Palm Sunday 1994

| March 27, 2008 @ 8:34 am | 35 Replies

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 ()

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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  1. Emily says:

    I was a freshman in college at the time. On that day, the only thing I remember was that it was such a beautiful morning and then almost in the blink of an eye, the weather changed. (That was in Etowah County.)

    However, the impact of the day still goes with me — not just in knowing the importance of a weather radio, but also in the way the members of that church responded to the tragedy. It was an awesome witness.

    Within a year of the event, I was talking with a fellow student who told me he was from Goshen. I was making casual conversation and mentioned that the only thing I knew of Goshen was the tornado on Palm Sunday. He then told me that his dad was one of the people killed at the church. Of course, I’m telling him how sorry I am. He had been sitting next to his dad in church. He had a broken leg and some minor injuries but lost his dad. His remark was that God wanted his dad in heaven, that God must still have a plan for him here, and that he must press on. Even though I can’t remember his name, that teenager’s testimony made a huge impact on my life and my understanding of God.

  2. J.B. Elliott says:

    That is an awesome account of that tragic event, Randy. Thank you for letting us have that. I was working weather that day and, despite being “hardened” to such disasters, it was tough day for all of us. Truth is I never got hardened to tornado and other weather disasters in all my years in the NWS and now in private weather. I hurt with the people affected.

    So, I share your pain as a friend as well as other friends and family members of those that were injured or killed.

  3. Julie says:

    I was 10 years old in Shelby County at the time, but well remember the clouds that day. It was incredibly windy, and the clouds rushed by faster than I had ever seen them move, or have since.

  4. Keith says:

    I’ll never forget that day either (see link above.) I was a senior in high school enjoying a day at Six Flags. We got over to Atlanta prior to the intensification of the storms that hit eastern Alabama that morning. But we obviously had to drive back through the next wave of storms on our way home late that afternoon. That’s the only time I’ve ever faced storms so intense that it literally forced us to turn around and run back the other away to take shelter.

  5. Doug says:

    I remember that day well! It was one of the days they were filming the movie “Cobb” here at Rickwood Field. It was warm and muggy that day. I was a paid extra in the movie and I remember being dressed up in these wool based outfits that did not help the situation either. We had a lot of filming in the sun as well that day in the stands for the scene that was being shot. They had been calling for storms and we had one go through and add to the muggy feel outside. During a break, I remember hearing about the tornado on the radio. There was a lot of chattering about it amongst those of us there, but at the time we only had sketchy details. The grave nature of it became apparant though as we were able to go home and see the televised news stories of it. I won’t forget it anytime soon though due to such a big event going no in my life at the time as well.

  6. Michelle M, skywatcher says:

    I am like everyone else, and remember that day. I was getting ready to head back from Jacksonville to Montgomery where I was going to school at the time. So I packed up with my cat that afternoon and headed south via Hwy 9. Sometime around 5pm or so, I was listening to the radio, and starting hearing the reports about Piedmont. My heart just stopped and I got a cold chill that came over me, because I knew many people that lived in Piedmont. When I got home I saw all the coverage, and quickly called home to check in with my parents to let them know I arrived safely, and my Mom told me that my Dad (a local dentist at the time) had gone to J’ville Hospital to see if he could help treat injury victims that were being brought in via ambulances. He did help treat some of the minor injuries. To this day, I know people that still talk about that day, and were even caught in the storm at the church, or had property destroyed by the storm. It is one that will not be forgotten, like the F5 that came through Jefferson Cty near Oak Grove.

  7. Jeff says:

    I was living in Moody at that time, and recall that tornado watches had been issued that morning. The main activity was still back in eastern Mississippi entering Alabama, but I heard loud, continuous thunder. A peek out the north windows revealed an inky, black sky with vivid cloud to ground lighting. Outside, I observed the anvil of the storm straight above and filtered sunlight, but the time between lighting and thunder indicated the main storm tower was about one mile north of my location. Strong winds were blowing from the southeast and were shifting to the south. I noticed a rain-free cloud base appear to the west, and became quite concerned. Moments later, I was staring at a massive rapidly-rotating wall cloud with strong southerly winds at my back. As the wall cloud disappeared behind the trees, I went back in the house and told the family to expect a tornado warning to be issued. It was, a short time later. This was at the time NWS was converting over to the WSR-88, but I don’t think it was in service at this time. An image of the tornado appears in the NWS basic spotters field guide on page 11 under the caption of a violent tornado. My thoughts remain with Rev. Kelly Klem and her family.

  8. Terri says:

    I remember that day very well. I was an intern at TV 40 in Anniston, before it became the big station it now is in Birmingham. I was just getting back from church and the news director called me in to work. When I arrived there on Noble Street, I had no idea I would be working for the next 12-14 hours, dumping video and talking to news organizations from as far away as England. It was my first exposure to news that big and tragic. It was a difficult day and night of trying to balance getting the story with grieving for all those who lost their lives. Being a journalist ,contrary to popular belief, is not easy. You take a little bit of each story home with you.

