Twister crushes church, not survivor's faith

YAZOO CITY, Miss. — Dale Thrasher — who miraculously survived a tornado that toppled the church around him — told his wife that the Lord was just not ready for him yet.

"He still has other work for me to do."

Sixty-year-old Thrasher — an 11-year member and lay leader of the small Missionary Baptist church in Yazoo City in west-central Mississippi — had come to the church to make some copies for a church business meeting scheduled the next day.

"My wife called me about 15 minutes before the tornado hit [April 24] to tell me it was heading for Yazoo City," Thrasher recounted. He looked outside, didn't see anything and returned to making his copies.

"A few minutes later, the building started to pop. I went back to the front door and all I could see was a black, swirling cloud. I believe it was the tornado and I was already in it."

Thrasher dashed for the church kitchen where he planned to get under a kitchen table for protection. "But as I passed the sanctuary, the doors were open and I felt the Lord leading me inside. I slid under the communion table. It was just like the Lord put his arms around me. The windows started to blow out."

In a surreal way, Thrasher said the sanctuary's cushioned, individual seats started rushing toward him along with the communion table.

"The building popped. Stuff started falling around me. Furniture started swirling around. I just covered my head and said, 'Lord, please save me.'"

Mercifully for Thrasher, it was all over in 30 seconds. Buried under two-by-fours, plywood, sheetrock and other debris, he looked up and saw the sky. He then knew Hillcrest Baptist Church — at least the physical facility was no more.

"Then I heard a spewing sound and I could smell natural gas," Thrasher said. "I knew the Lord had saved me from the tornado but now I didn't want to burn up in a fire." Kicking at the debris that confined him, he finally opened up a hole just big enough to squeeze out. All he had to show for 30 seconds in the teeth of an E-4 tornado was a few scratches, a nick on his forearm and carpet burns.

"Looking at it naturally, I should be dead. Spiritually, the Lord saved me so I could tell the folks what He did. It wasn't the table that saved me, it was the Lord. If I had gone to the kitchen, I'd be dead because there is nothing left of the kitchen -- no table, no stove, no refrigerator, no nothing. The Lord saved my soul in 1970. On Saturday, he saved my natural life to do some work for Him."

Prior to Saturday, Hillcrest's 90-plus members already had witnessed more than their share of trials and tribulations. The two-story, metal church building destroyed by the tornado was the replacement for a church that an arsonist burned to the ground 10 years ago.

"We are insured," Thrasher said. "Hopefully, it'll be enough to build a new church, although it may not be in the same place. We built back after the fire and were debt-free. The Lord blessed us then and He will bless us again."

About 40 members of the church gathered Sunday for a tear-filled outdoor worship service in bright sunshine and blue skies. A member — digging around in the remains of the sanctuary — picked up a soggy hymnal, already opened to a hymn which the congregation, standing in a circle, began to sing. The name of the hymn: "Till the Storm Passes By."

Fortunately, the Yazoo City home of Thrasher and Sherry, his wife of almost 43 years, was not damaged by the monster tornado, which crossed the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg and raked northeasterly across the state through Yazoo City to Durant to Starkville. Paralleling Interstate 55, the tornado blew numerous cars off the highway as its path turned northward.

But other residents in Yazoo City, a city of 14,000, and rural Choctaw County were not as fortunate. At least 10 people were killed by the tornado, hundreds injured and dozens of homes and businesses destroyed in those two hardest hit areas.

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