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Tornado victims’ photo landed in Habersham County family's yard

POSTED: March 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN /The Times

Adam Caudell, 4, peers up as his mother, Denise, shows a picture that belonged to tornado victims from Polk County. Denise Caudell found the photograph in the family's Habersham County driveway.

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One Habersham County family did not even have to leave home to help with recovery efforts following a Polk County tornado.

The opportunity landed on their driveway.

Nearly 10 hours after a half-mile wide tornado pummeled the Polk County home of Bonnie and Michael Turner — killing Bonnie and critically injuring Michael — bits of the couple’s lives were still being scattered across the state.

One bit landed more than 100 miles away in the Cornelia driveway of Denise and Wesley Caudell.

About 10 p.m. Saturday, Denise Caudell had just gotten clothes together for her 4-year-old son Adam so he could sleep over at his aunt’s house. Taking the clothes to Adam, who waited in his aunt’s car in the driveway, Denise Caudell realized she had forgotten to grab Adam’s blanket.

"I just happened to look down on the ground when I was shutting the (car) door to walk back in, and I looked down and there was a piece of white paper," recalls Denise Caudell. "And I thought, ‘well something must have fell out of her car.’"

It was not a white piece of paper. It was a photograph depicting a gray-bearded man standing on a pontoon boat, his arms stretched towards the camera.

Denise Caudell had never seen that man before.

"I was like, ‘I don’t know that guy in the picture’ and it wasn’t anybody in my neighborhood, I said ‘I wonder if it was carried here from that storm,’" Denise Caudell recalls.

When she went back inside, Denise Caudell started searching the picture for clues that might lead her to its original home.

Her initial thought was to try and track the owners of the photograph by the boat’s registration number, but then she saw the black letters on the life preserver: Bonnie Jean, Aragon, Georgia.

Denise Caudell called her husband, and asked him if he knew where Aragon was located. Two miles north of Rockmart, near Rome, Wesley Caudell answered.

"I said ‘that’s where all that tornado damage come through,’" Wesley Caudell said.

He told his wife the storm might have carried the photo to Habersham County.

The next morning, it seemed Wesley Caudell might have been on to something. As Denise Caudell watched the morning news, she heard a report of a Polk County woman who had been killed in Saturday’s tornado. The woman’s name was Bonnie Turner.

"And I’m thinking ‘OK, it says Bonnie Jean on the back of that boat, and her name was Bonnie; what are the chances of that photo belonging to that family?’" Denise Caudell said.

Wesley Caudell then started e-mailing area news channels and newspapers about the photograph, and a story on the Rome News-Tribune’s Web site led the couple to a Web page for Bonnie and Michael Turner’s kennel, flinthillkennels.com.

The Web page contained photographs of the Turner family, and one of them looked like the gray-bearded man on the pontoon boat.

"That’s how we kind of figured out who it was," Denise Caudell said.

After a few news organizations picked up their story, a reporter from Channel 2 gave Wesley Caudell a phone number for a nephew of Bonnie Turner. The man confirmed it was Bonnie and Michael Turner’s photograph, and asked that the Caudells return the memento.

"That was the whole purpose of us finding out who it belonged to, so we could return it," Denise Caudell said.

The Caudells arranged to send the photograph to the Turners’ nephew this week.

"I’ve heard of (a tornado) dropping (debris) maybe a mile or so down the road or something, but I’ve never heard of it being this far," Denise Caudell said. "It’s just wild that it’s traveled that far."

Even wilder was the fact that the picture was in near-perfect condition. No wrinkles from water damage. No fading. The photograph had only a few bits of debris to show for its 100-plus-mile ride through the wind to the Caudell’s Cornelia driveway.



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