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How survivor escaped flames in pants plant
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Read coverage of the monument dedicated Thursday to victims of the Cooper Pants Factory tragedy.

Ruin and Rebirth: The story of the 1936 Gainesville tornado.

The Cooper Pants Factory historical marker at the corner of Maple and Broad streets in Gainesville has been appropriately unveiled in remembrance of those who died in the 1936 tornado, specifically those killed in the tragic fire that engulfed the pants factory.

While there has been ample publicity about the marker and retelling of stories related to the Cooper Pants Factory tragedy, there is another story worth telling in the words of a survivor of the fire.

Thelma Sosebee, who worked in the factory, also wrote articles from the Sugar Hill community on the Gainesville-Athens Highway, U.S. 129, for the Gainesville News and Gainesville Eagle. A week after the storm and fire, she wrote about her own experience:

By Mrs. Thelma Sosebee

My Experience In Gainesville

“I was in the Cooper Pants Mfg. Co., on the stair steps on the morning of the tornado. There was a swinging door that was about four steps from the main door. The wind was in a twist and whirl outside. That door came to just before I made another step to keep me from going through.

“The next thing I knew the steps went out from under me, and I was trapped under stuff. I just had enough room to lay without being crushed. Two other girls were with me, side by side, and a little boy just beyond me. They were all I could see or hear.

“Some good man heard our cries for help. He tore away the timber, and Miss Lucille Sheridan saw way to slide through. Mrs. Mildred Edge followed, and I followed her. The little boy came behind me. There were only four out when we four escaped, including Mrs. Dora Collins, Mrs. Janie Wilson, and daughter, Irene, and the forelady, Mrs. Gennies.

“There have been 64 gotten out alive and 41 identified ones killed or burned to death. This makes two cyclones I have been in. Sixteen years ago next Monday, April 20. Seven who have been in the same two storms include Mr. and Mrs. William Morgan and daughter, Gola, Mrs. Sallie Latimer and son, Tip, my sister, Mrs. Seaborn Walker, and I. None were hurt in either one with the exception of scratches and minor bruises.

“Our lives were spared for something; we know not why. I’m so thankful there is a God we can trust in. May all that haven’t made peace with God do so before it is too late. God’s word teaches us to watch and pray for we know not what hour or day the son of man will come.”

Here Mrs. Sosebee continued with her usual Sugar Hill community news:

“Miss Ganelle Sexton, of Atlanta, spent the weekend with home-folks.

“Mr. and Mrs. Gus Mangum and family, of Gainesville, were Sunday guests of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Mangum.

“Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Ravan and baby, Joicelyn were Sunday afternoon guests of Mr. and Mrs. Ira Forrester.

“This community was saddened last week to learn of the deaths of our friends in the Cooper Pants Co., Monday, April 6. Miss Lorene Wilson was laid to rest in Oak Grove cemetery. Mrs. Russell DeLong and daughter, Mrs. Pansy Kanaday, were laid to rest in Harmony cemetery. The bereaved ones have our deepest sympathy. May God be with each and every one of the families.”

Agnes Shockley is the daughter of Thelma Sosebee, who wrote the article. Her mother was 27 at the time of the 1936 tornado. She was 11 years old at the time of the “cyclone” on April 20, 1920, which struck about midnight. Mrs. Sosebee lived to the age of 96.

The Russell DeLongs — Hattie, Russell, Gertrude and Pansy and their other children at that time — lived in the Sugar Hill Baptist Church community on the Athens Highway.

Janie Wilson was the mother of Irene Wilson and Lorene Wilson. As written in Thelma Sosebee’s article, Lorene died in the Cooper Pants Factory. They also lived in the Sugar Hill and Oak Grove communities on U.S. 129 south of Gainesville.

The Georgia Historical Society marker says 70 of the 125 in the pants factory when the storm struck died.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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