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Survivors recount Ringgold tornado's impact

Long distance damage

Catoosa County Manager Mike Helton reports that signage from Ringgold has been found in Knoxville and a Ringgold resident’s swimming medals and yearbook material were found in Madisonville, Tenn., and the owner was contacted about the missing items on Facebook.

Silence before the storm

“We shouldn’t be alive,” said Ringgold resident Karen Douglas. “My husband was standing outside scanning the area when suddenly the wind died and the power shut off. He must have known something was brewing close by. We heard him scream for us to get in the bathroom before looking outside to see the tornado in the front yard, moving towards our neighbor’s house. My daughter started praying ‘please Lord let it pass, let it pass’ and her prayer was answered.”

This silence before the storm is what to look for, according to Douglas. If the wind and chaos suddenly stop, prepare for the worst.

— Mallorie Ann Ingram

'The roof collapsed on us'

Ringgold resident Jeff Cook tending bar at Ruby Tuesday when the tornado hit.

“It was the first time I worked night shift in a while at Ruby Tuesday,” said Cook. “I sat drinks down and the power went out. Everyone ran to the kitchen. We put our hands on our heads. In 15 seconds the roof collapsed on us.”

“The whole middle of the restaurant was gone,” he said. “If the power had not gone out [as a warning] it would have been bad. Everyone got out and walked to the McDonald’s.”

“I ran across the street to my home on Boynton Drive to check on my wife and son,” said Cook. His wife Kayla, a server at Ruby Tuesday, and their 1-year-old son Jaxen were both safe.

— Katie Ward

Surreal experience

“I waited outside to catch any action early in order to grab my family and head for the basement,” said Ringgold’s Audy McCathern. “I was standing at the end of my driveway as I saw the tornado approaching my property. It was surreal. My brain could not comprehend that a tornado was in front of me. As I ran back to my house to protect my family, praying at the same time, I witnessed the tornado turn back into a funnel and pass right by our house.

“Why were we spared, I’m not sure,” said McCathern. “All I know is God had his hands on our families this day, so he definitely takes care of his kids.”

— Mallorie Ann Ingram

Fate, not design, brought some Red Cross staff to Ringgold

Colin Downey, of the American Red Cross, did not intend to be media liaison at the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School shelter.

Downey was en route last Wednesday from his home in Fort Myers, Fla., to a disaster area in the Midwest. Extreme weather conditions barred his way and after hours spent circling Atlanta his flight was diverted to Jacksonville, Fla., for refueling.

Upon his eventual arrival in the Peach State capital, Downey was alerted to head north instead of west: disaster had visited Northwest Georgia.

“This is one of the busiest times in the Red Cross’ history,” he said. “We are working in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Georgia.”

Rather than serving others, Brian Ridley, a Red Cross volunteer from Tampa, found himself among those spending the night in the LFO gymnasium.

“It was pure chance,” said the retiree who volunteers as a case worker for families displaced following fires.

Ridley and his wife had visited their daughter in Wisconsin and intended to overnight in Chattanooga on their way home. But the city was dark due to earlier storms and the couple pressed on, stopping at the Ringgold exit when they saw electric lights and a motel.

The Ridleys had just registered and were driving around the building when the sky grew dark.

“The car started shaking, the tornado went right over us, and in about 20 seconds it was gone — and so was most of the motel,” he said.

— Mike O’Neal

Crawling out from the rubble

“It was like a movie,” said Ben Lewis, a resident of 14 Golf Lane off of Cherokee Valley Road, who escaped the tornado with his fiance Brittney Burton, who is pregnant. “We were in our home. I was asleep because I work third shift at Walmart. Brittney woke me up and told me to come to the bathroom, so we did. As soon as we shut the door, it hit. I was holding Brittney. It felt like we were sprinting down the road, but we were standing still. In about 15 seconds, it was over. We climbed out of a hole in the rubble.”

“I thought it was midnight when we crawled out, but it was barely daylight,” said Lewis. “It looked like a professional lumber crew had destroyed the woods around us. I came out of the debris in shock. Then, I heard the screams all around me. We walked barefoot four miles to get help.

“Emergency medical personnel could not believe that we came out alive without a scratch,” said Lewis. “Our area was one of the hardest hit areas. The tornado destroyed a strip of 500 yards.”

“I found my camera,” said Burton. “My couch with all my baby stuff was still there, but everything else was destroyed.”

“Walmart set up a fund for us to help us purchase clothes,” said Lewis. “During the tornado a guy stopped to give me a pair of coveralls because my shorts blew off when the tornado hit.”

— Katie Ward

'From what I can see there's nothing there'

“It looks like there has been an explosion in the city,” said Ringgold Councilman Larry Black. “The Ringgold/LaFayette exit area is completely gone. From what I can see there’s nothing there. I live off West View Drive close to the CVS.”

Black said the tornado took all the plate glass windows out of the Ringgold Chrysler dealership. He said the former city hall roof is gone and the roof on Cochran Furniture is gone too. He said the Ringgold High School art building is gone completely.

“Ringgold is devastated and Cherokee Valley is also devastated,” said Black. “Ringgold/Ooltewah Road has bad damage. A friend of mine was out walking the night of the tornado and received a call that her house was gone.”

— Katie Ward

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