Tornado ‘89: 25 Years Later

Airport Road after November 15, 1989 F-4 Tornado (National Weather Service)
Airport Road after November 15, 1989 F-4 Tornado (National Weather Service)

By Allen Stroud

Here in North Alabama we’ve all certainly become accustomed to the persistent threat of severe weather and the unfortunate damage it can leave behind. Two of our region’s most significant encounters with Mother Nature’s fury were the tornado outbreaks of April 27, 2011 and April 3, 1974. They are both dates that bring back many painful images, stories and lessons to us all. Yet there is much to be proud of through the strength we’ve shown and progress made following both of those tragic events.

Much of the same could be said about another date as well, November 15, 1989. Shortly after 4:30 that afternoon, one of the worst twisters to ever directly hit the city of Huntsville, began a path of devastation just to the west of the area at Airport Road and South Memorial Parkway. The biggest difference of this particular tornado compared with the outbreaks of 1974 and 2011, was that it hit such a densely populated business and residential district in southeast Huntsville. One eerie coincidence…all three of these devastating tornados struck on a Wednesday and the majority of their destruction was done in the afternoon and evening hours.

The F-4 tornado lasted about thirty minutes with an estimated damage path a half mile wide and eighteen miles long, from the City of Huntsville to rural Madison County. It would leave behind 21 fatalities, injure 468 people, and destroy 259 homes, 80 businesses and 2 schools. Additional damage was reported to another 278 homes, 3 churches and a hospital directly in the path of the tornado. In total, property loss was estimated well over $100 million. For those impacted, the images of Tornado ’89 are likely as clear today as they were on that dark and unfortunate night twenty-five years ago.

Earlier that morning, around 9:30, a severe weather outlook was issued by The National Severe Storms Forecast Center. This alert called for an “unusually strong potential for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over the Tennessee Valley”. Soon after, the Birmingham and Huntsville offices would issue special weather statements of their own. A Tornado Watch was in effect for Madison and adjacent counties from 12:30 pm to 8:00 pm. A Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued at 4:13 p.m.

At 4:35 pm, a call came in from the Police Academy to HPD Headquarters that a tornado had touched down. A funnel cloud was sighted near the old Airport by Huntsville Police Officers training at the department’s K-9 unit. About four minutes later, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning, but unfortunately, most of the damage had already been done.
The tornado’s 250 mph winds then moved across the Huntsville Municipal Golf Course and obliterated a mile long strip of Airport Road from the Parkway to Whitesburg Drive. This densely populated area is where the majority of the 21 fatalities occurred, over half of them in automobiles. Dozens of structures were completely destroyed or heavily damaged. Most notably, the Waterford Square Apartments, Westbury Mall, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Trinity United Methodist Church and Whitesburg Center.

From the Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive intersection, the tornado continued a northeasterly path through the former Whitesburg Drive-In Theatre, lifting up over Garth Mountain and dropping back down on the eastern side, destroying Jones Valley Elementary School. From the school, the tornado then moved across the Jones Valley residential area, destroying and damaging a large number of homes. After roaring through Jones Valley, the twister moved over Huntsville Mountain and through Ryland Acres and Dug Hill Road on into the county. Finally, dissipating some thirty miles east of Huntsville.

Bob Labbe
Madison Weekly News’ own Bob Labbe was a sports anchor at WAAY-TV from 1979 until 1991. After a 40 year career of broadcasting here in the Tennessee Valley, he says Tornado ’89 still remains one of the most significant and memorable stories he’s ever covered.

Bob recalls that Wednesday starting out pretty much like any other day. He had reported to the station at routine time and began working on the day’s sportscast. However, as we all know now, just a few hours later, storms would begin moving into the area and a routine day would turn into a chaotic and devastating evening.

He was in the newsroom when he first heard reports on the police scanner that a tornado had touched down near the old airport. He remembers immediately looking outside with several coworkers from their studio on Monte Sano Mountain to observe the sky. After a quick assessment of what had just occurred, Bob, along with several other reporters and photographers were immediately sent to cover the story that was unfolding along Airport Road. Traffic quickly began to jam along the perimeters of the damaged area. Being a Huntsville native, Bob was familiar with alternate routes to get their crew into the area directly across from Holy Spirit Catholic School. Bob and his photographer Matt, then began filming and documenting what they were seeing amongst the devastation.

Along with other members of local media outlets, they were not only covering the story, but quickly becoming a part of the rescue effort with the first responders.

