard to forget, to be honest.
I still remember I went to the dentist that morning, where the nurses talked about the bad weather that was being predicted (we had been placed under a 'high risk' area for severe weather by the National Weather Service). I remember class that day, the tornado drill they made us do, and I remember going up to a neighbor's house with Baby Sister when the parents were supposed to go to a dinner. I remember looking out the window and seeing the black sky a few moments before the power went out and the weather got really bad. I remember sitting in the dark hallway, waiting for my parents to come get us.
They came after an hour or so, waiting to make sure the worst of the weather had cleared. Trees were down all over the place; we were a half-mile from Airport Road, where the tornado had cut through, so even the short drive up the street was treacherous. I don't like to think about it much, but the parents would have been in the path of the tornado had Papa Bear not decided to head back to the house to let the storm pass before heading out to a coworker's retirement dinner.
I remember sitting in the kitchen, some neighbors hanging out at our house, talking, by the light of the camping lantern. Word had begun to trickle in about the damage. Phones were down, but the radio was on and reports had come in that Airport Road, the area that held all our local grocery stores and gas stations, was completely leveled. Reports were coming through about the children trapped at Jones Valley Elementary. I read my book, The Westing Game, and don't remember much about it.
But I do remember my father and another neighbor racing through the house, grabbing a hard hat (why my father had a hard hat I don't know, I suppose he was Mr. Always Prepared) and another camping lantern and sprinting out the back door. If you've ever met Ernest, you know what an impressive feat this is. ANYWAY. There are train tracks that run North-South behind our house, along South Parkway.
The train had no communication with the city and had no idea that the tracks ahead were covered with debris from the apartment complex and rescue workers digging bodies out of said debris. My father waved down the train with the lantern and stopped the train. True story. There was a letter to the editor about it in the Huntsville Times a few days later from a neighbor. +10 for Papa Bear. For what its worth, trains no longer run along those tracks, that I know of.
The next day at school was pretty intense. A few kids from our class had been directly involved in the storm and there was drama when they appeared, late, cut up and bruised, but there nonetheless. There were loads of 'stories' floating around, such as the alleged report of multiple tornadoes in the vicinity (which seem to be false since they were never confirmed, not that multiple funnels are out of the question with a storm that big). There was the story of cops looting the jewelry store that was hit. Then there were the true stories of the painters at Jones Valley Elementary whose heroic efforts saved the lives of several children (one of the painters later died of cancer, a tragic story that was a big deal in the area). And there was the story of the husband and wife owners of a dry cleaners that were killed when the tornado made a direct hit on the shopping center where they worked.
18 years later and Airport Road still resembles the Airport Road of November 14th, 1989. The Apartment complex was rebuilt, as was the Westbury Shopping Center. Some separate standing stores were never rebuilt while new ones went up. New, bigger shopping centers were built where there had only once been empty land. If nothing else, the rebuilding of the area opened up the commercial development of the area. Regardless of the thriving nature of the area now, there still stands a small, simple memorial to the victims of the tornado at the corner of Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive.
I've been meaning to write about the tornado for many years. I even made a decent start at it several years ago, when I was living in New Orleans (pre-K). I dug around the archives of the Huntsville Public Library, spent a small fortune at the microfiche and xerox machines, and even copied a few video clips. Maybe it's time to take that back up. It's a pretty big deal in terms of Huntsville, a major marker in my young life, and it's definitely an event worth remembering. I guess we'll see if I can get the schwerve back.
Anyway, tonight I will pour one out in honor of the Tornado of '89, its victims, and its survivors.
UPDATED: Here's an email I got from Papa Bear discussing more of what happened for them.
"The Boeing group I worked in had just won another 3 - 5 year contract. There was supposed to be a "win party" at a "German" restaurant over on University Drive, east of Jordan Lane on the south side of University, that's now closed. We had dropped you and Cynthia up the street at the Pumphrey's house. I recall that Shelby and Janie were at dance class in the shopping center across from Grissom High School on Bailey Cove Road. We were just getting ready to leave the house, and we were waiting for the rain to lighten up a bit before leaving for the restaurant. (Otherwise, we'd have been stuck on Airport Road just when the main funnel went down it.) The train had just gone south along the tracks about 10 minutes earlier. I went to the bathroom before leaving and heard a low rumbling like the diesel locomotive through the open window. I wondered, "Why is the train backing up? It just went down and hasn't had time to get to Lily Flagg or Weatherly Road yet." Then I thought, "Wait a minute, that's not a train!" So, I zipped up and out and told your mother to get into the hallway and close the doors, that there was a tornado close by. I threw a couple of flashlights and hardhats into the hall and went to look out the carport and back to see if I could hear or see where the tornado was. The main noise was from the west, but there seemed also to be a secondary noise from the southwest, toward Golf and Martin Roads. So, I went back in, and we sat in the hallway until the sound faded away. Then I went back out to listen for more tornados.
Soon afterwards, we drove up in the old Dodge van to check on y'all. I took Sue over to get her two kids from the dance class. It was a long and careful trip because there was no power, there was debris around and traffic, and it was dark.
Later, I heard the real train coming back. I grabbed my gas lantern, went out and flagged them down behind our house. They asked why I flagged them down. They didn't have a radio with them and couldn't have heard it over the train noise anyway. I told them that a major tornado had gone up Airport Road a couple of hours earlier and I wasn't sure what was on the tracks or even if the tracks hadn't been ripped loose. I went with them up the tracks almost to Airport Road, and after they saw the damage they decided to park the train just north of us for the night (it was a couple of days before they could get it across Airport Road) and used our phone to call in and get picked up. They sent me a note of thanks."