Man killed as tornadoes hit parts of Middle Georgia

cthompson@macon.comFebruary 20, 2009 

  • Some tornadoes that have struck the midstate

    The deadliest tornado ever in Georgia hit Gainesville on April 6, 1936, killing 203 people. Here’s a quick look at some tornadoes that have hit Middle Georgia over the years:

    May 11, 2008: Ten tornadoes touched down in parts of the midstate early in the morning. A Laurens County couple was killed in one storm. The strongest tornado, with winds of more than 136 mph, touched down about three miles southeast of Soperton. The most devastating tornado hit Bibb County at 5:50 a.m., with wind speeds between 111 and 135 mph. It took an 18-mile path, hitting neighborhoods in south Macon and around Lake Tobesofkee especially hard. Bibb County’s tree canopy, particularly that on the Macon State College campus, was wrecked. All told, 97 homes were destroyed, and insurance companies paid out about $125 million for damages.
    March 1, 2007: Seven tornadoes struck the midstate as part of a deadly storm system that killed nine people in Georgia and 10 in Alabama. A total of 10 twisters struck the state.
    In Taylor County, one man was killed when his mobile home was destroyed. More than a dozen homes sustained damage, and four mobile homes were destroyed. In Crawford County, 64 houses on Sandy Point and Hamlin roads were damaged. Of those, 14 were destroyed. Homes and businesses in Bibb and Jones counties also were damaged. The National Weather Service estimated that some of the tornadoes that swept through Georgia packed wind gusts of up to 165 mph.
    November 1992: Four people were killed in Putnam County when a tornado tore through Monroe, Jones and Putnam counties. It left a 25-mile path of destruction, wrecking at least 68 homes in Putnam.
    November 1989: A twister destroyed seven homes in Pineview, in Wilcox County, and killed a 2-year-old boy. At least seven people were injured.
    Feb. 18, 1975: A tornado hit Fort Valley about 4:10 p.m. One person was killed, and at least 51 people were injured. Homes and downtown businesses were destroyed. It caused about $7.5 million in damage.
    April 30, 1953: A tornado carrying 100-mph winds cut through the heart of Warner Robins and Robins Air Force Base, killing 18 people, injuring 350 others and leaving more than 1,000 people homeless. The twister did more than $10 million worth of damage, leveling dozens of houses. It tore through the city in about 12 minutes, tearing a swath about 1,000 feet wide. It is the fourth deadliest tornado in state history.

Five tornadoes walloped the midstate late Wednesday, one of which killed a Hancock County man and seriously injured his daughter and grandson, authorities said.

Johnny Frank Baker, reported to be about 60, was killed when his mobile home on Coventry-Hickory Grove Road just west of Sparta was demolished shortly before 11 p.m. His daughter and grandson were airlifted to Atlanta for treatment. His granddaughter sustained less serious injuries.

Though there were other areas of Middle Georgia that sustained significant damage, there were no other reports Wednesday or Thursday of deaths or serious injuries.

National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Beasley said weather officials have confirmed five tornadoes across Middle Georgia: one in Putnam County, one in Hancock, two in Jasper, and one in Houston County at Robins Air Force Base. Estimated wind speeds may be available today.

Helicopter flyovers took place much of Thursday afternoon to assess the tornado damage in Hancock County.

“From what we know right now, some of the most damage in terms of buildings was in Putnam,” Beasley said.

PUTNAM COUNTY

Martrel Williams thought he was about to die.

“I was laying there thinking, ‘this is it, this is how it ends.’ ”

Williams and three others were inside the Westside Drive Club, also known as Robert’s Place, on Glenwood Spring Road east of Eatonton when a tornado leveled the place.

“The front door began banging open and shut, and then it sounded like bricks or rocks hitting the building. I dove under a pool table.”

Those with him did the same. Robert Parham Sr., the owner, hid beneath the bar.

The winds tore off the roof and then crumpled the cinder block walls. The storm snapped power poles and trees outside and ripped half the roof off Parham’s house next door. A mobile home on the other side of the club, where Parham’s son, Clyde, lived was lifted off its foundation but then dropped straight back down.

“Even laying under the pool table, I could feel the wind lifting me up and dropping me back down,” Williams said. “All you could hear was the wind roaring and things hitting the walls and breaking. I knew I was going to die.”

But then the wind stopped, and all three men crawled out of the wreckage with just minor cuts and bruises.

“My friend’s car we had come in had been pushed around, and all the windows were broken. Then someone drove by and we all piled in the back seat and got out of here,” Williams said.

Thursday morning he was back to survey the damage and tell of his experience.

“I still tremble when I think about it.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said the tornado hit the club “like a B-2 bomb raid.

