Family saved by circumstance

BY PJ HELLER | Tuscaloosa, AL | December 19, 2000

The Nehalem River inundates town in Oregon.
Credit: Oregon Military Dept. of Public Affairs

Ray Thornton knew that a master's degree would make a difference in his life.

Little did he know that receiving that little piece of parchment would not only save his life, but that of his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

Had the family not been at the commencement exercises in Birmingham on Saturday afternoon, they likely would have been at their home in the Hillcrest Meadows section in Tuscaloosa when a tornado leveled much of the area, including their home.

"That area right there would have been our 'safe place,' " Thornton said, pointing to a pile of wood on the ground which once was part of his house. "There's no doubt we wouldn't have survived. Absolutely no doubt.

"I just thank God for taking me and my family out of the way," he said.

Thornton admitted that he was filled with a variety of emotions on the day of the storm.

"It was a real interesting day," he recalled Monday while looking over the remains of his once fashionable home.

At the commencement exercises, "I was kind of at a peak emotionally, very happy, very proud," he recalled.

Then he heard about the tornado ripping into his neighborhood.

"We were riding back when we got a phone call from a friend of mine who said, 'We had a storm come through and I don't really know how to tell you this, but your house is gone.' "

For Thornton, it was a day of being on an emotional roller-coaster.

"You go from here to there in a split second," he said.

Standing in the rubble of his home Monday afternoon, Thornton said it was amazing to think how powerful the twister was.

"You think about your home as being impenetrable and just nothing can get to it," he said. "Then you see how this happened in a span of five seconds."

The Thorntons were able to salvage much of their belongings from the house, including daughter Ansley's Christmas presents, family photographs and videotapes, and about 80 percent of their clothing. One of their two cats was still missing but a trip to the Humane Society was being planned to look for it or to find another.

"We have no furniture (left) but we can replace that," Thornton said. "But everything you can't buy we were able to find."

They had help in sifting through the debris from members of the Valley View Baptist Church, where they attend church.

"We had about 35 people here from the church helping us go through each piece of rubbish," he said.

Sitting on the steps in front of what once was the Thornton's house was a small Christmas tree, placed there by his wife April.

"Just to keep everything in perspective," he said.

The green tree was dusted with insulation which had blown off from homes in the area.

"It's kind of funny how the insulation makes it look almost snow flocked," he said. "That pretty much says it all."

"We're going to make it," he added. "We've got good friends, good family and a great church and an even greater God."

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