'It just swept us up'

Looking at what's left of Lisa Pate's minivan, no one would guess anyone walked out of it alive.

BY HEATHER MOYER | RUTHERFORD, Tenn. | April 17, 2006

"It's amazing nobody was injured more seriously."

—Lisa Pate

Looking at what's left of Lisa Pate's minivan, no one would guess anyone walked out of it alive.

Pate and her three daughters were driving to their home in the small western Tennessee town of Rutherford two weeks ago when a tornado swept their van off the road.

"It had started to rain and I couldn't see the road," said Pate. "Then I felt air flowing into the back of the van. The hail had blown out the back window. The hail sounded like someone was shooting a gun, it was a horrible pounding on the car."

Pate's van approached an intersection very near their home when the twister roared through. "I was thinking that we were almost home, and then suddenly everything went white - I can't even describe what it was like. Everything was white and fuzzy. The van just started flipping and going side to side. We were all screaming and praying. All I could think was, 'I can't stop, I don't know where we're going.' People say you can hear a tornado coming, but we didn't hear this one, it just swept us up."

The tornado then dumped the van full of Pate and her three daughters - ages 18, 16 and 13 - in a nearby field about 50 feet away from the road. Pate's husband had watched it all happen from his car right behind the van, yet his car was only slightly spun around by the tornado.

Pate said her husband ran to the van once it landed and helped the four women get out. All escaped with only scratches and bruises. Their van was almost crushed. Windows were blown out and the front passenger side was smashed into itself.

"It's amazing nobody was injured more seriously," said Pate. "I couldn't believe we got out of it with that little."

The fate was not the same for the rest of the area, where eight people were killed in both Dyer and Gibson counties. Rutherford saw the loss of several long-time residents, several of which were from the same family. The tornado wiped out more than 20 homes in Rutherford alone.

The twister left a path of destruction through the town and outlying areas. Twisted metal and splintered boards litter the roads and farm fields. Homes in the path either sit in ruins with the walls blown out, or in ditches on fire as demolition crews burn the remains. A dark haze of smoke hangs over the hardest hit neighborhoods as bulldozers and backhoes finish off homes with severe damage.

Pate's home escaped serious damage, but she is now helping other families with the help of her church, Rutherford Church of Christ.

Church of Christ Disaster Relief brought in supplies for the local church to distribute, said the Rev. Roger Utter.

"We've given out 200 cases of food along with cleaning supplies," said Utter, pastor of Rutherford Church of Christ. And there's plenty left, he added, pointing to the many boxes remaining in the church's fellowship hall. Only one church family was affected by the April 2 tornado, but Utter said his church is helping anyone who needs it.

Utter's church members are also organizing volunteer teams that have been helping clean up the debris and storm damage. "Everybody's been helping everybody," he said. "It's a real tight community. Neighbors are all helping each other."

That's not surprising for a small town of just over 1,270 residents, he added, where many people are related or know each other well.

Lisa Hendrix echoed that sentiment. A member and the pastor's wife at Rutherford's First Baptist Church - the loss caused by the tornado hit very close to home.

Hendrix's son-in-law lost his mother and aunt to the tornado when it leveled their homes. Most of her son-in-law's family lived along one road in Rutherford, all helping out with the family farm in the same area.

"They also lost their farm shop and equipment, so now he has no job," said Hendrix.

She said the community has really rallied around the family, though, and that's been getting everyone through the rough time.

First Baptist Church is also serving as a relief supply distribution site. Hendrix said they will also provide a listening ear if it's needed. "We'll listen to the families and let them tell their stories," she explained. "We'll also pray with them and see if there's anything else they need."

The harsh reality of the whole situation is still setting in for the small town.

"I hear people say that this is all like a bad dream, that it's not real," Hendrix said. "That must be what shock is. I feel like that at night when I think about the day."

Libby George, the First Baptist secretary and ministry assistant, agreed. "It's been an emotional roller coaster."

Both were quick to point out that the hard times have prompted the community to stand up together and support each other.

"I've never seen the community pull together like this," said Hendrix. "All this shows us we need to work together. It's amazing how people are taking care of each other. You hear about that happening in other places, but when it happens in front of you - wow. It's been a really rough time, but we need to work together."

The First Baptist members remain optimistic about the future, knowing that the community will remain strong through the long recovery.

"This is all really opening people's eyes and hearts," Hendrix said. "People are really showing each other that they love each other, not just saying it. These little small towns say they're like family, and they are. They really are."

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