  9. Michael says:

    It’s weird how certain events seem to define a generation. I remember that Palm Sunday all too well. I was living in Ohatchee with my parents and brother, but we were on vacation in Gatlinburg, TN. We had no idea what was happening at home because we were too busy dealing with our own problems.

    That night, downtown Gatlinburg flooded.

    Our hotel was situated in the midst of the river that flows through the town. We were forced to evacuate our rooms as the water rose higher and higher. They put us up in another hotel across the street on higher ground. We stood out on the balcony of the hotel that night and watched cars after car make futile attempts to traverse the floodwaters. Through the windows of shops and restaurants, you could see merchandise and debris floating inside the stores. Several store owners were forced to knock out lower windows on the fronts of their shops to allow the water to drain out.

    When we finally turned on the television, we were stunned by news reports of the tornado that had struck Goshen United Methodist Church. Later, we discovered that Kay, who had been cutting my brother’s hair in a little shop in Alexandria for a while, had been killed.

    Driving home, we witnessed the carnage left in the wake of the massive storm system. From Gatlinburg, through Pigeon Forge, all the way home to Ohatchee, we saw homes and buildings in ruins. I can still remember the homes in Ragland that were shredded and scattered across fields and into tree tops. When we crossed Neely-Henry Dam, there was a large path of broken and uprooted trees across the hillside going toward Southside where the tornado had apparently crossed over on the ground.

    I was thirteen then. I’ll never forget that day.

  10. BeninGrantley says:

    This is an event that will live in my memory for ever. I had a friend at that time that lived 2 houses down from the church in Goshen. I also had a friend that was inside the church at the time the Tornado struck. He suffered only minor injuries along with his girlfriend. However 4 people he was sitting with died that day. It was such a sad sight. There were families there waiting to pull their loved ones out of the devastation. The sad part was all of the young children that were hurt or unfortunately killed. Watching their loved ones wait to see if they were alive was hard but not half of the feeling of shock that these families were going through. It was just one of the worst scenes I have ever witnessed. My friend that lived close by survived by hunkering down in a closet with his mom. The closet along with the bathroom it was connected to were the only parts of the house left standing. I don’t think you can find one person in Piedmont that wasn’t touched in some way by this.

  11. James From Tuscaloosa says:

    Here in Tuscaloosa, we had neighbors visiting relatives in Savannah, GA who called us to ask if Tuscaloosa had been hit.

  12. gary says:

    I remember that day well. I was living in the Forney Community at the time that is only about 7-8 miles away from Goshen. We had the most unusally hailstones I have ever seen. They were about 5″ wide and about 6″-7″ in length. It was flat, smooth on one side and rough on the other. It was about a inch thick. I know that sounds strange but that is the honest truth. My grandmother keep a piece in the freezer for a couple of days just to prove to people she wasn’t lying. I’ll never forget it.

  13. What a sad story, yet so beautifully written, Randy. I will never forget that day either, I knew, just knew it was going to be a bad day. And it was. My home (formerly in one of the trailer parks in Pelham) narrowly missed being demolished in the tornado that ripped thru Pelham. We fortunatey not home then, in a safer place watching it all unfold in Piedmont. Thanks for sharing the story.

  14. Wayne Cedar Bluff Cherokee County says:

    My story is not as elabarate as most here, but I feel the desire to tell it.
    What I remember most of this tragic day, is that my girlfriend and I were fishing on the Cedar Bluff side of the lake and the sun never stopped shining where we where, but to the east where the tornados (another actually formed out of the same wall cloud either before or after the church was hit)there are pictures on the wall of the National Guard Armory in Centre
    We never even knew what had happened until we got home and our police scanner was giving all the details.

    It was truly a sad ending to such a nice day.

  15. Mike Wilhelm says:

    Randy, What a touching story. I agree that it was very well written. It would be easy for weather geeks to get caught up in the hype of these severe weather events, but your story reminds us of the most important reason to pay attention the weather; it can be, and often is, a matter of life and death. Not only that, but I have a close friend who still suffers mightily on a daily basis since the F4 tornado in Huntsville on 11/15/89. There are many who survive but their lives and the lives of family and friends will never be the same.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  16. Heidi says:

    My husband and I will never forget that day either. We got married that morning and as the day wore on and the weather became more active the festivities came to a quick end. We honeymooned in Cashiers but due to the weather we had to stop in Atlanta. The weather was almost chasing us and we knew we wouldn’t make to NC before the weather caught up to us. We were concerned that night in our hotel room. Keeping one eye outside just in case. On our way to Cashiers the next day we could clearly see where a tornado had crossed the road near Tallulah Falls Ga. So glad we stopped in Atlanta and had not tried to make a run for it the night before.

