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North Hall High, Clermont remembers March 20, 1998, tornado
Participants at the Day of Remembrance memorial Thursday for the 10th anniversary of the tornado place flowers on the monument to the victims who died at North Hall High School. - photo by Tom Reed


John Corley, retired principal of North Hall High School, recalled his response the morning of March 20, 1998, when a tornado struck the school and killed three people.

North Hall High School recalls tragedy

Before a group of shivering onlookers Thursday morning, John Corley recalled in vivid detail the tornado that struck his beloved North Hall High School on March 20, 1998.

A crowd gathered at the school under a blue sky — quite the opposite of the storm-ridden morning 10 years ago — and endured biting winds to mark the tragedy that resulted in the deaths of the people who lived on or near the Mount Vernon Road campus.

"It was one of the most traumatic events in my lifetime," said Corley, the school’s retired principal, of that morning’s devastation.

About 75 students, faculty members and some of the victims’ family members attended the ceremony at a memorial garden in a courtyard at the school.

"We hope today’s program will give us yet another opportunity to acknowledge the sadness of that day, along with celebrating the unity and resilience of our school and our community," said student Will Story, who is editor of the school’s newspaper, The Forum.

The school’s principal, Gary Brown, introduced guests and spoke briefly of the tragedy.

"In the 50 years that North Hall has existed, there has been many wonderful things that have happened, but obviously what we’re remembering this morning is probably the worst thing that has happened," he said.

"But out of that, the school came together, the community together and ... North Hall rose to become the premier school in Northeast Georgia."

The tornado, which ended up causing $13.5 million in damages in Hall and White counties, with winds whipping up to 206 mph, pummeled Lanier Elementary School off Thompson Bridge Road in North Hall before hitting North Hall High.

The storm ripped apart the career technology wing, leveled a greenhouse attached to the school and demolished several trailers used for classrooms. It also struck a trailer belonging to Calvin and Barbara Little.

Calvin, a former custodian at the school, died in the storm, as did his daughter, Tonja Simerly, and his grandson, Austin Simerly.

Corley arrived at the school shortly after the storm struck.

"The first thing I came to was the little Simerly boy lying in the front yard of a trailer across the road over here," he said.

He later found Calvin Little.

"He was ... in the last stages of his life," Corley said. "I had the chance to hold his hand and pray with him for a minute. And then, an (emergency medical technician) came up and (Little) passed on."

Corley said he then found Tonja Simerly.

"She was just lying out totally exposed," he said. "After I determined that she had passed on, I found some insulation and stuff to cover her up with and started making my way up to the school."

He found a disaster scene in the building.

"There was debris hanging from the ceilings, there were wires, there were ceiling tiles, bits of equipment and stuff hanging in every hallway and every classroom," he said. "You couldn’t walk without pushing stuff out of the way.

"It was like a horror house that you see somewhere."

Also, as part of Monday’s ceremony, assistant principal Harold Daniels spoke briefly, then planted a camellia shrub near the garden to mark the tornado’s 10-year anniversary.

The school’s Women’s Ensemble sang "Morning Has Broken," and student Kelcie Evenson closed the ceremony with a prayer.

Residents of Clermont hold prayer service

CLERMONT — Ten years after he lost his father to the 1998 tornado, Jeff Underwood is still in the trucking business.

His father, Ronald Underwood had been making a produce delivery for his business, Ronald’s Wholesale Produce, when winds from the March 20 1998, tornado swept his truck into Lanier Elementary School and killed him.

Now, in 2008, Jeff Underwood has taken the trucking business in a different direction, and wore a jacket bearing the name of the company to a Clermont service that honored his father and the 12 other people who died the day of the tornado.

As the sun shone in a cloudless sky, the victims’ families sat facing a statue with their lost loved ones’ names printed on it in Clermont’s Clay E. Gailey Park Thursday afternoon while a bagpiper with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office played "Amazing Grace."

"On a nice, clear day like this, it’s somewhat hard to imagine that in a matter of a few hours the weather could change so dramatically and cause the destruction as it did 10 years ago," Clermont’s Mayor James Nix told those present at the memorial service in the park.

Ten years ago, destruction swept across the north end of Hall County before anyone, even the National Weather Service, knew it was coming. It was one of the community’s darkest hours, said current Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic.

"It tore up our community, and it tore up families," Cronic said.

But Cronic, and others who spoke at the Clermont service said that even in the dark hours of March 20, 1998, the community had some of its brightest moments.

"Let me tell you what I think was so awesome: It was that the voice of God was heard through the community here, because the way this community rallied and helped out," said the Rev. Alan Morris at the service. "There was such camaraderie, there was such love, there was such giftedness of people who gave of their own things, their own time, their own energy to minister to ... the needs of their community."

Cronic offered onlookers comfort that the sheriff’s office and the county’s emergency services department was more prepared for a disaster today than it had been 10 years ago.

As Cronic called out the names of those lost in the tornado, their family members stood, some of them with red faces and tears in their eyes, and released balloons in honor of their lost loved ones.

Ten years have passed, and Ronald Underwood’s family says it is still difficult to be without their loved one.

"We still miss him," Ronald’s brother, Lamar Underwood, said after the memorial service.

Bonnie Underwood, mother of Ronald Underwood, lost her husband in a tragic accident in the 1970s before she lost her son in the 1998 tornado.

"Losing your child is worse," she said.