The death toll may yet rise as National Guardsmen, sheriff’s deputies and other searchers comb rural neighborhoods and probe Lake Neely Henry for bodies.
Coroner Pat Brown was reluctant to release names of the dead, citing the difficulty of contacting family members while also searching for bodies — and survivors — in the post-storm environment. By Thursday afternoon, though, he was able to release the names of seven victims:
• Ruby Douthitt, 61, who was killed when her home on Gilbert’s Ferry Road was hit by a possible tornado.
• Michael Forrest, 54, and Tina Forrest, 49, a married couple who lived on Eagle Cove Road in Ohatchee.
• James Romaine, 65, who was found dead near Cocharan Springs Road in Ohatchee.
• Vernon Spencer Motes, 33, who was killed at Mamre Baptist Church near U.S. 431 near Webster’s Chapel/Big Oak
• William Lipscomb, 67, and Linda Lipscomb, age unknown, who lived at Dove Welsh Road.
Two other storm victims have been identified, but their names have not been released to the public. Brown said one victim was an adult whose relatives have not yet been contacted. The other victim, he said, was a child whose parents who were injured and are in a local hospital.
“I wish I could tell you more,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s developing right now.”
Brown didn’t need to say more. Residents in Ohatchee, near Silver Lakes and in Webster’s Chapel knew the storm had turned their communities inside out. Filling stations became staging areas crowded with police cars and electrical repair trucks — and many weren’t selling gasoline because of a lack of electricity. Uniformed officers from a hodgepodge of agencies directed traffic around the hardest-hit areas, where repairs and searches were ongoing. On Cocharan Springs Road near Ohatchee, National Guardsmen went door-to-door on foot, searching for survivors and bodies. Early Thursday afternoon, a group of Guardsmen said they had not discovered any fatalities beyond the ones already reported.
At a makeshift search center in Saks, volunteers and sheriff’s deputies stood by to help residents find relatives who were missing after the storm. Former Jacksonville Police Chief Paul Locke, one of the volunteers, said the center saw a steady stream of visitors in the wee hours of Thursday morning. All but one of the people reported missing were found alive within an hour or so by sheriff’s deputies, Locke said.
But one was not.
“We had a woman who called from New York, trying to locate her father,” Locke said. The woman’s father had been killed in the storm.
“That wasn’t one of the good answers to have to give,” Locke said.
‘A very sweet lady’
Ruby Douthitt, 61, was the first person identified as a victim of the storm.
Relatives say that she and her husband, Johnny, were on their knees praying in their home, on a gravel drive off Gilbert’s Ferry Road, when the tornado hit. Johnny Douthitt survived with minor injuries, family members said. Ruby’s body was found not far from the house.
She had lived here since 1977. A native of Sylvester, Ga., Ruby was living in Indianapolis when she met Johnny and settled down with him in Calhoun County.
She wasn’t just moving into a house; she was joining a community. Almost everyone along this stretch of Gilbert’s Ferry Road was a Douthitt, by birth or marriage. Brothers lived next to brothers, and two doors down, a cousin or uncle. Older members of the family say they all grew up together in a small blue house on a nearby hill.
Ruby Douthitt started college — nursing school — soon after she moved in.
Family members say they don’t know what drew her to the profession, but she was a natural, a woman of unshakeable patience.
“My auntie was a very sweet lady,” said Douthitt’s niece, Sharon Catlett of Anniston. “I’ve never heard her raise her voice to anybody, or be ugly to anybody.”
Relatives say she worked for many years at a rehab center or nursing home in Jacksonville. Then she became an in-home nurse, providing care for elderly people and children with medical needs.
Ruby and Johnny Douthitt raised a family on Gilbert’s Ferry Road. One son, Courtsney Douthitt, is now in Kuwait working as a contractor through Anniston Army Depot. Another son, Theon, lives in Kentucky and works in the computer field, relatives say.
The Douthitts devoted a lot of work to their house, relatives say, adding a garage and other amenities to what started as a manufactured home. The storm turned that home into a lopsided tangle of wood, metal and cloth.
The Douthitt brothers and cousins were homeless, too. Where several houses once stood were only piles of wood where baby dolls, telephones, vinyl-covered chairs and other items poked through. Only the old blue house — where Johnny Douthitt and his siblings grew up — was left standing, with much of its roof gone.
Misty Smith of Oxford came up with her family to help the Douthitts clean up the wreckage of their house. She said her brother was one of Douthitt’s patients — though she “seemed like family.”
