Thanks to Randy Coleman for sharing this story with us. Do you have memories of March 27, 1994?
March 27, 1994 is a date I will always remember. I was in Seattle,
Washington having just checked in for my 5 hour flight to Atlanta when I
saw on the airport TV a story about a tornado that had hit a church in
Piedmont, Alabama a few hours before. I thought that the church looked
familiar since I had been there before with my friend Kay Watson.
Back in those days, cell phones were the big, bulky kind that usually
were kept in cars. Plus, not many people had a cell phone yet. So, I went
to a pay phone at the SeaTac airport (remember pay phones, there are not
many of those around anymore) and called my house back in Anniston,
Alabama to see if anyone had called and left a message. There were no
So, I just told myself I would call again from my car phone once I got to
Atlanta and I boarded the plane for the long cross country flight. I
remember sitting by the window as we reached the sky over Alabama and
Georgia that night. There was a very bright full moon in the sky and it
lit up the towering thunderstorm clouds that we weaved around on our
approach to Atlanta. The lightning visible within those clouds was
exciting and scary to watch as we passed by.
Once I got to my car around 10pm Central, I tried to call Kay’s house in
Piedmont several times but I got no answer. I didn’t have anyone else’s
number to call and I assumed that Kay, knowing her as I did, was out
helping people who had been affected by the storm. I called my answering
machine at my house and there had been one call but no message was left.
Once I got home around 11pm, I checked the TV news for the story but the
only information given out was a number, 20 people killed when the
tornado hit the church during Palm Sunday services. No names were given.
Kay had gotten married a couple of years before. Her husband Derek was
the son of the local pharmacist who owned a drug store in the small town
of Piedmont. He was going to school part time preparing to take over his
dad’s business one day. They had had a baby girl named Jessica, or Jessie
as everyone called her. I would go to the house a couple of times a week
just to sit around and play with Jessie. I had helped Kay’s husband get a
night shift job at the Supervalu warehouse in Anniston. When I could not
reach Kay, I just assumed that she was helping people out with recovery
and that her husband was at work on the night shift at the warehouse.
So I went to sleep thinking everything was ok. I got into the Supervalu
office the next morning someone stopped me as I entered and asked if I
knew the person that worked in the warehouse that was killed by the
tornado the day before. My heart immediately sank to my feet. I knew that
there were few people from Piedmont that worked at the warehouse. So, I
went to the HR department and was told that it indeed was him, the baby,
and Kay had all perished in the tornado the day before. It was the
saddest moment of my life. I did not know how or what to think. But I did
know that the place for me at that time was to find the family. After
trying to pull myself together, I finally reached Kay’s sister in law,
who had previously worked for me and had introduced me to Kay 5 or 6
years before. She told me that she was the one who had called my house
and did not leave a message, preferring not to leave a message with that
type of news. I fully understood.
The family had gathered in the Alexandria community near Anniston and I
went to them and spent the day with them. I was most worried about Kay’s
two young niece and nephew and how they would handle the events. So I
spent most of my time with them. I am thankful albeit in a very sad way
that Kay’s mom and dad asked me if I would be a pallbearer for Kay at her
funeral. Of course I accepted. Anything I could do to honor her and to
help the family.
The visitation was the next night ( in the south it is called visitation,
not a wake). I have never seen so many people. They were lined up outside
the chapel and down the street . Of course, there were a lot of
visitations going on around town that night with funerals about to occur
for 20 people. All three (Kay, her husband Derek, and Jessie) were all
the in the chapel together. Jessie’s open casket had a veil over it to
shield viewers from the damage the storm had done to her. It was
definitely the saddest visitation I have ever been a part of. There
wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The funeral the next day was on a sunny but windy day. Burial took place
in a cemetery not far from the chapel where the services took place. The
gravesite is on a hillside that looks down on the town of Piedmont. It
has been 14 years since this occurred but it still seems like yesterday.
Those events touched and changed my life very much. I still miss her
today. She was a unbelievably kind and true friend. One that is very
difficult to find and unfortunately very easy to lose.
I will be visiting the gravesite today as I always try to do either on or
around the anniversary of the event. I am sure the flowers I leave there
today won’t be the only ones there.
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About the Author (Author Profile)James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.
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