Davidson County residents still cleaning up after fatal tornado

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 11, 2011

LEXINGTON — The randomness of it all is what troubles you.
Why did a renegade tornado decide to lift this particular house off its foundation and send it crashing down a hill, while merely brushing the houses on either side?
“I’ve sat around and thought about that,” Steve Shaw says. “I’ve seen other houses around the neighborhood, how it skipped around.”
He pauses.
“It’s hard to look at.”
Shaw has returned to Meadow Run Lane four times since the Nov. 16 tornado that claimed the lives of his wife, Janice, and their 3-year-old granddaughter, Azlyn.
A track hoe, trying to clear some of the debris, already has made a few passes through the home site. Though mangled, some things are still recognizable, such as the bathtub, a water heater, window screens and the tire from a child’s tricycle.
A few pieces of clothing and a tablecloth still cling to the high, bare branches of nearby trees that survived. The tornado snapped other trees in the bottomland behind the Shaws’ destroyed home like matchsticks.
A tree trunk carries scars from where it had stopped Janice Shaw’s van in the tornado’s 135 mph winds. The used van, which Steve had bought three weeks before the tornado so Janice could cart around all the grandchildren, was a total loss, too.
Across the street, before it reached the Shaws’ residence, the tornado lifted another house off its foundation, turned it sideways and plopped it down again. All evidence of that house — except for scattered debris in nearby woods — has been cleared away by heavy equipment.
Meadow Run Lane used to have eight houses. Now it has six.
“It still doesn’t seem real,” says Shelby York, Janice Shaw’s sister.
• • •
Since the tragedy, strangers have walked up to Steve Shaw and given him a hug. Or they’ve pressed checks into his hand.
He can’t count the places where people have fed him and his family for free. So many churches, from all over Davidson County, have held fundraisers, and a “Shaw Family Benefit Fund” has been accepting donations through the Bank of North Carolina.
“I’m so grateful from the bottom of my heart,” Shaw says.
Meadow Run Lane — a rutted, dirt road — has attracted many spectators since the storm. At times, they have rolled down the windows to their cars, called over Shaw’s old neighbors, handed them money and asked them to see that Shaw received it.
“It’s unbelievable what they’ve done,” Shaw says of everybody who has helped. “The prayers we got and the donations they’ve sent us helped a whole lot for the funerals.”
Shaw carried no renter’s insurance. And there was no life insurance. A day after the storm, he returned to the site and with a lot of help from his son-in-law, Chris Cottle, the family was able to salvage some clothing, many pictures, jewelry that belonged to Janice and even a few Christmas toys she already had bought for her grandchildren.
Peggy Shaw — Azlyn’s mother — has leaned on family and friends since the tornado. She has yet to return to her job at Dollar General.
Steve Shaw went back to his shift at PPG the Friday after Thanksgiving. He longed to return to a routine and told his boss he wanted to give it a try.
“The more I talk about it, the better,” Shaw says. “I don’t want to hold nothing back.”
He pauses a second time.
“I have my moments when I start thinking about it again,” Shaw says.
• • •
Over 20 minutes, from 6:05 p.m. to 6:25 p.m., the tornado stayed on or near the ground. According to the National Weather Service, it covered 12.5 miles over Davidson and Randolph counties, was 200 yards at its widest and had winds ranging from 95 to 135 mph.
It destroyed 25 homes and five businesses, damaged 60 others and caused upwards of $20 million in damage. Janice Shaw and her little granddaughter were the only fatalities.
Kim Kernstine pulled into Meadow Run Lane last Friday on his way to his daughter’s house near the end of the dead-end road.
On Nov. 16, when the tornado was approaching, Kernstine’s daughter was on the phone with his wife. A native of Texas, he grew up knowing the sounds of tornado sirens.
“I’ve seen what they could do,” Kernstine adds. He and his wife, only 7 minutes from their daughter’s house, ran to his car and sped toward Meadow Run Lane.
They arrived before any emergency vehicles. As they passed the Shaws’ property, Kernstine recalls, “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Where’s that house?’”
His daughter’s house, just down the hill from the Shaws, only had some roof damage.
• • •
Noel Byerly’s son called her that day while he was tracking the tornado’s path on television.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s headed right for you,’” she says.
Look out Byerly’s back door — her house faces Old Burkhart Road — and you can see the spot on the hill where the Shaws once lived.
On this day, workers from Denton are hammering down a new roof on her house.
During the tornado, Byerly, her husband and their dachsund, Camo, sought shelter in the bathroom. Byerly and Camo hunkered down in the bathtub.
“It was so loud, you couldn’t hear anything,” Byerly says.
Outside, the storm flattened their chain-link fence in back, knocked down a tree and raised their roof, causing ceilings inside to crack and leak.
But Byerly knows she was lucky.
“This is just superficial compared to that kind of loss,” she says of the Shaws. “It’s hard for us to take it all in.”
Byerly praises the youth group from Beck’s Reform Church who helped her family and others clean up much of the debris after the tornado.
While people were combing the yards and fields, Byerly’s granddaughter found Janice Shaw’s pocketbook and wallet. She says they will keep looking for things the Shaws might want to have.
• • •
Peggy and Azlyn lived with Janice and Steve Shaw at the Meadow Run Lane house.
On Nov. 16, Peggy left for her Dollar General evening shift, which started at 5 p.m. Shaw’s other daughter, Christina Cottle, stopped by the Shaw’s house late in the afternoon to pick up her daughter Chirstin.
Steve Shaw had headed for work early that morning before anyone else was awake.
Driving home that evening, Steve had no clue a tornado already had wiped out his house, pinned Janice in the wreckage and tossed Azlyn who knew where.
As he drove, someone on the radio was joking about what Mother Nature seemed to have in store for the area that night.
Janice already had been taken to the hospital by the time he reached what used to be his home. She died there before he would see her.
Steve let the rescue workers know they should also be hunting for Azlyn, whose little body was found about 10 minutes later some 25 yards away from the home site.
The Southmont Fire Department marked the spot with an American flag Shaw had once brought home from PPG.
“I have that flag — it’s bagged up and dirty,” Shaw says.
He’s thinking about taking it to the fire station one day and asking all the Southmont firefighters to sign it.
• • •
Some days after the tornado, Shaw paid a visit to a fellow PPG employee whose house down the road also had been destroyed.
The man and his wife had only seconds to reach the basement of their home before the tornado struck.
“I wanted to hear what it was like,” Shaw says, longing for a sense of what his wife and granddaughter must have endured.
His friend described how the garage seemed to breathe in and out before it exploded, how the winds threw his wife to the ground and how the house seemed to fall on top of him.
Shaw, 48, has been working at PPG for 28 years and is back on his 12-hour shifts. He and Janice had lived on Meadow Run Lane for six years, and they had been married for 26.
Since the tragedy, Steve and Peggy have been living in Lexington with Christina’s family. They have tried to help with Christina’s three children.
Janice had filled that role before, keeping the kids at times and taking them to and from school.
Now she and Azlyn are gone, and you still can’t escape the randomness of it all.
“You see it on TV all the time, and you never pay attention until it happens to you,” Shaw says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.