Those seven deaths in Catoosa County, near the Georgia-Tennessee line, and one more in neighboring Ringgold made up the majority of 15 people killed by violent storms that raked the state late Wednesday and early Thursday. As the cleanup continued Friday across Georgia, family and friends grieved for those who lives can’t be rebuilt or replaced.
Among the widespread destruction in numerous Georgia counties, the deaths in Cherokee Valley seemed especially cruel. The victims all lived within 200 yards of each other near a crossroads tucked between mountain ridges. Their homes were ground down to their foundations in a community where long-timers say even those not related by blood share close bonds.
“How do you bury a family of four?” said Becky Kile, a second cousin to Christopher Black, 47, whose twisted wreck of a home was nearby.
Authorities said Black’s wife, 46-year-old Pamela Black, was also killed along with the couple’s son, 21-year-old Cody, and 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea.
The National Weather Service said Friday the storms spawned at least 10 tornadoes in Georgia. The twisters packed winds ranging from 110 to 175 mph and cut paths of destruction more than half a mile wide.
Catoosa County was wrecked by a rare EF-4, the second-strongest category of tornado. Twisters that powerful are rare in Georgia — the last hit here in May 2008, and only nine have been recorded in the state since 1950.
In Spalding County, between Atlanta and Macon, two families grieved for an unlikely pair taken by the storm together: a 22-year-old single mother and a 55-year-old man partially paralyzed by a stroke that she helped to care for at night.
Jamie White was a “T-shirt and jeans girl” who worked as an in-home caregiver to support her three young sons, ages 1, 5 and 6, said her mother, Kimberly Hilton.
Hilton got her daughter the job last year helping tend to Charlie Green, a former plumber stricken by a serious stroke who insisted on using his worker’s compensation settlement to pay for full-time help so as not to burden his family. Hilton looked after Green during the daytime and her daughter took over at night.
White and Green both huddled in the bathroom of his double-wide mobile home in Brooks when a tornado packing 140 mph winds tore through Spalding County late Wednesday.
Hilton said her daughter called her boyfriend as the storm bore down and told him, “I think a tornado’s coming. We’re so scared. We’re in the bathroom.”
Then, after a loud noise, the phone went dead.
“I wish it had been me,” Hilton said. “I’ve lived the majority of my life, but she’s got three little ones who will never know how wonderful she was unless we keep telling them.”
Spalding County Coroner Sonny Foster said neither White nor Green stood a chance. The twister threw the mobile home up to 100 yards and tore it to shreds.
Not far from where authorities found Green were the remains of his dog, a loyal pit bull named Dixie.
Green’s mother, Janice Green, said he doted on the dog and it never left his side. She said her son maintained a gruff exterior, but was “a marshmallow inside.”
“It was almost like he didn’t want anyone to know they could get to him and make him care,” she said.
The weather service said neighboring Dade County was hit by three separate twisters, the most powerful packing winds of 150 mph. Numerous homes and buildings were demolished and two people died.
“If you could see it for yourself you would say, ‘How did you just have two deaths?’ It’s pretty amazing,” Dade County Coroner Johnny Ray Gray said Friday as he dodged debris, downed power lines and roadblocks during a drive through the pummeled city of Trenton.
Gray said Donnie Walston died inside his mobile home when a tornado swept it from its lot and tossed it across the road. Another man, Jerry Williams, was worried by the storm reports and decided to check on a friend when her apartment was demolished. Gray said Williams was killed, but his friend survived.
Back in Catoosa County, authorities identified the Black family’s neighbors who were also killed as Holly Readus, 26, Robert Jones, 47 and Jack Estep, 61.
Rhea McClanahan, an 86-year-old former Marine and elementary school principal who retired in the 1980s, also died when his house collapsed in neighboring Ringgold. Teachers who had worked with the World War II veteran said he enjoyed raising roses, started a fall festival for his students and used volunteers to keep a school music program going when the state would not fund it.
“He tried to offer a lot of experiences for the students,” said Gaye Johnson, 57, who sent her three children to the school and now teaches there.
In Georgia’s northeast corner, 83-year-old Elbert Earl Patton Jr. died when powerful storm winds struck his home in Rabun County, said coroner Sam Beck.
And in Lamar County, authorities suspect 63-year-old Ellen Gunter and her husband, 73-year-old Paul, of Barnesville were in bed when their home was demolished early Thursday. They were found among debris in their back yard.
The couple not only cared for Paul Gunter’s 95-year-old father, they also had an 8-year-old daughter, Chloe, whom the Gunters had adopted. Both of them survived, though a family member said the girl suffered a broken shoulder and cuts to her face.
Roy Butts, who’s related by marriage to the Gunters’ grown son, told The Macon Telegraph the young girl was found wandering the yard by neighbors. She told them: “Mama blew away.”