Friday, June 27, 2008

Piedmont Tornado Story

BYLINE: Tom Watson; Mimi Hall


LENGTH: 1011 words


Early Sunday, the radio carried weather warnings: Heavy storms were on the way.

But this was Palm Sunday, the day of the children's service at Goshen United Methodist Church. And so 140 worshipers, many wearing their Easter outfits, came to the sanctuary, ignoring the gathering clouds.

They sang, even after rising winds knocked the power out.

But suddenly, in the middle of the children's play, "things started hitting the side of the church, and something came through one of the windows," said Carol Scroggins, who was at the altar when the tornado hit. "I just started to scream, 'Everybody get down!' . . . People were screaming, but it happened so quickly there wasn't much time for reaction."

When it was over, 17 bodies - six of them children - were pulled from the rubble of the toppled steeple, bricks and smashed pews. Two more victims died later. Ninety people were hurt, many with severe back and chest injuries; some reached hospitals in cars flagged down by survivors.

The devastation was part of a series of powerful twisters that wreaked havoc across the South on Sunday, killing at least 36 and destroying homes in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.

"One of the worst ones I've seen, one of the worst ones this century," was how Joe Wheeler, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, described it.

In Piedmont, a town of 5,000, the tornado seemed to skip over rooftops until its violent descent on Goshen United.

Harold Price, 80, was watching the performance from his pew near the altar when "the next thing I knew I was laying on my back with the roof just a few inches above my face."

As the debris rained down, Christa Rhinehart, 16, said she and others panicked. "I started screaming for my momma, and she was right beside me," she said.

The nightmare lasted only moments.

"Me and about five others were able to crawl right out, and we started throwing bricks and blocks off of the children and carrying them out," said Fay Studdard, 46. "We got as many kids out as we could without injuring them."

Family members scrambled over broken pews to find each other. B.J. Ogg, who lives next to the church, brought the injured into her home, out of the driving rain. "People were trapped, hurt and screaming," she said.

A hundred people, many who came from their own church services, arrived to sift through debris by hand as cranes lifted fallen beams. A morgue was set up at the local National Guard Armory. Among the dead was the daughter of Goshen's minister, Kelly Clem.

Other towns across the South also struggled to pick up the pieces Sunday night:

-- In the small college town of Boiling Springs, N.C., "everything got real dark" as an afternoon tornado "tore up a lot of buildings and trees and all kinds of stuff," said Jimmy Ledford, owner of Ledford's Buy and Sell.

At Gardner-Webb College, the tornado damaged student dormitories and the library.

-- In Charlotte, N.C., an evening tornado touched down at Douglas International Airport and a housing complex. One man was killed by lightning.

-- In Pickens County, Ga., six people died in one mobile home. Their bodies were strewn over a half-mile, said neighbor, Barbara Turner. Her family tried to ride out the tornado by crouching near the chimney. They ended up in a ditch across the street, but all survived.

"It just picked everything up and just twirled it around, and then the ground looked like it was just coming up," Turner said. "And then before you knew it, everything was just . . . clearing out of the way. Everything just turned to rubble."

-- Outside Ohatchee, Ala., a tornado damaged the Ten Island Baptist Church and injured some worshipers.

-- In Guntersville, Ala., the roof was blown off the Marshall Manor Nursing Home, and 25 to 30 residents - none of whom were injured - were taken to Guntersville Hospital.

-- In Ragland, Ala., a community near Piedmont, one woman died and 38 families were left homeless. Eight more were injured - mostly broken bones and cuts - in the storm that damaged houses, mobile homes, a service station and a Baptist church.

The devastation in Piedmont, where severe tornado warnings were issued again Sunday night, has stunned every household.

"People in there who weren't our kin were our friends," said Mike Welsh, 24, who searched the rubble.

But residents like Fay Studdard say the town - and Goshen United - will survive and rebuild.

"Palm Sunday is such a joyous occasion. It makes you wonder: Why did it happen to a church full of people on Palm Sunday?" says Studdard.

"All you can do is have faith and pray for strength. I have no doubt we will rebuild and hold together. Just make sure everybody knows that this church family still believes."

Contributing: Jack Williams and Linda Kanamine

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