North Hall High School was a designated shelter for catastrophic events because of the space afforded by its gym and the availability of things like shower facilities. But early on the morning of March 20, 1998, it became the site of catastrophe.
John Corley, who served as North Hall’s principal at the time, said the tornado that hit that morning and killed a total of 13 “was about as traumatic a time as I’ve ever faced.”
With winds whipping up to 206 mph, the tornado ripped an 11-mile-long path of wreckage, tearing through parts of Lanier Elementary School off Thompson Bridge Road before barreling through the career technology wing at North Hall High.
Tuesday: Family members of one of the 13 victims, Ronald Underwood, speak about that day.
Corley arrived at the school within minutes, seeing several trailers crushed and stacked one on top of the other, with debris littered across a vast expanse.
Most of the trailers were used for classrooms, but one of them housed the family of the school’s head custodian, Barbara Little. Little’s husband, Calvin; her daughter Tonja Simerly, 32; and grandson Austin Simerly, 6, were killed.
Corley said he was the one who first discovered them, beginning with the young grandson.
“He was the first one that I found,” he added. “I still dream about that sometimes.”
When Corley found Little’s husband, he was barely clinging to life. So Corley prayed over him.
“I don’t think he knew that I was there,” he said.
Scott Justus was working as a physical education teacher and coach at the school when he heard the classic sound of a train.
“I distinctly remember the sound of what I thought was a train,” said Justus, now principal of West Hall High School.
But it wasn’t until later that Justus realized the truth of what he had heard and the scale of devastation it foretold.
With the power out in his home, Justus dressed in the grey-black of the early morning and headed for the school.
“Your mind kind of floods back to that moment,” he said, recalling the tornado as the 20th anniversary approached.
By the time he arrived at the school, students and faculty were also showing up. And so, too, were law enforcement and medical first responders.
“I was trying to wrap my head around what I was seeing,” Justus said. “It truly was like a war zone.”
Had it occurred an hour or two later when school was in session, the tragedy could have reached a nearly incomprehensible level, Justus said, and as he reflected on that thought he found it hard to put into words just how enormous the tragedy was nevertheless.
Greg Williams was the head boys basketball coach at the time.
Williams said returning to the normalcy of teaching and holding class was nothing like the challenge of processing and memorializing the loss of life that occurred.
“Nothing compared to it,” he added.
But, eventually, students did return. The school was closed for just one week.
“We were able to open back up and continue under those circumstances for the rest of the year,” Corley said.
Corley said the Hall County community, from residents to businesses to nonprofits, stepped up in an incredible effort to rebuild, provide monetary donations and support one another.
“Everybody pitched in,” he added. “It was tear-jerking at times and sometimes you felt like just hugging, but there was a job to do. You can’t say enough about the community with their support.”