April 27, 2019. Posted at 3:05pm CST, at the time the Hackleburg, Alabama tornado touched down 8 years ago.
“It will either be the worst day in history, or nothing,” James Span, an Alabama meteorologist said to his listeners on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, exactly eight years ago today, as he evaluated the weather patterns.
For the citizens of the small town of Hackleburg, Alabama, it was the worst day in history.
It started at 4 am when police chief Hallmark set off the tornado sirens and put his family in the police station jail cell, a heavy block structure that doubled as a storm shelter. However, no tornado came and by mid-morning the sun was shining and it looked like a nice day.
At 3 pm, the weather threatened again. The chief put his family back in the jail cell and set off the tornado sirens. He headed south on Highway 43 to investigate reports of a large wall cloud heading north toward Hackleburg. Highway 43 dips and rises, and for awhile Chief Hallmark could not see the cloud, which was being observed by officials on its back side.
“You should start seeing it soon,” David Cantrell says. He’s the assistant director of emergency management.
“I don’t see anything yet,” the chief replies.
Then, a deputy on the back side of the cloud, a reserved man who uses words sparingly, breaks into the radio traffic.
“I’ve got trees coming out of this wall cloud,” he says.
“That’s not a wall cloud,” David radios back. “That’s a tornado. Just get out of the way!”
About this time, Chief Hallmark tops a rise and he sees it. Because he’s seeing it from the front, he’s probably the first person to really see it, a black monster outlined clearly against a lighter sky.
He makes a U-turn, puts on lights and sirens, and steps on the gas. From behind the cloud, David Cantrell hears the chief.
“I’m going 80-something and it’s gaining. I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to outrun it.”
Most tornadoes travel 30-40 mph. This one was traveling 65 mph. Even though the tornado was slower than the police cruiser, the tornado wasn’t confined to the yellow lines on the highway. Neither did the tornado have a conscience when it saw people parked beside the highway taking pictures. Chief Hallmark possibly could have made it back to town ahead of the tornado, but he stopped to warn people to take cover. In a house beside Highway 43, a young boy hears the chief’s siren and comes to the window. He and his mother and friend have not been watching the weather, but when the boy looks out the window, he sees the sky and the huge tornado. He rushes his mother and friend to their bathtub, saving their lives.
The chief is still driving, but now he’s behind a car that’s driving 60 mph. Behind him, the chief sees houses exploding, and he knows he isn’t going to make it back to town. He pulls into a side road, parks, and dives into a culvert, trees snapping around him. As the tornado roars over him like a giant lawn mower, he wonders if his family is safe.
As it nears Hackleburg and screams over the police chief, the tornado is three-fourths of a mile wide and registers as an EF5, the most severe class of tornado. Less than 0.1 percent of tornadoes meet this criteria, and the damage they create is defined as incredible. Cars fly for 100 yards. Steel beams twist. Strong houses are picked up whole. On the National Weather Service map of the tornado, the damage is summarized in brief phrases beside triangular purple icons: slab swept clean, slab swept clean, slab swept clean, numerous houses destroyed, numerous cars thrown or flipped.
In all likelihood, the car driving in front of Chief Hallmark was one of those cars.
When Chief Hallmark climbs out of the culvert, covered in mud, he sees that his car is surrounded by fallen trees and is not going anywhere. He radios into town for help.
“How are things at the station?” he asks.
“We don’t have a police station anymore,” the voice replies.
“You better not tell me that, I just put my family there. Have you seen them?”
“I can’t find them anywhere.”
In July of 2011, a few months after the tornado, I set off with a notebook and a friend and went to tornado country to look and listen. We went first to Joplin, MO, and then south to Hackleburg, then to Ringgold, Georgia. It was a blessing to have Sarah Miller with me. (Although she did insist on butchering the name Hackleburg, and calling it Hacksville instead, on purpose, because she thought it sounded better. Grrrr! I should have thought of that before asking her to be in my bridal party.)
