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As home crossed road, 'I love you'
Scripps Howard News Service


April 04, 2006

NEWBERN, Tenn. -- West Tennessee's deadliest tornado onslaught in more than a half-century was only beginning when a roaring funnel cloud - visible to neighbors as a wedge-shaped silhouette against the dusky April sky - bore down on Jerry and Patsy Seratt's wood-frame home.

As the Seratts clung to each other in a closet, the tornado's estimated 200-mph winds lifted the home off its cinder-block foundation and tossed it onto the middle of a road perhaps 50 feet away. There they emerged - scratched but not badly hurt - atop the heap that had been their house.



"I knew we were moving. We just held onto each other. I kept saying, 'I love you, I love you,' " Patsy Seratt, 64, recalled, as family members helped gather the couple's belongings from the rubble.

After tornadoes carved a 30-plus-mile path of wreckage across four rural West Tennessee counties, authorities counted at least 23 people dead, 82 injured - 17 of them critically - and one missing. More than 1,900 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

As local emergency officials conducted helicopter surveys and literally cut their way through downed trees and debris to reach isolated communities, Gov. Phil Bredesen asked President Bush to declare Dyer and Gibson counties federal disaster areas. National Guardsmen were summoned to help with debris-removal and other tasks.

"This will take a long time to get over," said Donnie Smith, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The carnage was the region's worst from a tornado since March 1952, when twisters killed 92 in West Tennessee, as well as 38 in Arkansas and 25 in the Missouri bootheel.

It began before 8 p.m. Sunday, when a thunderstorm "super-cell" that had formed in north-central Arkansas dropped a funnel cloud near Caruthersville, Mo.

The tornado headed east across the Mississippi River and stayed on the ground for 18 miles - all the way to Newbern, about five miles northeast of Dyersburg and some 85 miles north of Memphis. The twister then skipped over to Yorkville, in Gibson County, and stayed on the ground 12-14 miles to Bradford.

"It was definitely one tornado from Caruthersville to Newbern," said National Weather Service meteorologist Jody Aaron. "Whether the one that dropped down at Yorkville was the same one or was a new one is hard to determine."

Meteorologists use a scale of F0 to F5, with F5 being strongest, to gauge tornado strength. Preliminary estimates by weather service survey teams pegged the strength of the Caruthersville-Newbern twister at a high "F3" rating, with 200-mph winds. It cut a swath of damage up to a half-mile wide.

The Yorkville-Bradford tornado began as an F1 but strengthened to an F3, also peaking with 200-mph winds, Aaron said.

A separate tornado, rated at F2, touched down briefly near Brownsville in Haywood County. Weakley County also sustained some tornado damage, said TEMA's Smith.

The tornadoes were progeny of a supercell that had spawned twisters in Arkansas and Missouri earlier Sunday. The cell was among several thunderstorms that developed as a cold front descended onto a region that had basked in unseasonably warm, moist weather.

"That one (cell) was particularly vigorous and long-lasting," said Bob Wagner, meteorologist with the weather service.

Dyer County accounted for at least 15 of the deaths. The other eight confirmed fatalities in West Tennessee were in Gibson County.

Most of the Dyer casualties occurred along rural roads just northwest of Newbern, including a family of three that perished near the Sara Lee U.S. Foods plant. While some victims were in mobile homes, others were in sturdier frame homes, said James Medlineg, chief of the Dyer County Fire Department.

"Most of the homes were just wiped off the foundation," he said. "There's just not a lot you can do (to survive)."

All across the region, the twister's path was bracketed by uprooted oaks, shattered farm sheds and splintered debris. Out-buildings and boat-trailers were catapulted through the walls of homes.

"Look at that two-by-four driven into the ground," said Dr. William Lents, a Newbern dentist whose two-story brick home was gutted.

Lents saw the funnel coming. "It was silhouetted against the night sky," he said. "It pretty much hit me dead-on. It was over in the blink of an eye."

His neighbor, David Puraty, 72, suffered a sprained shoulder when the twister shattered his home.

"I was leaning against the door to the garage because I was afraid it would blow out, and it did. It knocked me to the floor," Puraty said.

Down the road from where the Seratts survived the destruction of their home, Dennis Dozier emerged from his basement to find the rest of the home that he helped build destroyed.

"It was my dream," said Dozier, 58, of the home. "I worked all my life for it and got it paid for four years ago. I was proud of it."


Contact Tom Charlier of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.,
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Ketchikan, Alaska