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‘It was the grace of God:’ Trees kept Phil Campbell pair from reaching shelter where family died

Taylor said she was able to make it through so much loss, pain and sorrow because her mom prepared her for it.

Posted: Apr 27, 2021 6:36 PM
Updated: Apr 27, 2021 6:39 PM

It’s a miracle the Phil Campbell tornado spared Heather Taylor on April 27, 2011.

She and her husband jumped in the car to get to her family’s homes on Wyatt Drive, where they thought they would be safer.

Heather Taylor

“It was the grace of God that we didn't make it because there was a tree on each side of the road and we couldn't get here, so we ran into one of the neighbors’ houses that we knew and rode the storm out,” Taylor said.

When they stepped outside, devastation surrounded them. Winds of 210 mph took Taylor’s mom, Patricia Gentry; her stepfather, Don; and many other family members.

“You don't picture that happening to your family. You see it on movies and things and the news but you never picture it happening to you and your family,” Taylor said.

Taylor said she was able to make it through so much loss, pain and sorrow because her mom prepared her for it.

“She was like I just feel like I'm going to be going home soon, and she talked about heaven a lot because she was a gospel singer but she never said that,” Taylor said.

The Easter holiday was celebrated the weekend before the tornadoes hit. Taylor said it provided one last beautiful memory with her loved ones.

“At the time my husband and I were praying for babies and she just started asking questions like, What are you going to name your kids? And she gave me little gifts for them and stuff like that. It's like she was preparing me,” said Taylor.

"Coming up on this anniversary makes me miss them more really. It makes me realize the years my kids have missed with them because they didn't get to see them or anything like that,” Taylor said.

Many families in Phil Campbell still wear the emotional scars of April 27th, and so do the first responders who worked tirelessly to help their neighbors and community.

"We just started pulling people out,” said Blue Springs Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mary Glass. “We would go to houses. Anybody that was there, we were taking everyone to the Phil Campbell rescue squad because that was the command point.”

Glass said there are things she saw on April 27, 2011, that she’ll never be able to talk about.

“We ran up on the deceased and we had to tag them, and we did that and that was hard,” she said.

“It was very hard. You just did the best you could because you knew there was still a lot of people out there.”

Volunteers didn’t stop working for weeks. At one point, Glass and a fellow firefighter heard crying and found an injured 5-year-old in a tree.

That child lost both parents that day. Glass lost family members, too.

She said it was hard to process her own grief while surrounded by so much loss.

“I said I know this is bad, but we can't be crying we've got to help,” Glass said.

“And they said no you don't understand Mikey and Kelly have been killed. At the time it just didn't settle in with me because there was so much devastation and one of them grabbed me and shook me and said do you realize who I'm telling you just got killed?

“And he said Mary your cousin and I just started crying.”

Glass said only the people who lived through that day will understand how devastating it was.

“As first responders we’re human, too, and usually when you’re helping people in your community you know them all,” she said.

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