By Kari Hawkins, AMC Public AffairsApril 15, 2019
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Most every Alabama resident has a tornado story to tell. Surviving this highly unpredictable weather phenomena is part of living in this Southern state.
But, it's rare to live through two -- maybe three -- tornadoes in a matter of minutes when your home is in their direct path. It's even rarer to have such a story to tell within a month of moving into your new North Alabama home.
So, it is with Sue Tillery and her sister Mary, as they hunkered down in a bathroom while weather systems roared through their Athens neighborhood during the tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, chipping away at the brick and mortar protecting them.
"Everybody says tornadoes sound like a train. I can't tell you that having heard what I did that day. I heard wind that was so very, very strong and I heard rain," Tillery said. "And then after everything happened, we couldn't get out of the house. But, we smelled natural gas and knew we needed to get out."
Team Redstone Protection Day, set for April 25, offers Redstone Arsenal employees and their families the opportunity to learn how to protect themselves from both natural and man-made disasters. The event date of coincides with Bring Your Child to Work Day and recognizes the 2011 Super Outbreak as the worst tornado outbreak in the history of Alabama. The April 27, 2011, tornadoes killed 238 people in Alabama and caused destruction from Tuscaloosa and Birmingham to throughout North Alabama. It also caused deaths and destruction in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and other areas in the Southern and Eastern U.S.
On the day of those tornadoes, Tillery, a former Tank and Automotive Command employee who moved to Huntsville, Ala., in December 2010 to take a job at the Army Materiel Command, made several trips to a safe hallway while at work at Redstone Arsenal as bad weather traveled again and again through the area. Even as her co-workers were opting to head home, Tillery remained, working on a huge project that was due. Finally, at about 3:30, she grabbed her laptop and headed home.
She arrived about 20 minutes before the tornado hit.
"My sister was putting blankets and pillows in the interior bathroom. I put my laptop on the kitchen table and logged in. I changed clothes. I was going back to work. The weather just wasn't an issue for me," Tillery said.
By 4:20 p.m., Tillery and her sister along with her three Yorkies were seeking shelter in the interior bathroom. At 4:27 p.m., the first tornado hit.
"When we came out of the bathroom, everything seemed really gray. It was weird. Then, I looked up and saw there was no roof," Tillery said. "There was stuff everywhere and we couldn't get out the front door. We kicked out a window and got out that way. We weren't prepared. We were barefoot, and in shorts and T-shirts."
Their neighborhood was in shambles. Tillery's home was a shell of a building with rubble everywhere. She was able to talk to family members by cell phone, assuring them that she and her sister were okay. Family included her husband Jack, who had not yet moved to Alabama from their Michigan home.
The sisters decided they needed to seek safer shelter. Tillery's sports utility vehicle was crushed under a fallen garage door, so they opted to make their escape in Mary's car, which was parked in the driveway. Tillery found some rubber boots on the back porch for her bare feet, and they were able to recover their purses. She was clearing bricks and debris to make a path out for the car when it started raining and lightning.
"We didn't know if we could get out. We got in the car, but another tornado was coming. The car started to be picked up by the winds. We decided we had to go back in the house. We climbed over bricks and boards to get back to the bathroom. This time we got in the bathtub," Tillery said.
"We were bruised and hurting all over. We were holding hands and praying. The roof to the bathroom came in on us. When we climbed out of the debris, it was dark. But emergency responders were coming door to door, and they told us to walk to some houses east of us where there were storm shelters."
Once there, they huddled down with others while a third weather system hit their neighborhood.
"When we came out after that, it was very dark. There were electrical wires down everywhere. We had to wait there for the electricity and the natural gas to be shut off," Tillery said.
Eventually, the roads were clear enough for them to drive out. Tillery and her sister sought shelter in a local hotel. But, like everywhere else in North Alabama, there was no electricity.
"Our anxiety was so high. We didn't know what we were going to do," Tillery said. "We stayed at the hotel for two or three days. At the house, a bunch of men helped to get my SUV out of the garage. The windows and sunroof had been open, so it was filled with glass and insulation and whatever. We wiped the windows off so we could drive it.
"We found a second hotel closer to our house, paid to take showers at another hotel that had a generator and bought some clothes so that we could change from what we had on when the tornadoes hit."
When Tillery's husband arrived a few days later, he found the sisters going through soaking wet and filthy debris at the house.
"I just broke down when I saw him," Tillery said. "He said, 'We can rebuild.' I told him I didn't want to live there. My family knows I am a strong person, but I couldn't live there again.
"At some point, we talked about moving back to Michigan. But I said, 'I'm not a quitter. I moved here for a reason and I'm not giving up.' I moved to an apartment, Jack went back to Michigan until he got a job here, and we eventually rebuilt our life in North Alabama."
Tillery credits her seven years of active duty for equipping her with the resilience, adaptability and strength to recover from her experience.
"I knew I would be okay. People lost their lives in these tornadoes. So, I was grateful to be alive. The Army taught me to know the risks and to make sure you have three basic things -- shelter, food and clothing," she said.
"I'm not going to say, though, that I didn't cry or feel miserable about it all. That first year in Alabama was really hard. Now, when weather sirens go off or storms are coming, I don't take that lightly."