First Hand Account

Below is an unedited personal account from Kristen Cook, wife of McDonald Road Associate Pastor David Cook, describing her experience of the storm that swept through the Collegedale area on Wednesday, April 27, 2011. Parts of this account describe the realities of the destruction left behind by the tornadoes.

There is so much to write, I don’t know where to start. I know my brain has already thrown a ton of “info” out because there isn’t room for it all. Here’s an attempt to tell you of our last 36 hours. . . .

I’m not sure what time the first tornado warning came through, but I think it was sometime yesterday morning, 8:30ish. The kids and I grabbed the remainder of breakfast and Emily’s homeschool books, and went over to Donna’s basement. (Donna lives on the top of the hill, just on the other side of the privacy fence.) We were there with her till about 10:00, watching the TV’s weather channel. We came home during a lull, knowing another cell was to arrive in about an hour or so.

The next cell arrived, and we went down our hill to Pam’s house. We were there in her basement for awhile again. Nickolas played with Knex, and Emily fretted.

We came back to our house during another lull, and Donna came over here to see some decorating stuff I was working on. She actually helped me rearrange Emily’s room and figure out a TON of stuff to make her room fun. We laughed and planned and had a good time.

The next cell came, and we went back to Donna’s house, this time taking supper with us. We were in Donna’s basement for awhile this time, as the cell was bigger. Tornado after tornado was being reported all around us. But the worst cell was yet to come.

We ran back home, changed the kids into PJ’s, grabbed our sleeping bags and mats, and drove quickly down to Rod and Pam’s house. The air was deathly still, and the sky was a massive pot of churning, bubbling electric clouds. It was beyond eerie. We kept one eye on the skies while we scurried into the basement, this time to hunker down for the night.

Rod had on his ham radio, but we otherwise now had no clue what was happening outside, besides the dull rumble we could hear that never quit. I checked Facebook on my cell phone, but that took forever and wasn’t terribly helpful at first. Nathan, Pam’s son, actually was out chasing the cells around with News Channel 9’s weather station. He always posts the most up-to-date weather information, so I was looking for his posts.

I was keeping in touch with Heidi and Mom. Heidi had just picked Mom up from the van drop-off place in East Ridge, as Mom had just flown to Atlanta from spending 10 days in Michigan. Heidi and Chase were with Mom at her house when the ham radio started to buzz with info about Ringgold being hit hard by a tornado that was now headed towards Apison. (Mom lives between Ringgold and Apison; we live in Apison.) I called Mom to tell her, and she, Chase, and Heidi took cover in her hallway. We continued to listen to reports of sited tornadoes all around us. I was on and off the phone with Mom and Heidi.

Somewhere in there, we realized the cell had passed us, so Heidi decided to make a bee-line for her home in Cleveland. Shortly after she got home, someone on the ham said they saw a tornado touching down along Alabama Road, heading toward Cleveland. Heidi crosses Alabama on the way to her house, and her address is Cleveland, so that tornado was headed towards her. I called her again. They took cover. It stayed like this for awhile, and Mom was very upset, alone in her house. As soon as the chatter on the ham died down, David and Rod left to go get Mom. Awhile later, they returned with a shaky, but grateful Mom. She said she’d heard a rumble, sort of like a train, had felt the air get suctioned out of her house (her windows were open), and felt/heard her roof rattle and shake like crazy.

David brought a lighter moment to us at this point by showing us the most gigantic bullfrog that he’d picked up somewhere along the way. I have never in my life seen a frog that huge!

By now, there were 8 of us in the basement, plus two dogs and a bullfrog.

We all got into our sleeping bags, but although several people claimed to be snorers, I never heard a single snore the entire short night, and it wasn’t because I fell asleep. — I don’t think anyone slept.

David left the basement around midnight, I think, as he’d gotten in touch with Dusty. Dusty goes to our church and has done some disaster relief, namely with Hurricane Andrew in FL. The stories he tells raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

Over the next few hours, Dusty was out with his chainsaw, cutting trees free of power lines, and calling David frequently to exclaim, “This is just awful. It’s AWFUL, David!” He saw bodies and other things that made him cry when he started to tell me about it this morning.

Somewhere, in all the chainsawing and sleeplessness, David and Dusty hatched a plan: to provide breakfast to the relief workers who were stationed at the triage station, which just happens to be at Apison Elementary school, directly across the street from our house.

Ambulance, police, and firetruck sirens replaced the previous sound of continual thunder. It was difficult to distinguish one siren from another, one direction from another in sound, as all sirens blended into a scream outside. It was dreadful.

