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Ga. Baptists tell of surviving state’s worst tornado in 53 years

CAMILLA, Ga. (BP)–They remember the rain. They remember the hail. But most of all, they will always remember the sound of the freight train in the middle of the night that tore their lives and homes apart and gave a new perspective on the sacredness of life.

Georgia Baptists in Mitchell and Grady counties will never forget the Valentine’s Day tornado that took 18 lives and sent hundreds to area hospitals. It was a night of fear, of heroism and of testing one’s faith, say survivors of Georgia’s deadliest tornado in 53 years.

The homes of eight members of First Baptist Church, Camilla, were heavily damaged and 20 others were moderately damaged in the storm, which hit around midnight. The homes of pastor Harris Malcom and deacon Chris Anglin, who lived in the same subdivision, were destroyed as the families huddled together in their respective hallway and bedrooms.

Malcom said the first thing he remembered was being awakened by his wife, Phyllis, who heard the increasing wind and hail batter their frame house. The first thing 16-year-old Katie heard was her mother waking her at midnight, pulling her to the hallway and saying “hit the floor.”

“It sounded like 15 freight trains, it was so loud,” she said.

The family grabbed a mattress from a daybed and huddled under it as the tornado hit full force, pulling the roof from the master bedroom, destroying the dining room and porch, and flooding the house with cold rain.

Only the small hallway where the family was huddled was left structurally intact and dry.

“I bet we didn’t have 15 seconds from when Phyllis woke me up until we ran to the hall together,” Malcom said. “It was over in 25 seconds but seemed like an eternity. In the dark we knew we had major damage because we could hear the rainwater pouring into the rooms, but we couldn’t see a thing.

“I felt fear because I was afraid for my family, but I was at peace with God, if you can make sense out of that. You learn a lot about your prayer life when the walls and roof are coming apart all around you,” he said.

Phyllis Malcom remembers the tense moments as the family sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the hall when she thought “this might be our time to go.”

“We just hunkered down and prayed, ‘God, just keep us all safe. Take the house, it doesn’t matter, just keep us safe.'”

As the storm passed, the family crept over debris into the living room but had trouble seeing with no electricity. That’s when a flash of lightning gave Malcom an eerie peace he was not expecting.

Through a large hole in the roof, he could see the silhouette of a cross formed by twisted limbs of one of two large pine trees that had crashed into the house. The limbs — twisted in the shape of a cross — were all that were left of that portion of the tree, the other limbs having been stripped away by the wind.

“Every time the lightning flashed we could see that cross. When I saw that sign I knew it was God telling me it was all going to be OK,” he says.

The family was able to flee next door to a fellow church member’s house, which was less damaged. By morning, walking through the rubble of their home, they were surprised they had survived the destruction.

“We know that the mattress didn’t save us. We know that the roof in that hallway didn’t save us. What ultimately saved us and protected us was the hand of God,” Malcom said.

The Anglin family shared the same sentiment.

As the Malcoms were huddling in their hallway, Chris Anglin had awakened his wife, Cindy, and told her to get their daughter from her bedroom while he ran to gather their sons.

Anglin then ran the length of their home with its split bedroom design to bring the boys to where his wife and daughter were waiting. As the storm gained strength, the trio became trapped and couldn’t return.

As they listened in the darkness, the wind ripped through the center of the house, scattering its walls and contents throughout the neighborhood. Neither end of the home where the family was hiding was damaged and no one was injured.

After the tornado struck the Spence Community 20 miles south, Macedonia Baptist Church bivocational pastor David Pickering went out into the night to check on an elderly member of the church. Shortly after he arrived, he met Macedonia music leader and volunteer fireman Richard Powell, who also was concerned about Willie Hurst.

Between flashes of lightning they discovered Hurst’s mobile home had been destroyed and its contents scattered among the trees. As they fanned out in ever-widening circles they heard Hurst groaning in the darkness.

Eventually they found Hurst lying face down in the mud with severe injuries. He is slowly recovering from seven broken ribs and a broken jaw in a Tallahassee hospital.

Other Georgia Baptists in Grady County were not so fortunate.

In nearby Cairo, Shannon Harrell, 28, and her eight-month-old daughter, Kylie Rae, were killed in the storm. Her husband Todd, a Royal Ambassador leader at Pine Level Baptist Church, and his stepdaughter Brittany, 11, survived with minor injuries.

Jimmy Kolbie, chainsaw in hand as he cut limbs in his pastor’s yard in Camilla, summed up the devastation throughout the area. As he looked around at scattered clothing and housing insulation stuck in trees and fences, he paused and said, “It’s a situation where what once belonged to you now belongs to your neighbors. Everything is mixed and mingled together.”

Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: PAINFUL PICKING, TEEN TAKES STOCK and DAMAGE ASSESSMENT.

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  • Joe Westbury