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15 years later: Riegelwood remembers lives forever changed by deadly tornado

Community remembers deadly tornado in Columbus County 15 years ago
Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 6:39 PM EST
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RIEGELWOOD, N.C. (WECT) - Fifteen years have passed since a deadly tornado tore through Riegelwood, killing eight, wounding 20 and decimating 30 homes.

Acme Delco Riegelwood Fire Chief Steve Camlin still remembers the sights, sounds, and smells like it was yesterday.

“You smelled airbags, from where they were deployed, the scent of fresh pine that was snapped from the tornado going through, breaking the trees. Because there were trees on Highway 87, there was no way to get through. The scent of the dust of the homes when you went to stir things up and look for people...” remembered Camlin.

Camlin recalls rescuing people trapped in cars overturned on the highway, helping resuscitate a child found in a waterlogged ditch, and finding people who were ripped from their homes and tossed into nearby trees.

He says crews used doors from nearby homes as backboards. Despite the chill in the morning air, one fireman was working on the wounded bare-chested, having used the shirt off his own back as a makeshift neck brace.

“That morning we had to come back here, a lot of us did, and we had to prep people coming in that wanted to go back and do second and third searches through the collapsed structures, through all the debris and make sure there’s no one else underneath there. As I was briefing them in the bays, those responders were crying because they didn’t know what they were going to get into, they had no clue what they were about to walk into,” explained Camlin.

Shonda Carroll helped treat the wounded and also vividly remembers the terror laid before her.

“As soon as I crested the hill, I could see the devastation. I could see houses that were on the opposite side of the road from where they were, vehicles overturned in the highway,” said former first responder Carroll. “It was something that will shake you to your core. It’s something you hear about on the news, but until you face it, it’s unreal.”

It wasn’t until much later Carroll learned her own cousin was among the dead. Danny was just 5-years-old when his mother showed up to the makeshift morgue at the station to identify him.

“He was here, he was in there with everybody else, and she came up here, and that was in that moment I was like ‘This cannot be real, this cannot be real,’ but here we are,” said Carroll. “A lot of praying, a lot of strength from God. There’s no explanation and there’s nothing you can do yourself.”

Their fire rescue family also lost a first responder that day. Michael Browne was trying to leave his home with his family when the tornado tossed them into the air. His daughter, Cheyanne, survived. His fellow firefighters recovered just feet away from her.

“The public and politicians do not understand, the horrors that we see. The only way that we can deal with it is the strength of the good Lord that we get through it. It’s the aftermath, that when we’re quiet and with ourselves that haunts us,” said Camlin. “That’s what takes it away. Children are always the hardest ones to deal with, and that day we lost several.”

Though the trees have grown back on Martinez Drive, it’s the faintest smells on the autumn wind, or a glance at the monuments set up around town that takes survivors back to November 16, 2006.

“The scent of green needles whenever mike and Cheyanne had to be uncovered, the smell of a hedge row from where you picked up the bodies that were in the bushes, the smell of the water where one of the bodies was at over on Martinez — the musky smell of water — those are the things that you sometimes remember,” said Camlin.

He says the memories of that day will forever live inside the minds of his crews and the agencies that rushed into town to help them. Fifteen years later, the scars are still there, but survivors agree that it’s important to still tell the stories of the sacrifices so many made to save lives that morning.

“Remember the fire and rescue and EMS and police, the trainings they go through, the sacrifice,” said Camlin. “To make sure the citizens of the county push the politicians to make sure they maintain a good warning system and make sure it’s maintained in the budgets, and make sure we stay up on our trainings. Just walk up to someone who responded that day and say, ‘Thank you.’”

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