Zeta rips a deadly path through metro Atlanta



Three victims, all in their beds, killed overnight by powerful storm

William Holden and his wife were awake listening to the storm early Thursday when they heard what sounded like a freight train rip through their Cherokee County mobile home park.

Then a loud crash shook the entire trailer.

Strong winds from Tropical Storm Zeta had uprooted a large oak tree and sent it crashing through the home across the street, killing Holden’s neighbor as he slept in his bed.

ExploreZeta’s impact in metro Atlanta: Death, damage, power outages

“As loud as this storm was, we heard this blood-curdling scream that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said Holden, 52.

The impact of the fallen tree split the trailer in half and sent the man and his bed through a wall and into the side yard, neighbors said. Franklin Whyte, 22, was killed instantly, authorities said.

Three other adults and a child who were on the other side of the trailer escaped unharmed, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said. Whyte’s uncle said he was renting a room from the family who owned the trailer, and that he had only lived there since the beginning of October.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Holden said emergency crews had to cut the tree off the man’s body. As neighbors looked on in disbelief, one of them took the young man’s blanket and used it to shield his blood-soaked pillow from news cameras.

Whyte was one of three people killed overnight as powerful winds sent trees into houses and onto vehicles and power lines across metro Atlanta.

A man and woman were found dead in their bed after a tree split in half and landed on their home in Gwinnett County, fire officials said.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Crews responded to the Buford home in the 500 block of Garner Street about noon after receiving a call from the man’s brother, Gwinnett fire Capt. Tommy Rutledge police said. Authorities said the tree fell through the house and onto the bed, pinning the couple underneath. It’s unclear how long they had been there when authorities arrived.

Firefighters removed the tree and recovered the bodies Thursday afternoon.

“It’s an extensive operation and a very tragic scene here, for the people, for the family and for this community,” Rutledge said.

The two people killed were identified Friday as 24-year-old Grant Godbee and 23-year-old Mary Pence.

Across North Georgia, residents set about cleaning up debris and damaged caused by the overnight storms. Many of them, including Whyte’s next door neighbor, consider themselves lucky to be alive.

“Never have I seen anything — anything — like this," said Brenda Phillips, a 75-year-old who has lived in the Eastgate mobile home community for three decades. "If it had fallen that way, it could have been me. I am so lucky. Thank God.”

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

The tree also landed on her car, but Phillips said she’s just grateful she and her grandson weren’t harmed.

She’s experienced her share of strong storms over the past 30 years, but typically stays put and hunkers down until they pass. She said she has never experienced anything as powerful as Thursday morning’s storm.

“The wind was blowing so fast, so hard, it sounded like a train," she said. “Then all at once, that tree just fell down.”

She rushed outside to find Whyte dead on the mattress in the yard.

“There wasn’t no hope for him,” she said.

Across Bells Ferry Road, 37-year-old Gaby Lopez stood on the porch of what was left of his mobile home. The construction worker called his brother to come pick him up shortly before 5 a.m. because he didn’t feel safe staying there.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

It’s a good thing he did because a tree split his trailer in half and landed directly on top his bed.

“I am the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “It would have killed me.”

Rain and heavy winds also led to a near-death experience early for Ricky Field, whose Chevrolet pickup was stuck by a falling pine tree and power lines just after 5 a.m.

During his commute from Marietta to Buckhead, the 52-year-old found his route on Turner Road blocked by a small tree, so he got out of his truck and cleared the roadway.

He had just sat down and shifted back into drive when the crackling of a falling tree was followed by an overwhelming boom. A tree branch pierced through the roof of his truck, just missing him.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The pine caught a row of power lines on its way down, pinning them over the top of the truck and shooting electric sparks all around him. Both front-seat airbags deployed.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t the way I thought I was going to die, but I guess I don’t have a lot of power over it,’” said, Field who was trapped in the pickup for about an hour and a half before being rescued by firefighters.

He said he might have been killed had the truck not lurched forward when he put it in drive.

“If I hadn’t moved forward three inches, that branch would have gone right through my head and I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he said.

— Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this article.