1997: Subdivision looked like a ‘war zone’

Lisa Marchesoni, Murfreesboro Post, January 24, 2007

Destruction caused by a powerful tornado looked “like somebody had dropped bombs” throughout the Southridge subdivision 10 years ago.

Veteran sheriff’s Lt. Joe Gray said the tornado ripped through his neighborhood Friday, Jan. 24, 1997, destroying homes four blocks away.

“It looked like a war zone,” Gray remembered. “It was shocking.”

The F4 tornado gusted through about 5 p.m. with winds measuring between 207 and 260 mph.

More than 30 homes were damaged with five houses ripped from their foundations. Twelve people suffered injuries, including Kimberly Kelch, then 35, of Snead Drive, who had internal injuries when blown out of her home.

Many of the residents who lost their homes decided not to rebuild, especially the people in the back of the subdivision with the most extensive damage.

Tornadoes also touched down in Murfreesboro in a 6.5-mile stretch from Kimbro Road to Bradyville Pike, in the Hickory Grove community and Mona community between Smyrna and Walter Hill and in Smyrna and La Vergne. Losses reached into the millions.

Gray and his sons, Justin, then 9, and Zack, then 3, were on the way home when they noticed the storm clouds and heard the tornado warnings on the radio. He secured his sons with blankets in a closet and walked outside to watch.

“The wind was blowing so hard it was like sand burned your skin,” Gray remembered.

Winds ripped off a street sign.

“I could heard the popping of transformers collapsing,” Gray recalled, but strangely enough didn’t hear the roar of a train.

His brother-in-law pulled up and told Gray a car traveling behind him on South Church blew across the road. He saw insulation from houses swirling around and noticed the strange color of the sky.

That’s when the off-duty deputy dressed in his uniform, grabbed his radio and prepared to work the next 20 hours.

“It was organized chaos,” said Gray as he described the first hour. “Everybody was shocked at what they had seen.”

Gray searched houses for injured victims. He met up with Paramedic Pam Meador who responded with an ambulance.

He discovered the tornado leveled some houses. One house on Lone Oak Drive was picked up off the foundation. Another house on Sneed was moved to the middle of the street.

“It would take a brick house and take it down to the ground,” Gray said, adding, “I was surprised not more people were injured.”

Within a few hours, neighbors returned home and more emergency workers arrived.

After injuries, the potential danger of explosions or fire from open gas meters concerned emergency employees.

“There was no way to cut off the gas where the meters were gone,” Gray explained. “The gas company had to plug each gas line.”

Twisted metal and broken glass mixed with the debris on the streets.

Murfreesboro Police and firefighters, volunteer firefighters, state troopers and a team of rescue workers from Chattanooga trained for working collapsed buildings responded.

Volunteers brought food. The manager of W.T.’s Market on South Church Street delivered food along with Krystal restaurant.

“It reinforced the good in most people comes out,” Gray noted.

Once the immediate hazards were cleared, deputies kept the subdivision secure to keep potential looters away. Only one incident occurred when looters tried to sneak in the backside but were escorted out.

Several things surprised the seasoned deputy as the night ended and daylight appeared.

“The thing that got me was grass with the roots still attached had literally been pulled out of the ground,” Gray recalled.

Emergency responders set up a tent to collect property such as photographs, jewelry and other valuable items.

People were quite emotional when they retrieved irreplaceable items such as photographs.

“You put a different value on things,” Gray said, adding, “A house can be replaced. A photograph of grandma can’t.”

Another set of photographs affected him.

“Seeing the aerial photographs stunned me about how big an area was involved,” Gray recalled. “It surprised me knowing I was that close. I’ll remember it. There’s no doubt about it.”

After working 20 straight hours, Gray walked home to sleep a few hours before starting his regular shift Saturday afternoon.

Before he went to sleep, the gasman lit his pilot lights. Gray settled down for a nap.

About two hours later, an unidentified man banged on his door and asked to borrow a chain saw. Gray handed it over and asked the man to return it to his porch.

“I haven’t seen the chainsaw since,” Gray said with a deep laugh. “I don’t know where it ended up.”

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