Chief Hallmark invited us into his office, and gave us one of the most honest interviews I have ever had with an official. I’ve interviewed a few public officials and it seems that they tend to speak like politicians with guarded responses and carefully curated stories that are worthless to a writer. But Chief Hallmark spoke from his heart, and I remember the tears invading his eyes as he recalled that day, and his attempt to make it back to his hometown of Hackleburg after the storm. He has been through a lot in his life, he said. He’s been shot, and he’s had a partner who was shot. But nothing compared to that initial feeling of helplessness after the tornado, standing beside his ruined car and hearing his family was missing.
“I can’t put it into words,” he tells us. “Until you are able to see it and experience it… things you took pride in, gone. People broken…Until you see how powerful a tornado is, how quickly everything can be destroyed…”
He trails off.
“Yet that’s not even a speck on how powerful God is.”
There are parts of all three stories that entranced me, but I think my most permanent stakes were put down in Hackleburg. There was something about the faces and stories of the people of this small town that wrapped their way around my heart. Almost every person had been affected dramatically. As I right this blog, I want to tell you about Leah and Christie and the others, but there is no space.
Last week, Marnell and I drove through Hackleburg on our way home from the Lee family reunion in Mississippi. As we drove through the hills of Highway 43, I looked for the homes of the people I had talked to whose lives had been forever altered that day eight years ago at 3:05 pm. And as we scanned the countryside, I realized that I was forever changed by hearing their stories. I wasn’t just looking at countryside, with tornado damaged stick trees still visible in places. I was recalling the rawness of my own heart as I looked into grieving faces.
“Some people say a tornado sounds like a train,” a high school senior told me. “That would be a wimpy tornado.”
Another victim who lost both of her parents tells me she isn’t quite ready to go back to work yet. She works in a call center and when she goes back, she will take calls from people with Internet problems.
“I’m afraid I would say, ‘Oh, you’re having a bad day because your Internet doesn’t work. Do you want to hear about some real problems?’ I used to hear about PTSD, and think, Oh, whatever it’s just an excuse. It’s not.”
|Hackleburg (Marion County) EF-5 Tornado|
April 27, 2011 Rating: EF-5 Estimated
Maximum Wind: 210 mph
Injuries/Fatalities: 100 Injuries / 18 fatalities
Damage Path Length: 25.14 miles
Maximum Path Width: 1320 yards (3/4 mile)
Approximate Start Point/Time: 34.1043/-88.1479 at 305 pm
Approximate End Point/Time: 34.3109/-87.7858 at 328 pm
Marnell and I stopped at the Panther Mart, the scene of search and rescue command on that day eight years ago. We had many miles to drive and couldn’t stay long, but I approached an older man drinking coffee at one of the mart tables.
“Have you lived here long?” I asked.
“Fifty years,” he said, speaking that wonderful language, Alabamian.
I introduced myself and asked about some of the people I remembered talking to. He knew almost all of them.
“Chief Hallmark is still in the service, but he’s not chief anymore,” the man said. “I think he got tired of it. Our town isn’t the same as it was before the tornado. There were so many trees then!”
I thanked him, glad to see someone who knew the people I knew. Around town, I recognized places Sarah and I had gone. The police station was rebuilt. Many new houses dot the land, but there are still bare cement slabs to remind everyone what happened that day.
“God’s blessed us in a billion ways that you’ve never seen,” Chief Hallmark said.
Among those blessings, the chief found his family. The jail cell did stay strong and protected those in it, but at the last minute, the chief’s wife and three children had switched to a different shelter, which is why they could not be found. This was a dangerous move, but what matters now is that it ended well.
It’s tornado season again! Be safe, and thank God for your blessings.
Monday Merchants: I’ll be offering a free signed copy of Shatterproof in a drawing, as well as sharing links for Shatterproof and three tornado books that were most interesting to me as I researched.
Tuesday Tips: I will share the tornado safety tips which I have found most striking since researching this topic and hearing the stories of many survivors.