“I don’t know how it didn’t kill him,” the sheriff said.

Parham’s daughter-in-law, Sandra Parham, said it was a miracle that he and all the others on the hill escaped serious injury.

“The Lord was watching over everyone,” she said.

Parham was injured Thursday morning, however, while he was trying to put his dog back into a pen. It had run off during the storm.

“The dog bit him. I guess he was still bewildered by the storm,” Sandra Parham said.

Jeanette Harden, who said she lives about a quarter-mile from Parham, said the storm tore shingles off her house, downed trees in the yard and leveled a storage shed.

“I was watching the news and they said Eatonton was about to be hit, to take cover. Then I opened the door to look out, and I saw it. It was a big black whirl in the air and it sounded like a train roaring by. We got down in the hall and waited for it to pass over.” Several miles away, on the south side of Eatonton at the Putt Putt Dragway off U.S. 441, all six buildings and the grandstands were destroyed when the same storm ripped through.

“It’s just a blessing it happened Wednesday evening instead of Thursday,” said Patrice Terrell, whose family has owned and operated the track for 30 years. “We have races on Thursday night and Sunday, so there would have been people here then. But no one was here when the storm hit.”

Power crews were on hand to clear downed lines, and then Terrell said the family will begin clearing away debris.

“We’ll be back and running by April 16 when we have our annual Good Thursday race. That’s one of our big events each year,” she said.

HANCOCK COUNTY

Hancock County dodged destruction from the early evening storm cell that socked Eatonton and Putnam County, but it wasn’t so fortunate a few hours later.

A tornado in the Shoals Road and Coventry-Hickory Grove Road area about three miles west of Sparta hit shortly before 11 p.m.

Walk up the front steps of Tara and David Hill’s new two-story log home and ... you stop. The house is 20 or so feet away, where it was pushed by high winds. It sits broken and leaning, like a great old sailing ship that has run ashore and broken its back on the rocks. Some of the windows are blown out, others remain intact.

“Most of the furniture inside is OK, but anything that was glass, her china cabinet, are broken, and all the dishes are broken,” David Hill said.

“Tara and Gavin (her 6-year-old son) had gone upstairs and gone to bed, but I was on the couch waiting to watch the news about the weather. But I dozed off. I woke up to hear the wind roaring and everything breaking. It was dark except for the lightning flashing. I went to a cabinet where we keep a flashlight, but the cabinet was gone.

“I was screaming for my wife, because I didn’t know if the roof and top floor was still on the house. She yelled back they were OK, so I went outside to my truck and got a flashlight and went back in to get them.

“My wife finished this house in June, and then we married in October and I moved in. I was laid off the next week. Now this. I told her this morning we’ve had a rough six months, but at least we’re alive. Thank God for that.”

David, Tara and Gavin suffered some cuts from flying glass, but were not seriously injured. Neither was her aunt next door, whose new home under construction was leveled, nor others in the immediate area.

But about a mile away on Coventry-Hickory Grove Road, the Baker family wasn’t as fortunate.

The storm demolished their mobile home, scattering debris across the front yard, the road and through the shattered trees across the road.

Johnny Frank Baker, a mechanic for the county, his daughter, Lakesia Baker, and her two children were all thrown from the demolished home. Johnny Frank Baker was found dead beneath debris in the middle of the road, according to Hancock County sheriff’s deputy Larry Chapman. His daughter and grandchildren were found alive across the road from where their home used to be.

Lakesia Baker and her son were airlifted to Atlanta with serious injuries. Her daughter suffered a broken arm and other less severe injuries, according to their pastor, the Rev. Michael Curry of Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church, across the road from where the Bakers lived.

At least the church used to be across the road. It also was demolished, as well as a new $300,000 addition completed recently that included a social hall, kitchen and education wing.

“We feel so sorry for the Baker family. But we are thankful no one else died or was seriously injured in this storm,” Curry said. “We normally have Wednesday night Bible study, but we called it off because of the weather alert. We just praise God no one was here at the church when it struck. It looks terrible to see all this wood and debris, but we can build a new building, and we will. This won’t stop our church. We’re 143 years old, and we’ll go on.”

OTHER AREAS

In Fort Valley, hail measuring 1.75 inches was reported and golf ball-sized hail was reported at U.S. 341 and the Ga. 49 bypass in Peach County. Three-quarter-inch hail was also reported in Bibb and Wilkinson counties with a severe thunderstorm that moved through around midnight and prompted a severe thunderstorm warning.

In north Macon, strong gusts of wind downed power lines and tree limbs and caused minor car wrecks.

Telegraph staff writers Liz Fabian and Ashley Tusan Joyner contributed to this report. To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.

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