Blow-by-blow, literally

The tornado pelted Barnwell’s car with stones, pieces of metal, and broken wood shards. A 2,000-pound red cattle feeding bin scrapped the driver side of the car and crushed in the top of the car. “If it had landed on the car, it would have killed me,” he said.

The winds in the March 19 tornado slid down the mountain in front of Stan Barnwell’s home on Hollingsworth Road before leveling his house. Like a ball rolling faster and faster down a hill, meteorologists from the National Weather Service suspect the tornado in that spot may have measured even more than an EF3. That would be higher than 206 mph.

Barnwell was on the road in front of his house in his 2005 Buick LaSabre. He survived three tornadoes, two that churned debris into a fury that hit his car, and one that flew above him.  

“Just wasn’t my time to go,” he said from his office on Pelham Road.

Barnwell’s uninsured house was more than leveled. It disappeared, all 1,750-feet of his main living space. There was not a toothpick, shirt, or photograph left. Even the northern wall of his underground basement, the exposed side, has a 2-to-4-inch crack from top to bottom. One identifiable item was found in Villa Rica, Ga., a document from the concrete block store the family ran on their home site from 1977-87, Barnwell’s Gas and Grocery. The paper traveled 70 miles.

During the tornado, Barnwell also lost six outbuildings and two cars. Only a couple of tractors and several bales of hay remain. During the interview, Barnwell, whose voice shook as he described the near-death experience, said he was not as worried about the things he lost as he was glad about the things that remain: kind friends, family, and even strangers. Dozens have helped his son Jeff clean up the debris that Barnwell has yet to see. Perhaps soon he will recover enough to visit the place his family has lived for generations.

Anyone listening to his story -- how the 10 minutes of terror happened – can understand how fortunate he feels:

Barnwell arrived at his house about 8:30 p.m. after traveling to buy a car from someone in Talladega.

Immediately, five texts came in from Jeff and from friends telling him to take cover from an approaching tornado. Barnwell jumped in his Buick LaSabre and drove toward Jacksonville to see what might be happening on the side of a hill just north of his house.

He heard a sound like the rhythm of a pounding train and of trees snapping and popping.

He turned the Buick around and headed back toward his house when he saw a wall of swirling debris, including the tin roof of his shop with rafters attached. The tin scraped the road as it approached him head-on.

Next, a 50-foot American holly tree -- one he climbed as a child from age 5 -- popped straight out of the ground with roots attached. It hovered a second and then seemed to aim at the oncoming tin roof. “It was almost like there was a struggle between the roof and the tree,” Barnwell said.

Then the tree, now wrapped with tin, fell to the ground 30 feet in front of the Buick.

Barnwell had no time to catch his breath before he heard a second pulsing train sound.

A 2,000-pound cattle feeding bin, red in color, struck the top of the Buick and damaged the driver side so badly the door would not open. “I was trapped,” Barnwell said.

As the car lay on its side, Barnwell heard a third tornado but could tell it was passing overhead. A friend on the other end of his cell phone joined in the prayer that Barnwell was praying aloud. Both asked God for protection.

Then the ordeal was over.

Barnwell lay still and realized he did not seem to be hurt. He called Jeff, who was frantic by then because he had lost cellphone connection with his father. Barnwell told him, and then a 911 dispatcher, where he was. He lay motionless, cold, and wet in the dark. He knew if he got out of the car, he might be electrocuted by downed wires. A barefoot neighbor, Chad Reid, braved those dangers and approached Barnwell’s car.  Barnwell told him to go back to his wife and step-daughter with whom he had ridden out the storm as they took shelter in a closet of their brick home, which looks now as if it exploded.

Barnwell lay still in the dark another 65 minutes before people with chain saws were able to free him.

He emerged without a scratch in spite of having to shake glass out of his hair, clothes, and even the pockets of his jeans.

He arrived at the friend’s house both terrified and elated. He was alive and thankful to God, the One he said, he has served since childhood.

“I walk in the hedge of God’s protection,” said Barnwell, a deacon at the Nances Creek Baptist Church.

Barnwell heard from Jeff about the dozens of volunteers who were helping and about those handing out lunch bags to volunteers. Someone set up a “Go Fund Me” account to help him begin the recovery process.

“I know it was the hand of God that allowed that tree to stop that roof,” Barnwell said. “Otherwise, it would have slammed me, and I would be at my own funeral by now.”

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