Bob remembers one particular rescue very well, because of a phone call he received later in the evening. Sixteen-year-old Terri Lynn Frasier and her friend Toby Gamble, were pulled from a demolished Waterford Square Apartment. They were told they were buried under fifteen feet of rubble. Both were taken to nearby Crestwood Hospital and treated for their injuries. When Bob arrived back to the station later that evening, he received a call from one of the teenager’s family members. They thanked him for reporting their rescue live on the air, which they said was the only way they knew the two had survived.

Heather Burns
Heather Burns was an evening news anchor at WAAY Channel 31 from 1982 to 1998. She vividly remembers November 15, 1989 and the days that followed. In those days, Heather would typically arrive to the station around two in the afternoon to begin her shift. She recalls her daily meeting with the news director and assignment editor and then preparing for the evening’s six o’clock newscast. The threat for severe weather was mentioned, but there was no indication of the severity of what was to come.

After covering the event for several hours at the anchor’s desk from the moment the storm first hit, Heather finally made her away home late that evening. She was living in south Huntsville at the time and her normal route carried her directly though the damaged area at Whitesburg Drive and Airport Road. The roads had been cleared for the most part, but she could still see the on-going rescue efforts. On her way into the station the next morning, she remembers traveling through the intersection again and seeing the rescue workers in the snow. An eerie and unsettling image amidst the devastation.

Gates Cleaners
State trooper recovers clock from Gates Cleaners. (WAAY-TV)

One of the more moving images of Tornado ‘89 rose from the rubble at Gates Cleaners, located at the corner of Whitesburg Drive and Airport Road. A state trooper sifting through rubble in the tornado’s wake made a discovery that would lead to an image so many will never forget. He recovered a clock from the building, and noticed it had stopped at 4:37, the exact time the tornado struck the business and took the lives of two employees, John and Wanda Lewis. The clock hanging inside of Gates Cleaners this past Saturday, November 15, 2014, certainly passed through 4:37, but not without notice from several employees.

Debra Shockley is the current manager of Gates Cleaners on Whitesburg Drive. She knew John and Wanda Lewis very well. Debra and her husband, Jim, were working together at the Madison location of Gates Cleaners in 1989. Wanda, or “Fern” as most people called her, came to work at the Madison store when it opened a year earlier. Her husband, John, had stayed behind to manage the Whitesburg location.

John, along with several employees, was trying to close up the shop before the bad weather hit that afternoon. Fern normally would still have been in Madison working at that hour, but on this day she had traveled to the Huntsville store to pick up John for an evening of bowling. Fern made it to the store that afternoon in time to help John close up. Unfortunately, the tornado hit before they could finish and head for home.

Carolyn Black was also working at Gates Cleaners on November 15, 1989, but left around 1:30 that afternoon. Later that evening, she recalls seeing the television news reports of the tornado hitting Airport Road. Just a short time later she received word from a coworker that John & Wanda had been killed. Carolyn described John Lewis as extremely hard working, attentive to detail and as a manager, great to work for.

Carolyn’s brother, Loyd West, was a fireman for Huntsville Station #1. He was one of the many first responders that night helping with the rescue efforts. He recently admitted to Carolyn that he had refused to work the area near Airport and Whitesburg that night, fearing that he might find her in the rubble, something he just wasn’t prepared for. Twenty-five years later, Carolyn is still an employee of Gates Cleaners.

Another employee that managed to survive the tornado recalled hearing John tell Wanda he loved her just before the building came crashing down on them. John & Wanda Lewis left behind 7 children, many friends and family and countless beloved customers.
Jones Valley Elementary School
Jones Valley Elementary School (National Weather Service)

At Jones Valley Elementary School, 37 children, 5 teachers, 7 painters and 2 custodians took shelter inside the building when they heard the tornado descending Garth Mountain, headed directly towards the school. The children were all part of the school’s extended-day program. The miraculous story here is that all 51 of them made it out of the building alive. There were only a few reports of minor injuries, bruises, cuts and the like.

The school’s power went out shortly before the tornado hit, the only indication those inside the building would have of the approaching storm. One teacher luckily heard a radio bulletin about a tornado watch issued just before the power went out. She then urged her class to join the rest of the children downstairs. They had just made their way into a hallway when disaster struck. Fortunately, the seven painters were also in this same hallway.

The teachers, along with the painters, immediately fell on the children and shielded them from the debris that was falling on them when the tornado slammed into the backside of the building. A few weeks after the tornado, Superintendent Dr. Mary Jane Caylor and the Huntsville City Board of Education formally recognized the painters, along with the teachers and custodians, in a special resolution. They were commended for being “instrumental in saving the lives of the Jones Valley students and staying with the children until every student had been evacuated to a place of safety.”