by Jill Cole
In the early morning hours on April 9, 1999, we were awakened by the sound of tornado sirens. The day before had been mild, so we had our windows open and could clearly hear the sirens. I remember being surprised at how quiet the air was that morning—I usually think of the sirens sounding when there is a storm outside. We decided to go to the basement… since it was almost time to get up for the day anyway. We awakened our three youngest sons, ages four, seven, and ten at the time. Our two oldest sons were away at college. We brought blankets and pillows with us and settled down in front of our little black-and-white TV—watching the weather but mostly just passing time until the all clear. We never imagined what was about to happen, and that our lives would be forever changed.
The phone rang, and Steve walked upstairs to answer it. Our golden retriever, Annie followed him up. He didn’t get to the phone in time to answer it, but as he started back down the stairs, we both heard a loud, humming sound. Within moments the humming turned to a roar, and we both realized we were in trouble. We grabbed the children and ran into another room that had a heavy worktable. We put the kids in our laps and reached around them to hang on to the table.
The minutes the tornado was over us were some of the most terrifying of my life. The sound? Like a freight train right on top of you… we heard things crashing, windows breaking, lights flashing. It seemed to go on forever. And then… quiet, except for the sound of water dripping into the basement from above us, where there was supposed to be two stories of house and a roof to keep the rain out.
We waited there for some time, not sure what to do next.
Finally, Steve went upstairs to see what had happened. As he opened the basement door (we still had a basement door), our dog, Annie, came bounding down the steps and jumped into my lap as I sat with the kids.
A few moments later Steve walked back down the steps. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Jill, it’s all gone.”
Eventually we rounded up clothing and shoes and made our way out of the house and down to the street. It was total chaos, but already police and fire personnel were on the scene, not only from Montgomery, but from all over the tri-state area. Urban search and rescue teams questioned each family to make sure all people were accounted for. They told us to walk up to Sycamore High School, where buses were waiting to take us to the Red Cross shelter that had been set up at Sycamore Junior High School.
Steve decided to go back to the house to try to find our wallets. As he walked towards the front door, a man in fire gear came out of the house with his hand extended saying, “Welcome home, Steve.”
It was Father Hill.
Father Hill and Steve picked us up from the junior high and brought us to the Hills' home. People stopped by with donations of food, clothing, and other essentials. Parishioners Scott and Kelli Green were leaving for vacation and allowed us to use their car while we were gone. A stranger contacted us through a mutual friend, offering the use of their home for ten days while they were out of town.
Someone from church put together backpacks for each of my kids, with school supplies, Beanie Babies, and most importantly, new Game Boy systems. It meant the world to my children.
A few days later one of my kids asked, “Mom, why did God do this to us?” His brother answered, “It wasn’t God, it was just warm air and cold air coming together.”
He was right of course. The work of God on that day and the ones that followed was in the people who came together with rakes and gloves and meals and telephone calls and chainsaws and prayers and everything else. They showed up and did what needed to be done. And little by little, they helped restore our neighborhood and our lives.
The things I learned from this? People are inherently good and will go to lengths beyond imagination to help in times of need. People matter more than things. Your mom was right, and you should get rid of your ugly pajamas because you never know when you might show up on national TV wearing them. How difficult it can be to feel so helpless, when you are accustomed to being one who helps others.
We rebuilt our home and moved back into it almost a year later. On that day in April 1999, our old life ended. We were forever changed by that event. But, literally, out of the rubble a new life eventually began.
The true story of what happened isn’t just about the tornado, it is the story of compassion and caring, how people reached out to help during a very difficult time.
We are interviewed in the second half of this clip:
Hear more stories about the 1999 tornado through the City of Montgomery's podcast, Weathering the Storm.