Science

Returning to Cookeville, Tennessee, after a deadly tornado – and finding unshakeable faith

It was in the morning of March 3, 2020, when the lives of Pastor Rodney Pitts and his wife, Tricia, changed forever. Their daughter, Erin Kimberlin, and son-in-law, Josh, were killed along with their 2-year-old grandson, Sawyer.

Sixteen others were killed that day when a Tornado tore through Cookeville, Tennessee.

Rodney said that since then, he’s not the person he used to be—”that’s for sure.”

“You preach about how life is a vapor, that it’s just come and gone, and you tell people all along how fragile and uncertain it is,” he said. “Now I know it is.”

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Josh and Erin Kimberlin with their son, Sawyer.

CBS News


Many Tennesseans were asleep in their beds when the EF-4 tornado blasted through with 175-mph winds and destroyed 170 houses. CBS News was on the ground in the city in the wake of the storm — and returned last month to check in on those who lost loved ones.

“There was just big, tall piles of just rubble everywhere,” Rodney said. “And it was the oddest thing. There was no grass, it actually, it pulled the grass up, and I just remember Tricia kept saying, ‘There’s nothing here. There’s nothing left.'”

“And in your mind you’re thinking, ‘Well, they’re somewhere,'” he said, referring to his deceased family.

Erin was alive at the hospital while Tricia and Rodney were there, but because the doctor didn’t know her identity, the parents didn’t find out who she was until it was too late, and they didn’t get to see her alive .

Nearly three years later, a living memorial—a park—stands in the place where the Kimberlin’s home stood before it was ripped from its foundation.

“This was an area where Sawyer played a lot. And they’ve made just a beautiful park out of that to kind of make it a happy place for the kids,” Rodney said. “We can come out and smile.”

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CBS News


The community also built a memorial garden for the five children who died: Sawyer, Hattie Jo Collins, Dawson Curtis, Bridgett Ann-Marie McCormick Phillips and Harlan Marsh. They also planted trees for all 19 people who died — including Leisha Rittenberry, who loved karaoke, and Sue and Todd Kohler, who married in 2017. Amanda Cole was the live-in nanny for the Curtis family and she died along with Terry Curtis and his son, Dawson.

Kim Cantley, the mother of Josh Kimberlin, said there’s a lot of tragedy in the story of March 3, “but there’s a lot of beauty, too.”

“They would have never made it, you know, [if] one made it and the other didn’t,” she said. “God took them together.”

She said now, “because of their faith, because of God’s word,” the family is “doing good.”

“It gives us hope,” she said. “Death is something we’ll all experience, but it’s not the end. It’s not the end. And so I know, I know I’ll see them again.”

The family found Josh’s Bible after he died, and there were words written into the front cover in Josh’s handwriting. That’s what they inscribed on his grave. It said, “I cannot change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

Erin and Sawyer are buried together and Josh is buried beside them. A photo of the family can be found at the gravesite—to tell the story of the family.

But how do surviving family members deal with the unbearable pain? With unshakeable faith.

“God’s been very good to use to give us everything we’ve needed through this process,” said Tricia Pitts.

“And he’s put up with me,” Rodney Pitts said, referring to God, and laughing.

The Cookeville relief fund raised $2.3 million. So many people donated that Venmo couldn’t handle the demand. In addition, 6,000–7,000 volunteers showed up on the first day after the storm, shutting down two state highways.

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