The tornado that tore through Ringgold on Wednesday evening spared nothing in its path. But the storm was weak compared to the hearts of the town's residents, who after losing everything, emerged determined to recover from the catastrophe together.
As relief efforts continue and rehabilitation begins, the compelling stories of men and women who weathered the storm have begun to surface.
At the intersection of Alabama Highway and Boynton Drive, the salesmen of Walter Jackson Chevrolet labored to gather the mangled remains of what once had been their place of work. In their showroom, a battered red Camaro sat beside a classic Corvette, as an American flag flapped outside in the wind.
Instead of staying home, the men had come to clear their lot, which had lost 50 vehicles to the cyclone. None were working on the clock; none expected to be paid anytime soon.
David Jones, a member of the sales team, took a break as he loaded twisted metal into the bed of a truck.
"We're all going to be out of our jobs for a little while, but so what?" he said. "We're all volunteers at this point." His fellow workers nodded in agreement. They hoped to have their dealership open and running in two weeks.
"We won't be moving anywhere," one said. "This is our home."
For the locals who call Ringgold home, a harrowing scene greeted them as they returned on Friday, many of them for the first time since the storm. For all, the setting was unrecognizable as a ruined landscape stretched far as the eye could see.
Rebekah Middleton and Edwin Baeza walked together towards their apartment on Guyler Street, where a tree had landed in their 18-month-old son's bedroom. Everything they had once owned was now gone.
But when the couple arrived in the yard behind their shattered home, they stood unwavering amid yard debris.
Their son had survived. They were all uninjured, and had received food, shelter, and treatment at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School. They refused to take pity on themselves, and spoke of their neighbors who were in the same situation. They calmly stated that the community would all get through the disaster together.
Baeza walked quietly through his back yard, pointing to where his family had come out after the mayhem had subsided.
"I stood out here and I started crying," he said, recalling his first moments after the storm. "But this is one of those times that you look around and thank God, because I'm still alive. You sometimes complain about little things, but now you realize that there is nothing to complain about."
Not a single complaint was heard throughout the town. It was impossible to find a person who had not engaged in acts of service. All over the community, neighbors were working alongside each other to get back on their feet.
Kevin Schwartz, owner of a nearby Domino's Pizza that was completely destroyed, had found a way to deliver more than 200 pizzas from his truck to community members. Chris Runion, who worked at a demolished Krystal restaurant on Alabama Highway, handed food and water out from a mobile kitchen free of charge, no questions asked. National Guard Servicemen from Chattanooga unloaded boxes from a Humvee.
The amount of thankfulness expressed by residents of the neighborhood was astounding. On Sparks Street, a family sat on their front porch, conversing against a background of wreckage. Among them, Jean Davis stared intently across the street at her family's church, Mt. Peria Baptist. An entire wall of the building had been ripped off, exposing the pews and pulpit of the sanctuary. In the church's parking lot, an overturned van lay across from a white steeple.
But Davis remained upbeat. Inside her mother's home, she pointed to her 57-year-old sister Dorothy who, despite having cerebral palsy, was sitting in a recliner, singing hymns.
"This is our angel right here," Davis said. "Nothing touched her."
Davis told the story of how after the storm, she had found Dorothy in her wheelchair, underneath a pile of bricks, without a single scratch on her body.
She walked across the street and stood amid the rubble of her mother's home, showing off the exact spot where she had found her sister. Next to her, a television rested on a heap of bricks, and an oven lay displaced in a nearby hallway. But in the place where Dorothy had taken shelter, there was nothing. The site was completely clear.
Testifying to be a woman of faith, Davis praised God and said that everyone in the community had been helpful. The response teams had come in, they had been given food for every meal, and more than enough water had been provided. Nearby, power crews were hoisting brand new lines to restore electricity. Given the circumstances, Davis was amazingly hopeful.
"We'll let God work everything out," she said. "He is awesome."
Though Davis' optimism was difficult for many in Ringgold to share, a common thread of gratitude was conveyed by all.
Across the street from Ringgold High School, Gerald Eaves stood in his yard, looking out at his old alma mater. The school had been ripped apart. Eaves, a roofer, was visibly jarred as he recalled a childhood memory when his grandmother told him that if a tornado ever were ever to hit Ringgold, it would cause mass destruction. "It would be like a pinball machine, bing bing bing bing," Eaves said.
During the tornado, Eaves recalled feeling the hand of God securing him against the wall of his home, while the roof was ripped off.
"He shoved me against that wall, I'm serious," he said. "There is a God, and I held his hand. We're alive, no one is hurt, and that's all that matters."
As his family and friends looked on, taking the time to listen to him recount his story once more, Eaves' lip quivered as he fought off tears.
The town that Eaves grew up in was gone. His childhood home, the school that he had graduated in, and his own home had been made inhabitable in a matter of seconds. But as neighbors walked by on the street, exchanging friendly greetings, Eaves said that the community had come through for him in a huge way.
"You grow up your whole life here, and you know everybody, and it's just unreal," he said. "We're all family here, we're all brothers and sisters; there's no race."
Eaves paused, as if to finish his thought. But after a long moment, he looked up once more.
"Ringgold ain't gone, but it will never be the same."
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