In a decade and a half of broadcasting, there are only a handful of people whose words stick in my head year after year. Bonitta Hammett is one of those people and I won’t ever forget her story.
While working for KLTV in Tyler, Texas in 2002, my colleague Morgan Palmer and I made a two-day trek to Central Texas to document the fifth anniversary of the Jarrell, Texas F-5 Tornado. We got to the town of 1,000 and stopped at a diner along the frontage road on I-35. Our News Director at the time often found news stories by overhearing what the “old timers” were talking about at the local diners. Feeling like outsiders, we went in and started asking folks for their memories. Everyone was so friendly to offer their story. After listening for a while, it became clear that the people there didn’t see us as outsiders at all. Someone said “You need to talk to the Hammett family.” Being such a small town, it was easy to get their phone number. We gave it a call and scheduled an interview for the afternoon. In the hours before the interview, Morgan and I walked down to the spot where whole houses were taken down to their slabs. It was really hard to understand. Even to this day, if I didn’t walk those streets, I wouldn’t get it. The Asphalt street in one neighborhood was ripped up by the tornado, leaving only a dirt path. We found the memorial and playground, erected on the site of where the tornado did the most damage. I remember spinning 360°, looking for some sort of debris leftover after five years. Sure enough, on the edge of a field, I spotted an engine stuck in a tree.
While I was in charge of telling the weather story behind Jarrell, Morgan focused on the people involved. Bonitta was a child when we sat down with her in 2002 but she spoke as if she was an adult and the tornado happened yesterday. Her house was flattened during the tornado while she and her mom took refuge in the bathtub. After it ended, the bathroom door wouldn’t open so they had to escape through the window. On the other side of the bathroom door was nothing. The car in their garage was never found and only pieces of the engine block were recovered weeks later.
Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of the tornado that killed more than two dozen people in this very small town. The tornado formed to the northeast and moved to the southwest…completely opposite of the direction of most tornadoes. One of the folks in the diner told me that when some people at the factory caught a glimpse of the funnel, they went to see if the tornado had hit their homes. Little did they know the tornado was moving into town, and not moving away. Those people ended up directly in the path and died.
I wonder what Bonitta Hammett’s life is like today. For being such an adult back then, I’m optimistic she turned out alright. It’s odd to think that she’s in her 20s now, especially since she doesn’t age in my memory.
Posted under tornado
This post was written by qni_it on May 28, 2014