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'It was a nightmare:' Huntsville survivors remember deadly 1989 tornado

Huntsville survivors recall the devastation left by a 200 mile per hour tornado 30 years ago.

Posted: Nov 14, 2019 6:51 PM
Updated: Nov 15, 2019 12:37 PM

Nov. 15, 1989, is a day that will go down as one of Huntsville's worst disasters.

A 200 mile per hour tornado struck the city without warning.

"It was a nightmare," recalled Toney Drive resident Betty Lunsford, whose home was demolished by the monster tornado. "It's just an overwhelming sense of loss."

Lunsford remembered volunteering at her church which kept her away from her home. Today, she reflects on her blessings.

"You're so grateful that you're alive and your family is alive that that seemed minor," said Lunsford.

While Lunsford and other homeowners and business owners lost just about everything to the destructive tornado, 21 people lost their lives and more than 500 others were injured.

At the corner of Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive, there is a memorial wall with 21 black bricks that honor those who perished. That area of town is where most of the deaths and injuries happened that fateful day.

Former WAAY 31 reporter Tim Hall and former photojournalist Scott Bemish recall arriving on the scene around Airport Road, when suddenly their jobs as journalists suddenly shifted to being rescuers.

Bemish came to the aid of Millie Goldstein. Her car was lifted by the tornado and landed on top of an electric transformer 20 feet off the ground.

"She kept saying I just want to go to sleep and I said no you're not going to sleep. You're going to talk to me. We're gonna stay focused right here," recalled Bemish.

Goldstein survived. She and Bemish reunited soon after. Her family thanked him for saving her life. Goldstein died about five years ago.

"She was a sweet sweet lady," said Bemish.

Hall, too, jumped into action after delivering reports on the air. He remembered when emergency workers asked him for his camera light to help shine light into dark areas in the search for survirors.

There was one woman in particular who was buried deep in the rubble that reached out for his assistance.

"I reached down and she pulled my arm - the center of my arm and I said do you need help - and she said 'What happened?'" said Hall.

WAAY 31 was the only television station on-air to help inform viewers that the tornado touched down. The station had purchased a generator which kept the power on.

But it was dark and drivers were already stuck in rush hour traffic. The destructive tornado which was first reported around Redstone Arsenal tossed vehicles around like matchsticks.

Weather alerts mostly helped those who were watching to find cover with just seconds to spare.

Jones Valley Elementary was in the direct path of the tornado - a school where more than 30 students stayed for after-care. Five-year-old Ryan McKennan was one of them.

"They told us that the weather was turning and they needed us to get inside," recalled McKennan. "I remember them telling us to cover our heads, and I remember looking up anyway and looking out and seeing just this wall of swirling dirt and wind and just - a tornado."

How anyone could survive the crushing blow to that school is miraculous.

Thought devastating, the '89 tornado may have left behind death and destruction, but it also brought out the best in the human spirit.

Lunsford remembered the weather turning cold after the storm rolled through, and she did not have a coat to keep warm. Out of the blue, a friend stopped by and not only give her a new coat but also handed her a crisp 100 dollar bill.

That simple gesture prompted Lunsford to hand out $100 every year to families in need every Nov. 15 since the tornado struck.

And it all started on a day where countless others also received a special helping hand during one of Huntsville's darkest hours.

"That's something meaningful - our way of remembering," said Lunsford.

There are certain things you can do to prepare for a storm. Having a "go bag" is a very good idea. For information about this, click here.

For information about shelters, go to your specific county's website for more information.

Find an excellent resource for more information about disaster assistance and resources here

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