Jeff Underwood wonders if a mere 30 seconds would have made the difference.
These days, he said he can only speculate how things may have turned out for his father, Ronald Underwood, had just a few more ticks of the clock passed before he drove his produce truck down Thompson Bridge Road the morning of March 20, 1998, in Murrayville.
“I had heard from some folks at church he had stopped at Reid’s (Cafe in Murrayville) and gotten a biscuit,” said Jeff Underwood in an interview last week. “I’ve thought several times that if he had just stopped and talked to somebody from church.”
Instead, 51-year-old Ronald Underwood picked up his biscuit — at the restaurant drive-thru, according to Ronald’s brother, Lamar — and pressed on.
He was passing in front of Lanier Elementary School at 4782 Thompson Bridge Road at about 6:30 a.m. when the tornado struck, throwing his truck into the school.
“People who followed him said his taillights just went up in the air,” Lamar Underwood said last week.
The morning of March 20, Jeff Underwood had hit the road a couple hours before his father, he said, adding that the two men were in trucking business together.
“I was in Jackson County when I heard (on the radio) there had been a tornado,” he said. “There was one unconfirmed death and that was all (authorities) knew at the time. Little did I know that was my dad.”
Underwood said he kept driving on Interstate 85 toward South Carolina, but decided to stop in Lavonia and call home.
He spoke to his uncle Lamar, who gave Jeff the bad news about his father.
“At that point, I turned around and headed home,” Jeff Underwood said.
The tornado’s 20th anniversary, observed Saturday at a memorial service in Clermont, is being recalled — and relived — this week by tornado survivors, area residents and emergency workers who responded to the disaster.
In all, the storm killed 11 people in North Hall and two people in southern White County and caused $15.2 million in damages.
“It was a tough morning for a lot of people,” Jeff Underwood recalled.
The tornado first touched down at 6:27 a.m. on Leach Road north of Chestatee Road, knocking down about 100 trees before proceeding to zigzag its way through North Hall, according to a March 1998 map in The Times.
Jeff Underwood, now part owner of Banister Funeral Home in Dahlonega, said he not only lost his father — he also lost his business partner
“It was just like cutting my right arm off when it happened,” he said.
Memories of his father, who lived in Dahlonega at the time, are still fresh.
“He had a dry sense of humor, and was very caring,” Jeff Underwood said. “He was just a great dad. I never heard him say a curse word, never.”
Ronald Underwood also “loved the Lord” and his church, Yellow Creek Baptist in Murrayville.
“He was just a good Christian guy. Everybody loved him,” Jeff Underwood said.
While describing his father, he paused briefly with emotion.
“It’s hard, even though it’s been 20 years,” Jeff Underwood said.
Lamar Underwood also vividly recalled that day.
He lived across the road from Ronald and heard screams from his older brother’s house as he was leaving. Ronald’s wife had just been told about her husband’s death, he said.
“I went over there and found out (what had happened),” Lamar Underwood said. “I remember starting to walk away to tell my mother and going back to ask, ‘Are you sure he’s dead?’”
He said he later went to the hospital to identify his brother’s body.
“It was a total shock,” Lamar Underwood said, remembering his brother as “a real good Christian man.”
Lamar Underwood was no stranger to family tragedy. His father died at 54 in an accident.
“You just pick up the pieces and go again,” he said. “It’s sad, but you’re still in life and life has to go on.”