OHATCHEE, AL (WBRC) - The following storm story was submitted to FOX6 News on August 23, 2011, by Jessica Peterson, as she recalls the events surrounding the deaths of her parents in the April 27 tornado which struck their home in Ohatchee:
On April, 27, 2011, my life was changed…….
This particular day was a normal day. I woke up, got ready for work and left my home to head to Publix. I was working at store 882 in Birmingham at the time. It was different this time because on the news there had been talk of a super cell storm system heading to Alabama. Of course, as usual I blew it off thinking "o.k. if I need to I can just leave early and seek shelter at home." Mike Forrest, my dad, worked with me at the store. He had recently been laid off and after some convincing by myself, he decided to give Publix a try. We were working there together for a few months, and I loved it! Everyday I got to see his face, when normally I only saw him once a month because my parents lived in Ohatchee, AL, about an hour and a half from where I lived.
So this day, we were both at the store together. A lot of talk of the storm had been going on all day, and I was informed by my manager that I need to consider leaving early that day because it had already hit Tuscaloosa, and the extent of damage was so far beyond what we had expected. Again, I felt like this thing is blowing up way out of proportion. We had storms before and every time nothing would happen. So around three o'clock me and my dad walked out of the store together. I told him goodbye and I love you, and we parted ways.
When I got home, my husband told me that we were to be expected to be hit that evening and we made a little shelter in our apartment bathroom. The sirens started going off and word that it was passing around Brookwood mall area made me nervous, seeing as we were only about 10 minutes from there. So the time passed and nothing happened. I am not a big news watcher, so I thought ok another false prediction of how bad this storm was going to be. We settled in to watch a movie after that, and I received a text from my mom. "are you guys ok?" we sent back, "all is well here," and I went back to watching my movie. After the movie was over I went to bed to get some rest for another day of work at Publix.
The next morning, I got up and went into work. My dad was scheduled off that day so when I didn't see him, it didn't phase me. I had heard from some co-workers about the damage done and was blown away by what they thought may have been the death toll. We didn't know until later that it would climb to over 300 people. That didn't include how many were still missing. So early morning I got a call from my mother in law , and she was concerned that she could not get a hold of my parents. I told her, its fine, they probably just lost power and couldn't charge their cell phones, but as time went by and I could not get a hold of them, I too began to have strange thoughts pop in my head. You see, I hadn't watched the news at all. I had no idea the tornado passed over their little one stoplight town. I had no idea I had already lost them.
I began to get a strange feeling. Crazy thoughts went through my head about the possibility of them being hurt, or even worse. My mom was the kind, she would drive an hour just to find a pay phone and let you know everything was o.k. and not to worry about anything. I called my husband and told him to call the police station because he too was getting anxious and I didn't want him to drive all the way down there. What if he would get stuck or there were road blocks? I told him to call me as soon as he heard something. A couple hours went by and it seemed like forever in my mind. I kept thinking, maybe they are hurt but are unconscious in a hospital bed, with no way of telling anyone who there family was. Eleven o' clock. I watched my manager walk up to customer service with all the managers and she picked up the phone to page me up front. I was thinking, what is going on? Why didn't she just tell me to go up there when she was walking up there not 5 seconds prior? As I started to walk up there, my husband came in the door with his mom. I instantly got a horrible feeling. I knew someone was at least injured at this point. I grew really anxious. When I got closer I looked into his eyes, and I knew without him saying a word my parents were gone.
He told me to come outside, and we walked towards the entrance of the store. He took my hands and with tears in is eyes said, "Your dad was found last night in the lake, and they don't know where your mom is"………..
I thought I was going to fall to my knees right then and there. I grabbed my husband and we wept together. I hadn't noticed that everyone else was standing behind me. I just couldn't believe it. I was totally and completely in shock. My best friend, whom I worked with, gave me a hug and I remember saying, "how am I going to tell Blake?" You see, Blake, my brother, is a Marine. He was stationed in Afghanistan at the time, and was scheduled to come home exactly one week later. For months we all talked about him returning, and that me, mom, and dad were going to take a road trip to see him get off his ship in North Carolina where his base, Camp Lejeune is. Well he was scheduled to come home Wednesday, May 4, and my mom refused to wait till the weekend after to see him. She wanted to be there when her baby got off the ship, come hell or high water. Of course, me and my dad were not scheduled to be off till that weekend and she had planned on driving up on her own, and that we would come up later.
My mom wasn't changing her mind about even the thought of not being there. My brother and she had just spoken the weekend before and she was tickled about him finally coming home. All month I talked about how excited I was to see him. Now here I was thinking, "God, why now? Couldn't you have at least waited until Blake came home?!" It took a few days, but the Marines got my brother home to us. I climbed in my in-laws car and we started to drive away. They asked me if I wanted to go to the site or go see my dad. I said "I want to see my dad." You see, he had no identification on him, so I had to go and identify his body. We drove what seemed like forever to get to the hospital. We pulled up at Gadsden Regional Medical Center and got out of the truck. The whole ride up there my 4 year old daughter kept asking me "where are nana and papa?" Of course trying to keep myself strong for her the ride up, I told her they had a bad booboo and the doctors were trying to help them. I just couldn't bring myself to say they were dead.
