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Mildred’s wild ride: Escaping SUV caught in Columbus tornado

March 2, 2019
Downed telephone poles on 15th Street in Columbus, Miss., Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, following Saturday's tornado. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — As much as she likes the fish sandwich at Skeet’s Hot Dogs, Mildred Brooks admits it wasn’t worth the trouble early evening on Saturday, Feb. 23.

A short drive — only about a mile from her home to the restaurant — became Mildred’s Wild Ride and a part of the folklore of the Columbus Tornado, an EF-3 twister that ripped through the city shortly after 5 p.m.

“It was just a normal Saturday, running errands and things,” said Brooks, who lives with her husband, Jerrie, on Third Street North right next door to Mildred’s mom.

“We had been to Marvin’s that afternoon and bought a rug for the house, then I went over to Dollar General for a few things,” said Mildred, 55. “When I got back home I told Jerrie I was going over the Skeet’s to get a fish sandwich.”

Jerrie wasn’t sure that was such a good idea.

“Right when she was saying that, it came on TV that there was a tornado warning,” Jerrie said. “I told her maybe she shouldn’t go, but she said it was just down the road and she would be right back.”

“I was never afraid of storms like some people,” Mildred said. “Lightning scares me, but storms didn’t.”

So Mildred got into her Mercury Mountaineer and headed north on 14th Street, turned right on Seventh Avenue, left on Railroad Street and right again on 14th Avenue, pulling into the drive-through at Skeet’s as the sky darkened and the wind began to howl.

After placing her order, she moved to the carry-out window and paid for her food just as the county’s weather siren began its wail.

“That’s when I got scared,” she said. “I told the them, ‘Don’t worry about my food or giving me back my money. I’ve got to get out of here.’”

As she began to drive home, the rain began to fall in buckets. By the time she approached the intersection of Railroad Street and Seventh Avenue, the rain was blinding.

Surviving the storm

It was at that moment the tornado arrived at the same intersection.

Unable to see, she sat at the intersection, hoping the rain would let up, unaware that she was in the direct path of the storm.

“They always tell you that you hear the tornado,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything.”

But she did feel something: Her 4,000-pound SUV was moving back down Railroad St.

Mildred was terrified.

“I just laid over into the passenger seat, praying, just praying,” she said. “Then I heard, ‘pop, pop, pop’ and I realized it was the sound of my windows blowing out. I tried to push the door open but it wouldn’t budge. So I continued to pray. Then all the sudden the door just popped open.”

Mildred remembered something she once heard: If you were caught driving in a tornado, leave the vehicle get into the closest ditch or low area.

She took a look at the ditch between the street and the railroad track, but immediately ruled it out.

“I don’t know why, but I just knew if I got in that ditch, it would be my death,” she said.

As she left her car, she began to hear voices through the roar of the storm.

“I could hear people yelling for me to come to them, but I couldn’t see them,” she said. “So I just tried to walk in the direction I thought I heard their voices coming from.”

With the help of nearby residents, Mildred made it to a small house on Seventh Avenue, joining the others who watched from the porch as the storm barreled through the area on its path of destruction.

After the storm had passed, a couple offered her a ride home.

“I didn’t know any of the people,” she said. “I didn’t know the people who brought me to their house or the couple who brought me home. I didn’t even think to ask their names. I was in a state of shock.”

By the time she made it to her darkened home — electricity still hadn’t been restored by Monday evening — Mildred was alone. Jerrie and her father-in-law were out looking for her, returning a couple of hours later to find her safe.

A conversation piece

As Sunday morning arrived, bright and chilly, residents and the curious alike had descended on the streets where the damage was most severe.

There on Railroad Street, sitting at an odd angle in the road about 50 feet from the intersection, Mildred’s SUV had become a conversation piece. It looked as though someone had taken a sledge hammer to the vehicle and a 2-by-4, about the length of a house stud, had been driven through the front grill.

Mildred and Jerrie arrived on the scene to assess the damage. In the dark fury of the storm, Mildred had no idea how much damage her SUV had sustained.

“I just had to stand there and just look. It was hard to believe I was really in there,” she said. “That’s when the tears began. Then, when I walked over to the house where the people took me in, the tears really began to fall. I just wanted to thank them, tell them how grateful I was.”

Even as late as Monday, Mildred said she was trying to put together in her mind the whole event.

“I keep reliving it in my mind,” she said.

She said she wasn’t injured at all — not even a scratch or a bruise.

But she doesn’t wonder about that.

“I’m blessed to be here,” she said. “It’s by nothing but the grace of God that I’m here.”

Mildred never did get the fish sandwich she paid for last Saturday, but she plans to go back.

“On a sunny day,” she said.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com