Editor's note: Due to the threat of severe weather on Sunday, April 14, Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont has cancelled its memorial service and all Sunday services. Rev. Nedra Deerman, pastor at Goshen, said the commemoration will be rescheduled for another date. “We’re encouraging people to draw away with their families and worship in whatever way they can,” she said.
It has been 25 years since a tornado forever altered the congregation at Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont. In 1994, a tornado struck the church during worship services on Palm Sunday, killing 20 and injuring 96.
On Sunday, members will memorialize those who died that day and honor first responders at a 10 a.m. service. The ceremony will begin at the former location of the church, now a memorial site, at 19615 Goshen Road in Piedmont, less than a half-mile from the new church building at 625 Alabama Highway 9 South.
Members will have a period of devotion and will recognize all first responders, including members of the Alabama National Guard who assisted them the day of the Palm Sunday Tornado in 1994.
Afterward, the church will hold worship services at the current building. Clinton Hubbard, district superintendent of the Cheaha District for the North Alabama Conference, is to speak.
A covered dish lunch will follow the worship service in the family life center.
Following are first-person reports from a survivor and a first responder who assisted members on that day.
Keith Word, survivor:
“I was the administrative board chairman, whose job was to oversee the programs, attendance, finances and some of the other aspects of the church. My wife, Kathy, and two children, Shannon and Cody, were with me.
“I was sitting on the north side of the sanctuary toward the front of the sanctuary, along with other choir members. We were listening to the children, who were up front singing a Palm Sunday musical. Just as the program started, we heard the storm. Then gravel started hitting the stained-glass windows. I remember thinking that we had to get the kids down from the front area.
“I jumped up just as the lights went out, and that is all I remember of the actual strike.
“When I came to, my chest and right armed were pinned to the pew in front of me, and my left arm was pinned to the pew behind me. The roof from the south side of the building had shifted and landed on the north side on top of me and those of us sitting there. I tried to move and began hearing people moaning, crying, praying, screaming and everything you can imagine.
“I could barely breathe, and right before I felt I was going to die, I prayed for God to spare my kids and wife. The next thing I remember is trying to kick my legs free from the bricks and blocks.
“Then, a friend, Mike Tyree, saw me. He and others were yelling and grabbing my legs. As they pulled, the ceiling tiles were ripping my clothes. When freed, I headed toward the front where one of the female members was standing, trapped in blocks and covered with blood. I freed her, picked her up, and got her out.
“Then I saw another person lying on the floor not moving. She had no pulse. Then I remember two officers led me to a bench. My mother and daddy came to me and asked if I was OK.
“Still, I could barely breathe. I jumped up to go dig my wife and kids out from where I thought they were beneath the wall on the south side of the building, but, my parents found them and brought them to me.
“The first responders began arriving and laid me on the wet ground in the rain. They cut my shirt off and gave me an IV. They said another tornado was coming.
“My son had been roaming around and saying his friend, another fourth grader, was dead. I tried to calm him and talk to him, even though I could barely speak. We later learned the girl’s father was also dead, and her mother was badly hurt.
“My injuries included having 13 broken ribs, bruises and cuts. I stayed in the hospital seven days.
“The storm was a nightmare, and the worst thing we have ever lived through. Out of our 146 members, 96 were injured and 20 were killed: 14 adults and six children. So on that day, few of us members were left to help. We could not have survived without the help of the first responders who came.”
Blake Strickland, first responder:
“I was an investigator for the Piedmont Police Department when the church was hit. Because I was also an EMT-Basic who had previously studied advanced rescue techniques, Chief Michael Richards put me, at first, in charge of triage. There were more than 100 church members scattered everywhere, inside and outside of the church. They were either severely injured, dead or walking injured.
“The first person I went to treat was a man in a Marine Corps dress uniform. His wife and daughter were with him at church when the tornado hit. He had thrown his body over them for protection, but they were already killed. He was still alive when I started working on him, but I realized that he was not going to make it. For the first time in my career, I realized I must leave a patient knowing he would die.
“I looked up, and there was a young woman from the church who was walking around trying to help. I sat her next to him and told her to hold his hand. At least he had someone holding his hand while he died. The experience was gut-wrenching.” (At this point in the interview, Strickland had to stop to regain his composure.)
“Next, the chief put me in charge of finding a place for the bodies. We placed the dead in body bags and filled up the carport of the parsonage and the carport of an older couple who lived across the street. We quickly ran out of body bags as more victims were located within the church.
“We learned that we could get more bags and other things we needed from the National Guard Armory in Anniston. Then the chief and I had to unzip the bodies and begin the process of identifying people, because my next job was making the announcements of those who had died to the crowd waiting in the Piedmont Civic Center.
“As the number of victims increased, the decision was made to transport the dead to the National Guard Armory in Piedmont. Once all the recovered victims were at the armory, the coroner and I went to each body bag, opened it and worked with church members and families to identify the victim.
“Once all of the victims had been identified, I was responsible for announcing their names to the family, friends and community gathered at the Piedmont Civic Center.
“When I arrived there at the civic center, spiritual ministerial leaders in the community had arrived. I told them we decided that, as I called out the names, they would go toward those who reacted emotionally and assist them. That job, like the others I did that day, affected me both personally and professionally.
“I am now retired from law enforcement, and as I teach classes to first responders about how to handle the stress of the job, I talk about survivability, both emotional and physical. I always talk about the impact that the Goshen tornado has on me, even today. It happened before I had children, and it made me realize I needed to cherish family and friends.
“For years, a second huge impact on me was a memory about a friend who came toward me from the rubble while holding a blonde-haired girl. He was holding her as though she were only asleep, and that image stayed in my mind. For years, whenever I would see a young blonde girl at church or anywhere, I would cry.
“I want to thank all of those first responders from outside the area who helped us that day. Several years ago, someone from the National Geographic magazine came to Piedmont to do a piece on the Goshen tornado as part of their series entitled ‘Anatomy of a Tornado.’ They brought a group of us who had helped that day back together. It was amazing how vividly we had remembered details. All of us have a lifelong bond, and we stay in touch.”
Sherry Kughn is a local freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.