Veteran family of five recounts clinging to toilet when F4 tornado rips through home

During the early morning hours of March 3rd, an EF 4 tornado slammed through the rural, tight-knit community of Cookeville, Tennessee, reducing neighborhoods to nothing more than piles of rubble. Many families faced total destruction, and tragically some lost loved ones to the monster cyclone. There was little to no warning of the impending storm.

Not long after, the nation turned their attention to the Covid-19 crisis, leaving the community feeling vulnerable.

As the people of Cookeville continue to clean up and rebuild, even months later, one local couple, Charles and Tamara Williams, and their three children, are grateful to be alive. Charles, a combat veteran, who served overseas for three tours, was wounded and almost lost his life after the Humvee he was riding in was hit by enemy forces.

A family of faith, grateful for one another, says they thank God for sparing Charles’ life while he was overseas serving, as well as their lives the night the tornado hit. 

“I have no doubt that God had the palm of His hand over my family in the wee hours of that morning.”

Tamara brings us back to that night with great detail.

“We were upstairs with two of our children. Emma had fallen asleep with her door locked and Charles had to break her door down to drag her out. I remember literally dragging my son, Luke down the stairs as fast as I could move. The lights began to flicker and the house was shaking. It was so close…we had only seconds.”

In what sounds like a scene straight out of the 90’s action thriller, Twister, Tamara went on to explain that she popped the kennel doors for their yorkie, Lexie, so that she could run to safety. Their daughter, Kaitlynn came out of her downstairs bedroom when she heard the frantic commotion.

“I tossed Luke and Emma into the bathtub and squeezed Kaitlynn in between the toilet and the bathtub. My legs were wrapped around Kaitlynn in any way they could be and my upper body was over Luke and Emma. It went dark and the loud roar was closer than ever before. Charles leapt over top of us just as the back side of the house blew in.”

Luke, vulnerable to the strong winds, was lifted from the ground and Tamara remembers so vividly his little nails digging deep into her arms as he hung on tightly. With Charles working to keep him grounded, she remembers thinking that if one of them was going up, they all were going together.

“Emma was praying, and then it all went silent – a deafening silence. I remember looking up and that is when I realized we were in the eye of the storm. Things were flying all around us. I yelled for the kids to cover their heads, but it was like I had no voice…I never heard myself yell. And just like that it was all gone.”

The family was the only thing that remained in the house – they say by “the grace of God”.

As one terror was finished, the next nightmare began: the outcries for help coming from neighbors. Tamara said that though she tried to reach 911 numerous times, the cell towers were out. She recounts walking through her neighborhood over wires, and limbs, to get her kids to a safer location.

“I’m standing in the middle of the road, dripping wet in my nightgown and covered in mud and blood,” she remembers. “As the sun came up, it really hit me that we had just lived through all of that.”

The family, now living in temporary housing, is working to get back what they say they desperately need and miss – a home. A GoFundMe was started on their behalf with loved ones, even strangers, passionate about helping this veteran family rebuild.

“I am so blessed to have met this family,” says Neeka DeGraw. “I didn’t even know Charles or Tamara prior to this, only through their sister, who I work with.”

Neeka DeGraw pictured with Charles and Tamara Williams

Neeka, from Franklin TN, organized the GoFundMe page. She says once word got out of the devastation that impacted not just the Williams family, but the entire Cookeville community, do-gooders from all over Tennessee rallied to bring clothing, food, other supplies, even funds for temporary hotel stays.

“I drove to the site personally to see it myself and I ended up walking around the neighborhood. It was close to home for me and it really weighed on my heart.”

Neeka and others are now on a mission to help in the rebuild process, and they are asking those who wish to help this family to consider donating directly to the GoFundMe goal. They are pushing to raise the full $5,000, plus more, to go directly to the funding needed for a new house.  

“Charles is as brave and humble as they come,” Neeka says. “He is a great hero of our country – now it’s time for us to step up for him just as he stepped up for each one of us.”

To visit the GoFundMe page to offer your support and make HOPE shine, click here.