Blown away by tornado, photos and memories are rediscovered
A table at the Cookeville Community Center holds photographs found after the tornado on Thursday, March 5 2020 in Cookeville, Tenn. Photographs and other lost and found items were on display (Shelley Mays/The Tennessean via AP)
Mar 07, 2020 By GENTRY ESTES, The Tennessean
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Other than a section torn from the bottom, the photograph is intact.
Dated March 2014 on the back, it’s a graceful, lovely shot, the kind you might see in an engagement announcement: A young couple on railroad tracks, holding hands, walking into sunlight and a bright future. Indeed, they would build a life together and a family, becoming parents.
“This was one of their pre-wedding photos,” said Matthew Pitts, who fought back tears upon finding the photo Thursday (March 5) at the Cookeville Community Center.
The couple on the railroad tracks was Joshua and Erin Kimberlin, Pitts’ brother-in-law and sister. Erin, 29, and Josh, 30, were killed alongside their 2-year-old son Sawyer when an EF4 tornado swept through Putnam County and destroyed their home.
Their photo had been dropped off by someone at the community center in an area set up for such a purpose — to recover personal items that had been blown away, some of them for multiple miles into areas far from those damaged by the tornado.
The Kimberlins' photo was found at an intersection near downtown Cookeville, about 5 miles away from their neighborhood. It wasn’t the only one. Family members said another wedding photo had been found about 11 miles away.
Bizarre as it feels, this is common right now in Cookeville. The city’s mayor, Ricky Shelton, lives about 4 miles from the impacted area, and he said his wife and daughters found two pictures in their yard.
“We just established that (at the community center) because we realized there was so much of that happening,” Shelton said.
Pitts located the photo from the railroad tracks on a table full of similarly tattered, poignant moments, each with its own special story, photos along with birth and wedding announcements, even a baby girl’s pink-and-white dress.
Among the two dozen or so photos at the Community Center: Babies, other couples, weddings, a girl playing soccer, another climbing in a tree on a snowy day, another fiddling with Christmas lights, another being kissed on the cheek with “New Years 2019” written on the back.
Some shots were older. Some were black and white, like the one of a little girl atop a small horse. “This is their pony,” read the inscription on the back.
New items kept arriving and will continue to arrive.
“We were just putting tons and tons of stuff in backpacks,” said Ashley Walkner, who dropped off items Thursday at the community center after volunteering in the impacted areas Wednesday. “We found like insurance cards and driver’s licenses and just random things in piles. We were trying to collect all that we could. If it seemed personal, we just tried to keep it.
“This isn’t like litter pickup. These are people’s lives. These are homes.”
A few moments before Pitts arrived, Deann Alred scanned the table and exclaimed, “That’s Todd’s Camaro! I’ll be darned!”
She secured two photos of a red car that had belonged to Todd Koehler. He died in the tornado alongside his wife Sue.
“His house took a direct hit. There’s nothing but slab left,” said Alred.
Alred’s brother had been close friends for 40 years with Todd.
“That (car) was his pride and joy. Isn’t that crazy? Here’s what’s left of it,” she added, holding up a cellphone shot of the same Camaro, badly dented and mashed by debris in the hood and windshield.
“I’m glad I stopped,” she said. “That about made me cry.”
Dominick Cheers, a volunteer working behind the table, smiled.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said.