Recalling a deadly tornado, 10 years later

Posted 4/21/21

We know Mother Nature to be fickle. But fecklessly, spitefully cruel? Here, in central North Carolina?

Yes, and nightmarishly so. The Sanford tornado 10 years ago this week proved it.

I grew up …

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Recalling a deadly tornado, 10 years later

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We know Mother Nature to be fickle. But fecklessly, spitefully cruel? Here, in central North Carolina?

Yes, and nightmarishly so. The Sanford tornado 10 years ago this week proved it.

I grew up along Tornado Alley. My mother and sister and I moved from Sanford to the treeless, rolling hills of northeast Kansas when I was in 4th grade, in the fall of 1972. In Kansas, 10 o’clock TV newscasts lead with the weather first. It doesn’t take long to develop the oddly ironic, paradoxical attitude most in the Midwest have about the weather: first, the jaded mindset that we’ve seen it all. A running joke: what did tornadoes sound like before freight trains were invented? And second, the healthy, but still unnerving, respect for that which weather can wreak. If we didn’t have a tornado story, we knew plenty of people who did. When I was growing up, too many towns in the Sunflower State solemnly commemorated anniversaries of killer twisters.

I was in the vicinity of three tornadoes during the dozen or so years I lived there, but never saw one. We were living in a single-wide mobile home, but thankfully away from town on a camping trip, the afternoon one struck our town. One side of our home was peeled away like the top of a sardine can. My baseball cards and my favorite book on baseball star Roberto Clemente were soaked, but all in all damage was relatively minimal.

An inveterate storm-watcher and lover of weather-themed documentaries, I always thought I’d love to see a tornado in person. But in North Carolina?

A decade ago, we experienced it. My wife Lee Ann and I thought that April 16, 2011, storm spared us, but when television reports said the St. Andrews area of Sanford had been hit, our brief relief turned to panic. I immediately called the home of my then-longest-tenured co-worker at The Sanford Herald, R. V. Hight, hoping to hear good news. I knew from the tone of his wife’s “hello” that things would be bad.

“Bill, our house is gone,” she said.

They were OK, but their home was nearly totally destroyed. They survived by crouching inside a walk-in closet, which was just about all that was left standing.

A small army of us from the newspaper ventured into the St. Andrews neighborhood, working our way through gnarled traffic and, in some cases, talking our way past emergency crews.

We greeted each other with tears and embraces. The shock was palpable, and understandable. At homes in St. Andrews, there were gaping holes, collapsed sections of roofs. At R.V.’s, a splintered piece of wood was driven cleanly into and through the bumper of one of the family’s cars. The remnants of a 2x4 — also splintered, its origins unknown — was driven into the home’s siding, as if it were nailed by a giant hammer. Most of the home’s walls had collapsed, yet a bookcase inside one room wasn’t disturbed, the shelves’ books unmoved.

Everywhere along the path of devastation, we all said the same thing: never seen anything like it.

Me? Not even in Kansas.

Then news of the destruction of the Lowe’s Home Improvement, and of Tractor Supply Co., and of scores of injuries and possible deaths across Lee County, came. We worked, we picked up, we tried to help. We tried to comfort.

Why it happened will be as hard to figure as why one house along the path is destroyed, while another within a stone’s throw is untouched. At one home, all that’s necessary is a hard cleanup. At another, reconstruction.

But it happened, so we faced the prospect of reacting.

An hour before sunset that day, a few of us struggled with one load of the family’s luggage and suitcases. We planned to transport it to a co-worker’s car parked at Hunt Springs Church a few hundred yards away; while doing so, a group of teenagers cruised by the home on a golf cart. One member of the party shot video of us with his cell phone as they passed.

We stopped them and asked if they could help us take a load.

“Uh, we better not,” said one of them. “The battery’s getting low.”

They drove off.

Faith was restored a few minutes later. As one of our party staggered with a top-heavy load, a woman — she said she was a nurse — came to the rescue, shouldering part of the luggage the rest of the way to our destination without hesitation.

That’s the spirit, I thought.

An hour or so later, as darkness fell, I delivered that load to the home of Mrs. Apple, R. V.’s wife’s mother, where part of his family took respite. We talked about coming together, about picking up the pieces.

“Maybe He just wants us to work together,” Mrs. Apple said.

Amen to that. True then, true now.


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