I didn't even know if she could comprehend death. We had never really talked about it. I got out of the car with my husband and we walked into the hospital. There I was greeted by my parent's pastor, Frankie Powell. My parents absolutely 100% loved their church. So when I saw him, it just meant so much to me. He grabbed me and gave me a hug as well as his wife, Laura. I didn't quite know at this point that it was my job to identify my dad, I just wanted to see him. We met with a nurse and she explained to me that I needed to tell them if it was him or not. I just kept thinking, Lord I need you to really give me strength, like right now! We got in an elevator and I walked down a long hallway. They asked me if I was ready, and they opened the door. There laying on a hospital bed was the shape of a person under a blue blanket. My dad had recently suffered from a hernia, so when I saw the outlined shape of his stomach under the blanket I knew I was not dreaming. They had not made a mistake, it was him. I walked up to the bed and grabbed my husband's hand. They pulled back the blanket, and there laid my dad. He had the most peaceful look on his face. I knew he was always ready to die. He always conveyed his relationship with the Lord. I didn't know whether to touch him or not. I had that same feeling as when a new baby is born and your afraid to hold them because they are so fragile. I stood there and looked at his face. I honestly was expecting a monster because of the devastation that the tornado caused, but it was him, just as I remembered. I touched his arm, and said, "it's not him, it's just a vessel. his spirit is with the Lord." I wept and they covered him back up. I just wanted to stay in that room and be with him, but I knew that nothing could be changed and that I needed to be strong and face what was coming.
At this point they still hadn't found my mom. I knew she was dead, but I just wanted a body to bury. I wanted to lay my parents to rest. We got in the truck and headed back towards Ohatchee to see the devastation. About an hour later we finally got there. I had been crying on and off trying to be strong while my daughter sat beside me. I still couldn't bring myself to tell her they were gone. I wasn't thinking clear enough to be able to think of how I would give her the answers. How to explain on 4-year-old terms what just happened. I had to lie to her. As we got closer to the site, we started to see trees and power lines down, totaled cars, ambulances, fire trucks, tents, and a lot of red cross people everywhere. I kept thinking o.k. I got through the worst part of all this when I saw my dad, but I had no idea.
We got closer inch by inch until I could see the hill they lived on. At first, I couldn't even tell which house was theirs because it was completely, and I mean completely, gone. It was as if it never existed. Like the city had dumped a bunch of lumber and trash down a hill. Literally no trace of life was there. There were mangled trees EVERYWHERE. You could see the path the tornado took, like a newly paved road. We turned down there street and I struggled to figure out which driveway was theirs. It was completely unrecognizable. We parked on the side of the road and my mother in law stayed with my daughter. Me, my husband James, and his dad walked up the driveway. It felt like an obstacle course trying to avoid debris, and tree limbs. I could see the cars on the lawn. They had been moved out of the garage. The windows were busted out and they had dents. They looked like they had been through a horrible wreck.
The closer we got the more I kept thinking, I know they would have been in their bathroom in the middle of the house. That is what dad always told us to do in the event of a tornado. Get in the bathtub, and pack it down with pillows and make sure you have shoes on. I climbed over a tree that laid across the front lawn. Everything was gone. I mean completely gone. To put it into perspective, the only thing there was their front and back porch, and the floor of their garage. All you saw was dirt. Just dirt. No foundation, no floor, nothing. A pipe laid across the center of what would have been their bathroom. I thought, who on Earth could have survived this. They didn't have a chance. The only way to survive this, was to leave the site. It was determined that it was an F5. This means wind speeds were up to 261–318 miles per hour. Enough to lift a house completely of its foundation. It was total chaos.
The next 8 hours we tried to dig through whatever was on the ground. There were trucks all over the property trying to remove trees. There were trees down everywhere. About 10 on their property alone. They were trying to find mom. The officer told me they had been there all night with boats and divers trying to find my mom. He told me they weren't leaving till they found her. You see my parents lived right next to lake Neeley Henry, and their house sat on a large hill that went down into a large pond that was fed from that lake. About three hours later they finally found her. My husband drove me over to the spot. He had already been over there on the other side of the pond digging through debris because part of their house had been thrown to the other side of the pond, about 250 feet away. He was there when they pulled her from the water. They described a bracelet on her wrist. It was the bracelet my brother had special ordered with a replica of his dog tag on it. We all had one, and mom never took hers off for anything. She wasn't taking it off till Blake came home from war. So I was not surprised to hear she was still wearing it. I told them it was her based on the information they gave me. My husband told me she had a smile on her face from ear to ear when he saw them pull her out, and that her arms were positioned in a way as if she was hugging someone.
I cant tell you the amount of peace God gave me that day in the middle of all the devastation going on around me. Of all the belongings found that day, it was enough to only fill six boxes. Picture albums were the most valuable find. There were a couple necklaces, a lot of clothes, and a few nick nacks that had sentimental meaning. In their cars I found their bibles and a jacket my dad wore almost everyday that had "Christ" embroidered on it. There was also their flag. Dad had bought a Marine flag and an American flag, and sewn them together. They had it flying in their front yard and a yellow ribbon was found wrapped around the only tree left standing in the yard. A nearby neighbor found the flag for us, and I pulled down the ribbon for safe keeping. They also had a boat named "Cristo Lancarragio," which means Christ the Anchor. We saved the flag off their boat which had the title embroidered on it with a picture of an anchor and the names Mike and Tina Forrest on the bottom. Sure we did find a lot of things but after all was said and done and you go through them, some of them were to damaged, and it was not practical to keep.
The volunteers, Marines, Red Cross and random people who we came in contact with that day will always stay with me. I am forever grateful to them. So now after everything is starting to finally blow over, I can tell my story. I still miss them, and I have a lot of times that I wish they could be here for my daughters life and be a part of pivotal moments in my life, I know that one day I will see them again. It is a temporary seperation. A bitter sweet farewell. Until we meet in Christ, and he wipes away the tears.