“She was a remarkable, inspiring lady,” Smith said. “She’ll truly be missed.”
Vernon Spencer Motes, known to his friends as Spencer, died in the basement of Mamre Baptist Church in the Big Oak Fire District.
A member of the church, who asked that she not be quoted by name, said Motes helped build a new church building for Mamre. The first service in that church was an Easter service, held two years ago.
Motes put up the drywall for the church. He enjoyed the task, the church member said, because he liked the work and because he liked helping people.
Motes was among an undetermined number of people who gathered at the old Mamre church building before the storm, the church member said. The old church had a basement. Motes and others at the church lived in mobile homes.
The church member said both churches — the old Mamre and the new — were wrecked in the storm.
Working hard, loving God
Neighbors and friends remember Michael and Tina Forrest as a lively, happy pair who worked hard and loved God.
“They were two of the most incredible people you will ever meet,” Gadsden resident Gina Coggins said Thursday as she stood next to the cinderblock foundation of her friends’ old home — the only part of the structure still intact.
They moved from Hoover to their lakeside home on Neely Henry Lake in Ohatchee a year ago.
The Forrests’ neighbors — Kim and Mark Thompson — also recalled the couple’s dedication to the Christian faith and their hardworking ways.
Mike Forrest was the kind of neighbor who always said hello, Mark Thompson said, the kind of guy who waved when he saw you.
Mike Forrest worked long hours at a Publix grocery store in Birmingham, Coggins added. But his first love was graphic design, she remembered. Before the economy went sour, Mike helped design pages for a contracting company with Southern Living Magazine.
The Forrests leave behind a daughter who works in Birmingham and a younger son, stationed as a Marine in Afghanistan, Alabama Deputy Fire Marshal Tommy Wiggonton said.
Coggins attended church with the Forrests at the World Outreach Center in Oneonta, and Tina Forrest worked as a paralegal at Coggins’ Gadsden law firm.
“Tina and I left the office together yesterday. We walked out together at the same time, saying we were going to go home and take cover,” Coggins said through tears. “And she did; they posted on Facebook later that they were hunkered down in their house with a pot of coffee. They were two of the most wonderful people.”
Tina Forrest, 49, was found dead under a tree near the banks of Neely Henry Lake Thursday morning.
First responders had pulled Mike Forrest from the lake sometime late Wednesday or early Thursday morning. Forrest was alive when emergency workers found him, but he died from his extensive injuries at a hospital in Gadsden Thursday morning, Wiggonton said.
Tina had spent much of her free time in recent days talking about how excited she was her son, Blake, was coming home from Afghanistan at the beginning of May, Coggins said. Tina planned to drive to Camp LeJeune in North Carolina next week, just so she could be the first person to hug her son, who’s been gone since last summer.
“They were the best neighbors,” Kim Thompson said. “And now they’re gone and we’ve lost everything, too.”
The Thompson’s mobile home was also destroyed in the storm, along with five other homes along the Eagle Cove Road stretch that overlooks Lake Neely Henry.
Jessica Peterson, the Forrests’ daughter, cried when she arrived to see the wreckage that used to be her parents’ home. As she scoured the debris, searching for a photo album, a family Bible, a muddy picture of her brother in uniform, Coggins looked on, tears rimming her eyes.
“This is so hard. I just can’t believe it,” Coggins said. “The last thing they posted on Facebook was, ‘It’s headed our way. We’ve got angels to protect us or angels to usher us into heaven. No fear.’ Yes, that was them.”
The lost and the missing
There are stories behind the other names on the coroner’s list. But like so much in Calhoun County right now, those stories are hard to reach. Calls to the neighbors of James Romaine of Cocharan Springs Road and William and Linda Lipscomb of Dove Welch Road never made it through. Messages say the numbers are “no longer available,” and the houses may not even be there.
Police roadblocks kept onlookers away from some of the hardest-hit areas.
Back at the Saks Community Center — where residents are supposed to report missing loved ones — Paul Locke said he didn’t want to know the names of the dead. Not until he had to.
“I don’t want to have to lie to somebody,” Locke said, and he didn’t want to drop the news on anyone instantly. Better to get the name, do the search, and prepare to break the news in the best way possible.
Locke and the other volunteers showed up at the community center around midnight Thursday. By 3 p.m., he was still there, waiting for news, hoping searches for survivors would turn out okay.
He didn’t know, and nobody knew, when they’d be able to go home.
Star assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.