The frog, by the way, kept hitting his head on the pan placed over the 5 gallon bucket he was in. So, about every five minutes, just as I was about to lull off to sleep, THUNK, the frog would hit his head! David was now up at our house, and we were texting back and forth. Finally, David’s texts dwindled, and I fitfully fell asleep, frequently jarred awake by a “THUNK!”

At 3:45, David texted me saying, “Rise and shine!” We were to go buy groceries for 100 workers. So off we went into the eerie dark of morning. Usually I anticipate the daylight of a new morning. It’s refreshing and has a twinge of anticipation. But not this morning. All I had was a ball of dread in my stomach. In the dark I couldn’t see much, but in my heart I was forming what I knew was out there, and I wasn’t looking forward to the reality that daylight would show me.

We filled the backseat and trunk with two cartloads of groceries, and started driving again. We went to Mom’s house to check on its status, as she was very worried about it. Not a scratch or dent that we could see by shining our car lights on it in her driveway. We drove up to Apison Elementary, and were immediately aided in emptying the car of all the groceries. We set up stoves and griddles from Pathfinders’ supply and started making biscuits and gravy, pancakes, hash browns, eggs. Rescue workers were milling around, and helpful hands began to materialize and get to work with us.

As breakfast was beginning to be served and more and more people started appearing, I left the scene to check on the kids. Sneaking back into Pam’s basement, I cracked the closet door open and called softly to the kids. They immediately responded, obviously wide awake. They put on their shoes, and we crept back upstairs. We went over to the staging area, where I helped the kids get breakfast, and ran some errands for the food crew. Then I took the kids to get dressed, checking back at Pam’s house on who was up. Nathan and Pam were, and so we talked about what we knew, which was a slowly growing sense of the disaster we were in the middle of.

Cherokee Valley road, which Mom’s house backs up to, separated by less than half a mile, was decimated. That tornado she’d heard was very close indeed. Cherokee Valley is about half mile from our house as well. My sister called and was on her way to work, running over downed power line after downed power line. The main road between her house and our’s (which she takes on her way to work) was unrecognizable. She was in shock as she described it to me. A war zone.

I came up to the house to get the kids changed, and Donna hollered to me over her balcony, “Is there anything I can do to help?” “Yes,” I replied, “Take Emily and Nickolas!” She happily agreed, and we ran inside to get them changed, re-emerging to send them to Donna’s.

I went back to Pam’s and woke Pam’s dad up. (It was now 9:00, and since the room is pitch-black, he had no clue how late it was! I told him I was kicking him out of the house. 🙂 I drove him over to his assisted living place, and then Mom and I went to Donna’s to get the kids, and then drove to Mom’s house, where the kids still are.

Finally, I got back over to the triage area, and the stories that were coming in were awful: houses flattened, or just GONE, stumps or “stick” trees with no leaves. Gun shots going off to “finish off” the animals that were found injured and almost dead. A man with a bag that had body parts of a loved one. Descriptions of the sounds of the tornadoes, faces etched with shock and disbelief. It started dawning on me what a mass disaster we were in. Airplanes and helicopters circled overhead. The governor’s blackhawk helicopter chopped up the air above us and then landed behind our school. News crews had their cameras hoisted in the air, capturing the gathering crowds of volunteers and rescue vehicles that were filling the large parking lot, their sirens screaming as they pulled out of the triage area.

And then there was the beauty of the scene: carloads, truckloads, vanloads, filled with bottled water, gatorade, paper plates, coffee machines, hot dog buns, bananas, ice; small bags of various food stock; vans of catered food from restaurants, fit for a Sabbath dinner; $100 bills pushed into David’s hands, for him to pass on to wherever needed. Hands being put to work making sandwiches to take out to people on Cherokee Valley, hands serving food to firefighters who can’t remember how long they’ve been up working, hands organizing the growing food collection in the school’s hallway. Chainsaws’ of friends and neighbors we know, others we don’t, revving their motors. Lines of cars leaving to go help where needed.

My phone has been busy with calls, then with texts, now with sporadic texting, as everything is clogged up or towers are down. I still don’t know if several friends are okay. I have messages up on Facebook to see if anyone has heard about these friends, and I keep checking.

I came home to get a nap, but that hasn’t happened, and I feel I need to get back out to triage area. Sleep will come later, and so will lots of tears.

Don’t stop praying for us!

The bullfrog is still in the basement, forgotten for now.