It was a beautiful spring day in north Georgia when we headed out on a Saturday adventure. After several summers of tent camping at a nearby state park, we decided it was time to upgrade to something more along the lines of a pop-up camper. Our mission that day was to visit a dealership in Murphy, North Carolina, to see if we could find one at a good price. Little did we know that our day would take us directly into the path of a tornado.
When it was time to go, our two youngest sons jumped into the back seat of the family station wagon. They insisted that our dog Goldie should come along for the ride, so she climbed in beside them. Goldie was a clumsy, but lovable, red bone hound mix who weighed more than a hundred pounds. She did not enjoy car rides, but if the boys were going, she wasn’t about to be left behind.
The fact that we would be traveling through the mountains on winding roads added to the overall sense of adventure that day in 1998. I remember thinking how beautiful it was that day. Spring had already gotten a good start, and the view was enjoyable along the way.
We were not disappointed when we arrived at the camper lot in Murphy an hour later. They had a sizeable selection of pop-up campers, RVs and boats parked in a very large lot just off the main highway. On the opposite side of the road was the steep face of a small mountain. I noticed a Walmart not far off in the distance. Perhaps a half mile away. It was on the same side of the street as the camper lot where we were now standing, but farther down on a slope.
We all got out of our station wagon, leaving Goldie behind to wait. There was one large, metal building that served as the office as well as a parts and supply store for campers and boats. A salesman greeted us just as we entered the door. I took our youngest son Joe by the hand. He was 7 years old, at the time. His brother Jeff was ten. Jeff accompanied his father as the salesman took them on a tour of the lot. Joe and I went off on our own to look at a few of the RVs and campers.
A Change in the Weather
A little while later, I noticed that the sky began to darken above us. When I glanced up to the top of the steep mountain that stood on the opposite side of the road, I saw a curious sight. The clouds were dark and angry, and they formed into shapes that reminded me of a cow’s udders. It was therefore no small wonder when I later learned that these are called “mammatus” clouds. These usually indicate the presence of a very bad storm. I didn’t need a Google Search to tell me this. My mother’s instincts immediately kicked in. We were in danger.
Joe and I headed for the shelter of the metal building just as the hail started coming down. It was the size of golf balls. We were joined by customers and salesmen who had been standing out on the lot. Jeff and his father were nowhere to be found. We all stood and gawked at the size of the hail stones. Poor Goldie was still sitting in the car with the windows partially down. I was worried about rain getting into the car, but the hail stones were coming down with such force that it was impossible to go to her. Later, we learned that the hail stones had caused more than $250K worth of damage to the campers and boats. Our own station wagon was later totaled by our insurance company. It was covered with hundreds of golf-ball sized dents despite the vehicle’s heavy metal exterior.
The hail stones suddenly stopped, and the winds came. I took Joe into the metal building and began searching for a place to take cover. The building was a wide open space with metal shelves that could fall on us and were filled with items that had the potential to cause injury. I headed for the bathrooms and saw that there was no safe place there. Then, I heard “it.” The freight train sound that a tornado makes. The sound of the wind and the rain immediately escalated and pounded on the metal roof with such ferocity. The freight train was getting closer!
At that moment, I grabbed Joe by the shoulders. I knew the tornado was getting ready to hit. I was attempting to position him so that I could shield him with my body. If the roof crashed in or the shelves fell on us, he stood a better chance with me as his cover. As I did this, I had to bring my lips close to Joe’s ear for him to be able to hear me. I began to shout a prayer. “Lord, save us!”
What happened next was truly astonishing. As soon as I spoke the word, “Lord,” everything became immediately silent. I was still shouting my prayer, so when I got to the words, “save us,” everyone standing in the building could hear me. The loudness of my voice was eerily contrasted by the sudden silence. The wind had stopped. The hail had stopped. The rain had stopped.
Joe and I made our way to the front doors of the building and were met by “survivors” who were stumbling out of campers and RVS where they had taken shelter during the storm. Some of them — including my then-husband — were unaware of what had taken place. They thought it was only a heavy down pour. One look around the lot told the real story. The canvas tops of many of the pop-up campers were torn . The RVs and boats had suffered significant hail damage. Leaves and branches were strewn everywhere. Golf-ball sized hail was still sitting on the asphalt because it was too large to melt quickly. We picked up a few pieces and held them in our hands. To this day, I have never personally seen hail that size.
A witness came over to see if everyone was okay. He said that a tornado was bearing down on the building. At the last moment, the tornado had lifted. It came down again after it had jumped our building and landed in a wooded area behind the Walmart where it fizzled out without causing any further damage to person or property. I was so glad to know the people in Walmart were spared. We later learned it had been an F1 tornado that had traveled a path of several miles before it met us.
My son Joe and I had a very different perspective of that day as compared to the others who were there. We could not help but think about the immediacy of the danger we had faced. We could not help but think about that prayer.
Until next time! ~ Susan