Thursday, April 6, 2006
Dyersburg twister touches Marshall County family
By SUE WATSON
Lisa and Gary Hickman were watching the weather channels Sunday
night as were many Marshall County residents. Tornado watches were out for counties in Mississippi and from the Mid-South extending up into the Mid-West.
One report of damage in Dyersburg, Tenn., caught Gary Hickman’s attention.
“He recognized a place about a mile from Mammaw’s house,” said his wife Lisa, Monday. “He called his Mammaw’s house and knew she would answer. He called his dad’s cell phone and left a message on his voice mail.”
Already Gary Hickman had the first inkling his family was in trouble.
“So he called his Aunt Pat who sent her son Jeff to go over there,” Lisa Hickman said. “He, Jeff, called and said the house was gone.”
Gary and Rick Hickman of Holly Springs decided to drive to Dyersburg at around 9:30 p.m., despite the weather warnings and concerns of his wife Lisa, that the weather was too dangerous and they may not be permitted to go into the area devastated by twisters in Dyer County, Tenn.
“He said he’s got to go and the television said do not come to this area unless you have to,” Lisa Hickman said.
When Gary Hickman called Lisa he had arrived at the homesite of his grandmother, Estelle Hickman, and his dad, W.T. “Bill” Hickman.
“He said, ‘I’m standing on the porch steps, Lisa. There is nothing left,’ ” she said. “He said, ‘There are a thousand people up here searching.’ ”
It was 2 a.m. when Gary Hickman called Lisa next to report his father had been found behind one of three ponds near Mammaw’s house. The pond was the one farthest from the house, she said.
Search crews suspended their work sometime around 4 a.m. Monday morning and picked back up at daylight. There were four people unaccounted for in the Dyersburg area, Lisa Hickman said.
“Gary was absolutely devastated when daylight came,” Lisa Hickman said. “Both of us worked in Katrina. I worked giving out food stamps seven days in 100 degree heat under a tent. Gary went with Slayden Baptist Church.
“He said, ‘It looks just like Katrina.”
At daybreak the extent of the devastation wreaked by the overnight twister was a harsh reality.
Bill Hickman’s truck was found in a tree and his boat trailer was wrapped up and around in trees. The boat was missing. The house was gone. Trees were splintered for as far as the eye could see, Lisa Hickman said.
Gary Hickman found a lot of the family’s papers close to where his dad’s body was found, some of his dad’s silver coin collection and other papers. A mile or two away a couple found one of Mammaw’s photo albums.
Back in Holly Springs all the phones were buzzing all day at Lisa and Gary Hickman’s house. Friends called offering to help in any way they could. Members of Byhalia Methodist Church prayed for them.
Lisa Hickman told and retold and gave updates to callers on how the search and rescue for Mamma body was going.
He waited throughout the day at the ruins of where his Mammaw and father lived up on a hill while search and rescue teams continued their search for Mammaw. He said he didn’t want to be the one to find her body, Lisa Hickman said.
W.T. “Bill” Hickman, 66, retired from Covington Power Company four years ago. Mammaw would be 88 in August. Bill had worked 18 years for Northcentral Electric Power Association in Byhalia.
At retirement, Bill Hickman moved back to Dyer County to live with his aging mother and do the things he loved - raising cows and fishing, Lisa Hickman said.
“This house was his grandparent’s house, over 60 years old,” Lisa Hickman said. “Bill built a shop, fished, bought some cows and took care of her.”
The Hickman farm is located in the Mills Field community about 10 miles north of Dyersburg.
“That’s how Gary knew,” Lisa Hickman said. “He heard on the news it was the Mills Field community.”
In searching for Estelle Hickman Monday, rescue teams drained one of the ponds on the property. To their great astonishment, they found an SUV at the bottom of one of the ponds, Lisa Hickman said.
“Once they got that pond drained there was an SUV sitting there,” she said. “Nobody was in it.”
The tornado left a wake of destruction between three-quarters to two miles in width, Hickman said.
The Hickmans do not think Bill and Estelle Hickman had much advanced warning about the approach of the tornado.
“We figured they lost power and couldn’t see what was coming,” Lisa Hickman said. “Her house was on top of a hill where there are rolling hills and curving roads and lots of people.
“Gary said you could see forever, there is nothing there,” she said.
The large brick house across the road from Mammaw’s house sustained damage but there was some of it left. The house next door to Mammaw was gone blown away, too. But the house of one of Mammaw’s grandchildren living a few miles away was fine.
Bill Hickman’s dad had remodeled the old house and kept grape vines, grew tomatoes in barrels behind the shed and had his dog and cat.
“After the twister, horses and cows were lying dead, but three cows were roaming around the house without a scratch,” Lisa Hickman said.
She said the Hickmans were used to living under tornado warnings.
Jean Dunaway, former wife of Bill Hickman, said Bill loved the people of Byhalia and Holly Springs and was well known at Northcentral.
“That’s how everybody knew him,” Dunaway said.
She spent Monday with Lisa Hickman and family helping out with phone calls and waiting for news of Mammaw.
Lisa Hickman described Estelle Hickman as “a typical, petite, white-haired Mammaw who loved to feed her family, to sew and to bake.
“She made a coconut cake that would absolutely melt in your mouth,” Lisa Hickman said.
Estelle’s husband, “Big Daddy,” died in 1999, she said.
News of Mammaw came in at dusk Monday.
“They found her body in some brush a couple of hundred yards from where Bill was found,” Lisa Hickman said. “One of the volunteers found her body almost 24 hours later. Finding her had to be done before we could move on.”
Marshall County friends travelling to Dyersburg Monday to be with Gary Hickman included Tim and Wayne Cook, Harold Murphy and Scooter Dempsey.
The Hickman family expressed appreciation for all the calls and prayers during their 24-hour ordeal.
“Gary said it helped him so much to get calls from friends during the day-long search,” Lisa Hickman said. “He said, ‘you know who you are (who called). It was the calls that kept me going.’ ”
Lisa Hickman thanked all who called, had good thoughts or just prayed for them Monday.
“It’s such a horrific tragedy,” she said.
People are used to thinking that losing two in one storm is a thing that always happens to someone else’s family, she said.
“Now she knows how others feel at such a tragic loss,” she said.
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