Huntsville Saints Survive Tornado’s Destruction

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“Huntsville Saints Survive Tornado’s Destruction,” Ensign, Feb. 1990, 79

Huntsville Saints Survive Tornado’s Destruction

Although a few lost all their worldly possessions and others suffered through some very harrowing experiences, all the members of the Huntsville Alabama Stake survived the killer tornado that took the lives of eighteen of their neighbors on November 15.

The tornado injured 468 people in Huntsville and destroyed 340 homes, 2 schools, and 3 churches.

Some members caught at the scene of the devastation were among those who volunteered to help rescue victims buried under the rubble.

The tornado struck with very little warning late on a Wednesday afternoon, cutting a ten-mile path of destruction through this southeastern community of some two hundred thousand people. That path ran through the heart of the Byrd Springs Ward, catching members and their neighbors in homes and businesses or on one of the city’s busiest streets as they picked their children up from school or left work for home.

Many members from adjoining wards who worked in the storm-torn section escaped possible death or injury because they had left the area on their way home from work only minutes before the tornado’s arrival.

Mary Wright, who had recently moved into the Westbury Apartment complex with her husband, Curtis, was visiting with friends in a different part of the complex when the storm hit. She and several others in the apartment escaped injury or death because they managed to crawl to another room with no windows while the tornado proceeded to literally blow the outer walls and roof away.

The Wrights’ apartment, like much of the rest of the building, was stripped down to the concrete slab. They lost everything they owned.

Members of the Wendell Nielson family felt especially blessed in the aftermath of the storm. Audrey Nielson was driving along Airport Road with her daughter Theresa when their truck was flipped by the tornado and totally demolished, but they escaped relatively unharmed. Sister Nielson suffered a minor head injury.

Meanwhile, the Nielsons’ daughter Debbie was working nearby in the Golbro Department Store, which took a nearly direct hit from the tornado. Fortunately, she and a number of other employees and customers were alerted moments before it struck and were able to dash inside a jewelry safe, where they remained trapped for several hours.

Four missionaries working in the Byrd Springs Ward were enlisted as part of the rescue team—Elders Jason Randall, Jim Marshall, Darin Peterson, and Alan Bird. The missionaries were about 150 yards from Airport Road when the tornado swept through. During the four hours they worked in the rain and the cold, the young men found and pulled two elderly women from the remains.

Six members of the Byrd Springs Ward who lived nearby ran to the site and helped find and care for the injured until rescue crews arrived. Through phone calls and personal visits, the ward’s priesthood members and Relief Society sisters were able to learn the condition of most ward members within just a few hours.

Church members pitched in to help the victims in the community during the days that followed, contributing food, clothing, shelter, and cash to help them rebuild.

Destruction at a medical center (above) and a service station show the force of the tornado that tore a swath through Huntsville. (Photos by Nell Morgan.)