Storm story: John Titlow recalls the night a tornado ripped through his community
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Sirens were blowing, clouds spat rain / and as the thing went through, I swear it sounded like a train …” – Drive-By Truckers, “Tornadoes”
As dawn broke over Greenback on Thursday, March 24, local musician John Titlow surveyed the wreckage to his community and thanked God.
To be sure, the little town on the Blount and Loudon county lines was devastated. Thirty six homes were destroyed, and the 160 mph winds of the F-3 twister had destroyed property beyond recognition.
“All we had was some minor side-wind damage,” Titlow said of his own home. “The ladder to my daughter’s swingset, treehouse thing was gone, and there was a piece of foam in the backyard, and at the corner of the property, a telephone pole was down. But major shock really set in when I got out to see the damage everywhere else.
“My neighbor had built this privacy fence with 6-by-6 posts cemented into the ground, and it just ripped them out. Right near my house, there’s an acre of woods that looks like someone took a bush hog and tore the tops off of all the trees. Boats were ripped in half from (Viper Customs) boat factory; the trailers were sitting out on (Highway 411).
“It was a major shock to drive down the road and see everything demolished, to nothing but blue tarps on the roofs,” he added, growing quiet. “That’s how close I came to losing my family. Houses can be replaced, but family can’t.”
Still ... the cries of his children and the screams of his wife on that Wednesday night will likely haunt John Titlow until the end of his days. It’s a bizarre mix of helplessness and abject terror reliving it in conversation, remembering how he was 20 minutes away at a practice with his John Titlow Band players when he first got the warning on his phone.
When his friends turned on the television, local weather maps blanketed the Greenback area in red. That’s when he knew he needed to get home, and he wasted no time in gunning his wife’s Volkswagen Beetle to its limits, tearing down through the Six Mile community toward 411. Calling his wife, Kendra, he told her to turn on the news.
“The safest place in our house is the laundry room, so she got the kids (daughters Harley, 3, and Gretchen, 7 months) and went in there,” he said. “I was talking to her the whole way, and she said everything was dead still, that you could hear a pin drop on concrete because it was so quiet — not a bird, nothing.”
His father-in-law, Larry Boling, was staying with them at the time, and while Titlow raced toward 411, Boling scanned the clouds from the back porch. Although the calm before the storm had settled across Blount County, by the time Titlow reached the Walmart on 411, the rain and hail started pounding his wife’s little car.
On the other end of the phone call, he heard hell descend from the skies.
“My father-in-law saw the funnel cloud develop behind (David) ‘Tex’ Hill’s house; every time the lightning would strike, he said he could see it,” Titlow said. “My wife said, ‘Here comes the hail and rain,’ before my father-in-law could get the door shut, she said, ‘Here comes the wind!’ He said it almost sucked him out of the house. And then the tornado sirens started going off.
“My father-in-law said you always hear that it sounds like a train, but he said it was louder than any train he’d ever heard. He said that in all of his 57 years, he’d never seen or heard of anything of that magnitude. He said when it crossed 411, every transformer on every telephone pole blew up and that it looked like the Fourth of July.
“He got inside and turned the loveseat over on himself, and I was still talking to my wife while it was all happening,” he added. “She was screaming, the babies were crying ...”
... and the phone call abruptly ended.
Desperately punching redial, Titlow passed Springview Baptist Church and Countryside Market on 411 when the storm halted his progress. A tractor-trailer was fishtailing in the oncoming lane, flashing its lights and honking its horn, and the winds were rattling the Beetle with such fury that it felt like it was about to be lifted off the road, he said.
Turning the car around, he called his parents, his terror mounting — especially when emergency vehicles passed him, headed toward Greenback. The elder Titlows met him at the Food City in Maryville, and with the worst of the storm past, they ventured toward Greenback once again.
By the time he reached Law’s Brickmill Market and Deli, his mind on the verge of giving in to panic, his phone rang. It was Kendra, telling him his family was OK. He got the call about the same time he crested the hill to see his community awash in the glow of flashing lights.
“I was crying — just devastated,” Titlow said. “I was just overwhelmed with thanking God, literally. And at the time, I hadn’t seen the damage yet — I was just thinking it may have knocked a few power lines over.”
He was wrong.
It would take him two hours to get a few hundred yards to his home off Elbert Lane. Law enforcement turned him away from a direct approach because a doublewide trailer was sitting in the middle of the road. After doubling back, he burst through the door and swept up his family, holding them in the dark until power was restored between 4 and 5 a.m.
It’s a nightmare he hopes to never repeat — but every time the skies grow angry, as they did earlier this week, a little bit of that terror returns.
“My 3-year-old, she was terrified when the sirens went off again (on Monday night),” he said. “That fear, it’s scarred her.”
As it has the rest of Greenback — which is why he and other musicians are coming together on Saturday to perform at the high school. The concert will raise money for victims of the tornado, families that went through much worse than the Titlows and weren’t nearly as fortunate in its aftermath.
“I didn’t get touched compared to everybody, so I was immediately wanting to do anything possible, to do what I could do,” he said. “The main thing is just how lucky I was and how thankful I was — for my family and my town. The Greenback community might be one of the smaller communities, but when it comes to ‘family,’ everyone in the town will do anything for one another. And that’s the strongest thing. That support is what’s going to get us through this.”