    The weather never fails to be mentioned on our anniversary, it too is a part of our history. Just in a different way.

  17. PerryW says:

    That Sunday in 1994 ranks among the saddest and stressful days of my life. In those days before I had internet service, sat here in my living room…..watching the massive tornadic supercell roar across northeast Alabama and north Georgia (spawning strong tornadoes all the way to near Charlotte, NC). I knew from the radar there was likely a large and very intense tornado on the ground near Piedmont and then crossing north Georgia; sadly knew people were likely dying… was the most helpless feeling I’ve ever felt.

    When I learned a couple hours later of the church tragedy near Piedmont, I broke down and cried. As the large tornadoes (one of which reached 1.5 miles wide in Pickens county, GA) crossed Georgia counties to my north, I heard things on my police scanner which still cause me nightmares once in a while….even 14 years later. Sheriff deputies and firefighters literally screaming to their dispatchers about size and power of the rapidly approaching tornadoes; one firefighter calling out for help over his portable after his home collapsed around him…..he couldn’t find his wife and children; a Pickens county, Georgia sheriff dispatcher sobbing on the air after learning from deputies her home and neighborhood was “gone, all gone”.

    It was a horrific afternoon and early evening which I’ll never forget. Memories of that day and those who perished are what drives me to preach NOAA weather radio to anyone who’ll listen; why I try to stay online posting urgent warnings (Talkweather) even as tornado sirens are wailing here. March 27, 1994 ranks up there with the April 3, 1974 tornado “superoutbreak” and March 13, 1993 blizzard as the most significant weather events in my memory to affect northwest Georgia.

  18. Victor says:

    Thanks to all for sharing your memories of that tragic day.I have my share of similar memories of the F5 that went through McDonnel Chapel ten years ago next month.

  19. Shannon says:

    James, I just wanted to thank you for sharing such a story to us that was so painful for you. It is a excellent reminder to us that you never may know something so random may take someone that is very dear to us. God bless you all.

  20. Shannon says:

    Sorry, I meant Randy. But thanks James for posting it!

  21. Tonia says:

    A friend of mine let me know that Randy had written a wonderful tribute to Kay and so I have logged on today to read it. Kay was my sister. To say that Palm Sunday was a horrific day would never do that day justice. We live in the Pleasant Valley community and our home was destroyed that day as well. I woke up that day with a real sense of foreboding and couldn’t explain it. I could never have known how my life and the life of my family would be changed forever. The tornado hit us first, we were not at home. Then in just a few short minutes, it traveled to Goshen and took my beautiful sister, her husband and their precious baby girl. You are never prepared for this type of thing. We couldn’t get in touch with Kay, but I wasn’t really worried. I really felt like God wouldn’t let anything happen to her. We spent the afternoon trying to salvage what we could and waiting to hear something. At 4:30, I couldn’t take it anymore and I called my best friend. She started to cry when she heard my voice. You are never ready to hear those words. My life will never be the same. Kay was a loving, giving person. Her family was so precious and they left a huge hole in our lives. I babysat for Kay on the Tuesday before and Jessie was so entertaining, she did all her cute things. They spent Saturday evening with my mother and grandmother and my mother said Jessie was the same way then. God grants us those precious memories that enable us to get through the tragedies in our lives. I am so grateful to my God for His mercy that day. Lots of people have asked me how was God merciful and I say, they all went home together in an instant. They didn’t suffer and my sister was not left here without her family. You would have to have known her to really understand that Kay would not have survived the loss of Derek and Jessie and remained in tact. It would have destroyed her. I would have preferred for the Palm Sunday Tornado to have passed us by, but it didn’t, so you get up and you live your life in a way that would make them all proud. I will be 40 this year, and I am never ashamed of my age, because I am growing old for me and Kay. I had one daughter that was three in 94, and I have adopted 4 children since then. Life does not stand still. I cry and I laugh and I think of them often and I do it with a smile, knowing that they are waiting for me on the other side. I love my life and I love my God. I am so grateful that He helped my family get through something that could have destroyed us. Randy, if you read this, my family would love to hear from you.

  22. Randy says:

    Tonia, I can be reached at I was glad to read your comments. I just saw it today.

  23. Bobby Tinney says:

    I do remember the day but I was only 4 it would be 4 yrs later that my life would change in April and that was the day I decided I wanted a career in weather. My heart goes out to all those affected by the events of that tragic day.

  24. Teresa says:

    17 yrs and the pain is still as fresh as the flowers blooming outside. My baby, Jonathan Andrew Abbott, was 5 at the time and went along with his grandfather, Earl Abbott. So many lives lost… but knowing that they are in Heaven, they will live in our hearts forever! I miss and love you my Angel and know that you are with me everyday! God Bless the families that were affected by this as I know that everyone will never forget that day!

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