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Smith: A country girl comes in to search for the missing

POSTED: April 4, 2011 1:51 p.m.

Word slowly seeped down the dirt roads, details of the storm that had swept away Gainesville.

After a few uneasy days, 14-year-old Elizabeth Westbrook Smith traveled the 10 miles to town and saw the devastation herself. In the 75 years since, the images from that trip have not been easily shaken.

"It was just a mass of charred flesh," said now 89-year-old Elizabeth with a solemn hush, reliving a memory no child should have been handed.

Life on her family's west Gainesville farm was perfectly rural, tranquil in every sense and simple as the lines of corn and cotton she tended.

On the morning of the big storm, Elizabeth stood at the doors of Chestatee High School in Forsyth County, watching the sky grow black as she waited for a friend to arrive on the bus. When the teachers learned Gainesville had been hit, they sent the students home.

The National Guard closed off the downtown area and it was late in the week when Elizabeth's neighbor went looking for a missing relative who had worked in the Cooper Pants factory. A sea of white linen and wood, the rubble had burned for days after the storm.

The woman asked Elizabeth to help her look.

Today, she isn't sure how they got to town, what road they took or if it was three or four or five days after the storm.

But she remembers what a man said, how he told them to recognize the bodies.

Look for buttons.

Or a sprig of cloth.

As the flames grew, the man told them, many of the women curled up in pain or protection. The fabric on their chests may have been untouched.

Elizabeth climbed up a collapsed staircase to the sewing floor.

"You couldn't tell sometimes what was machine that had been melted down or what was a blob of human flesh where the body had been burned," she said. "The legs and the feet and the hands had been burned off. Sometimes it was hard to believe that that had been a human being living."

As Elizabeth overturned debris, something caught her eye - a bright yellow button amid a sea of black.

They never found that missing relative, not at the pants factory or in the funeral parlors and makeshift morgues where they looked next, searching among the lines of unidentified dead.

"The bodies in there were not so horrible to view," Elizabeth said.

For many nights after, she laid awake in bed, wishing away the images from that sewing floor that would return with a vivid power.

Today, she understands the silence of those who have been to war, the pain that hangs in their eyes and the belief that horror can be washed away with quiet waters.

For years, she had difficulty speaking about the sewing floor. But over time the nights grew easier, the memory distanced.

"Eventually it passed," she said. "And like so many other bad things, you live with them and they grow dimmer across the years."



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