Flying quilts 1 year later: Quilters complete final project in memory of member killed in tornado

It's been a year since the story of Phyllis O’Connor’s traveling quilts spread across the country
Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 6:55 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s been a year since the story of Phyllis O’Connor’s traveling quilts spread across the country.

People far from Ocean Ridge have participated in the hunt for 28 handmade quilts scattered into the wind after the EF-3 tornado tore apart portions of Brunswick County. The quilts were handmade by members of the Ocean Ridge Quilting Club and were poised to be donated to the Rose House, a recovery center for women.

Months into the process of rebuilding, the community was still finding pieces of their beloved friend’s quilts appear across southeastern North Carolina.

The most recent quilt to turn up was found in October, north of Ash.

“To think it survived outside for eight months and through the controlled burns and was ripped around in the wind and was 40 miles away — it’s pretty amazing, said Melanie Kelley, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The latest find was one of the select few quilts lost in the storm made by Phyllis herself. The quilters have cleaned it up, but dark stains and large holes in the fabric still remain.

“A dog and a hunter were out, the dog found it in the woods. It had been in an area where there was a controlled burn and so it does have significant amount of damage but it is very symbolic of strength and courage and survival,” said Carol Dunham, president of the Ocean Ridge Masters Association.

A year later, 17 quilts from the O’Connor’s home have been located. The first was found sitting on a wet driveway 12 miles away. Others were tangled in debris in Ocean Ridge or had to be retrieved from trees high up in the air.

The search for the flying quilts has been one of the enduring stories that brought residents hope as they recovered from the tornado.

”The quilting piece kind of became the positive side,” said Maggy Schlink of the Ocean Ridge Charities Association. “In every tragedy there is some kind of light — and so we try to focus on that to help people get through the tough times.”

If you look at her quilts, it’s clear O’Connor was a source of light for the group. Members were quick to identify her work by her bright batik fabrics and intricate stitching.

Her sisters in the Ocean Ridge Quilting Club have cleaned and mended each of the recovered quilts, and mended their own hearts in the process.

“I feel like we’ve been part of something very special and it’s been a year, but it has been a very special experience,” said Dunham.

The quilts sewn by O’Connor have been sent to her family. Others found have been passed to tornado survivors, but the club’s biggest point of pride is fulfilling Phyllis’ final wish for the women in recovery at the Rose House.

“So when they come to their room at night they have comfort and something pretty they can sleep under and wrap themselves in,” said Kelley. “She said we’re doing this — and we did it. And then we did it again, and it wasn’t just us, it was women from up and down both the coast of North and South Carolina.”

Thirty handmade quilts now sit ready for delivery. Some pieced together with fabric rescued from the rubble. Others ready for donation were sewn and passed to Ocean Ridge by strangers moved by the story of the traveling quilts.

Each of the quilts has its own unique story and is symbolic of the soul of the community: forever changed by the tragedy, but made whole again having been mended by the caring hands of others.

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