As the thunder roared outside and the lights inside Chuck’s Dairy Bar began to blink, owner Tracy Harden realized the tornado conditions forecasted for her small Mississippi town Friday night were far more severe than she realized.
“Cooler!” yelled out Harden, and she, her husband and their employees scrambled into a giant gray metal box — normally used to keep the restaurant’s food refrigerated, but which that night saved nine lives in the shattered small town of Rolling Fork.
The tornado cut a trail of havoc more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) long across the southern US state, leaving 25 people dead and devastating damage in its wake.
As evening approached, it had been a little windy and rainy, Harden recounted, surveying the land where her business used to sit.
But the weather warning sirens hadn’t sounded, so “we really just didn’t worry about this much at all,” she told AFP.
Barbara Nell McReynolds-Pinkins — the cook at Chuck’s, affectionately known as Miss P — had just finished preparing an order of hamburger steak with fries and a salad when everything seemed to change.
“It was so scary,” the 52-year-old said, still trembling as she remembered the howling wind, flashes of lightening and pouring rain.
As the storm intensified, 48-year-old Harden said relatives began sending her messages, warning of an especially violent tornado headed her way.
“The lights flickered, and I screamed ‘Cooler!’,” Harden said. But before her husband was even able to reach the refrigerator’s door handle, the whole place was plunged into darkness.
– Ferocious wind –
Harden’s husband began to shove everyone inside the giant container.
“And I was calling everybody’s name to make sure we had everyone as they were coming to me,” Harden said, unable to contain her emotion as she remembered the scene.
The wind was so strong her husband almost lost his grip on the door, which they had to keep closed tight enough to protect them from the storm, but not so tight the group would get locked inside.
Then, “He said, ‘I see the sky,'” Harden recalled. “That meant that our roof was gone.”
For a long while — Harden and McReynolds-Pinkins could not estimate how long — the nine stayed huddled together inside the cooler, bumping up against the metal shelves stocked with milk and meat products.
The ferocious winds — up to 200 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service — buffeted and battered the cooler, the nine restaurant workers still inside.
“We’re screaming and crying and praying, and then all of a sudden it just stops,” Harden said.
But when her husband tried to open the door, it seemed stuck. They called 911 and started to scream, hoping someone would hear them.
That’s when the customer who had ordered Miss P’s steak came back.
– ‘God saved us’ –
The customer, who had broken his arm as the tornado raged overhead, “somehow cleared the debris from at the door,” Harden said. “He got it open, and he got us all out.”
The group was rescued, but the world outside the cooler was destroyed.
Buildings were smashed, some totally flattened. Two motels next door, also owned by Harden and her husband, were gone.
“God saved us” through Tracy Harden, according to McReynolds-Pinkins.
“I’ve always heard if you’re in a restaurant and there’s a cooler, get in the cooler, and that just came to my mind,” Harden said, tears streaming down her cheeks as she explained how she knew where to take shelter.
For Harden, it’s still too soon to think about insurance or plans for rebuilding — right now, that is “the least of our worries,” she said, more focused on the human impact of this disaster.
But “we will be back,” she promised, in the same spot as before.
And what of the now dented cooler?
“We’re gonna bronze it. We’re gonna make it beautiful!” she said, laughing.
“It saved our lives!”