April 2011: Ringgold bore Georgia's brunt of the tornado

RINGGOLD -- Reba and Betty Jo Self thought they had dodged destruction Wednesday afternoon after a tornado cloud passed over their home.

But it wasn't long before the wind was up and howling again and 52-year-old Reba was back in the basement, screaming for her mother, 78, to get down the stairs. Betty Jo was looking for "Big Dog," their cocker spaniel.

They didn't know it then, but the tornado that ravaged this town was hitting across the Ooltewah Ringgold Road, tearing up brick homes and trailers alike. Then it sounded like their clapboard house was falling, too.

"Right before it hit, I saw her at the top of the step calling for the dog," said Reba Thursday, still hurting from being hit by glass and other debris. "I thought I was dead.  Fifteen seconds later it was over and it was just as calm as it could be."

This is an aerial view of the storm damage in Ringgold, Ga. taken last April.
This is an aerial view of the storm damage in Ringgold, Ga. taken last April.

RELATED: More photos from the 2011 Georgia tornado

That same tornado continued over the ridge and slammed down on Cherokee Valley Road. Fifteen people died from in Georgia during storms that day, eight of them in Ringgold, this town of nearly 3,000 located 17 miles south of Chattanooga. Five of those were lost on Cherokee Valley Road. At least two more people missing.

Minutes before, it had killed two people in town when it hit residences. It destroyed several fast-food restaurants, at least two filling stations, a Waffle House and several motels.

The motels were filled with travelers who had came off the I-75, seeking shelter. Amazingly, none were killed although some had to be dug out of collapsed buildings, Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said. Emergency workers evacuated 150 people to shelters and sent 30 people to the hospital, mostly from the commercial strip just east of I-75, he said.

Catossa County and Ringgold authorities closed down much of the city and hard-hit county areas because of dangerous conditions,  everything from gas leaks to unstable structures and debris-filled roads.

Summers said the death toll could have been much higher. He credited restaurant and hotel managers for acting quickly to herd workers and customers into freezers and bathrooms to protect them before the tornado hit.

Authorities say eight people were killed in the storm that hit Ringgold.
Authorities say eight people were killed in the storm that hit Ringgold.

He noted Ringgold had dodged two tornadoes that day only to be hit that evening by a third. At least 16 buildings "evaporated," Summers said as he surveyed the destruction Thursday. Some of the motels and restaurants were no longer recognizable brands. A McDonald's announced itself only by its playground equipment.

"Probably 50 percent of the business district has been wiped out," Summers said. "We'll have to deal with this for months to come. All of these people losing their jobs and they were depending on that income."

After the tornado passed, Reba Self said she couldn't reach 911 to get help for her mother who was battered and badly cut on the arm. The daughter feared her mother might bleed to death. She was on blood-thinning medication. But a nurse stopped to help and relatives soon arrived to take Betty Jo to the hospital.

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At Fire Station No. 1, Firefighter Clarence Muse said firefighters watched the tornado form, descend upon on the town and then advance on into the county. By the time they arrived at ground zero, Muse said the city looked like a war zone.

"It is going to be hard for the city to rebuild," he said. "And Cherokee Valley is absolutely devastated."

From inside the study brick fire station, the tornado didn't sound like the proverbial freight train but more like a snake, Muse said.

"It was hissing," he said. "This thing had a life of its own."

At a nearby Inman Street house, Lynn Merrill, 42, and his girlfriend, Joyce Sweeney, 43, on Thursday watched workers cut up downed trees in the yard. They had walked into the hard-hit area and found a more sobering sight the night before.

"They were carrying bodies out," Merrill said. "We saw them putting people in the back of trucks and covering them up. Then the Army people came down and made us leave."

In a yard on Inman Street were John and Barbara Love who had driven from their home in nearby Rocky Face to offer folks their help. Barbara Love looked at the children playing in the yard of a damaged home.

"I wish I had brought some teddy bears for these kids," she said.

Staff writer Mark Davis contributed to this article.

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