Huntsville teacher still protecting students 30 years after deadly Airport Road tornado

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – For some, teaching is simply a profession. For others, it’s their passion. For Lynn McQueen, it may very well be her purpose.

McQueen is in her first year of teaching middle school science at Holy Spirit Catholic located along Airport Road in Huntsville.

“I’m loving every bit of it,” said McQueen.

This career, however, became her calling 30 years ago.

In the fall of 1989, McQueen, then Lynn Tanner, took a job working the extended-day program at Jones Valley Elementary School while finishing her teaching degree.

“And really to get my foot in the door, get to meet the teachers and that kind of stuff because getting a job in Huntsville City at that time was extremely hard,” she said.

She oversaw 26 second graders during those after-school hours. Just a few months into her new role, she had already grown to love her students.

“They were a lot of fun,” she said. “I just enjoyed it.”

Then came the afternoon of Wednesday, November 15.  An F-4 tornado slammed into the school along Garth Road reducing the building to rubble. In the hours after the storm, McQueen spoke to a WHNT News 19 reporter.

“I grabbed as many children as I could and pushed them in the closet,” she said in 1989. “Dirt, glass, everything was coming, we had no idea the tornado was coming. After it hit, after it was over, I lined the children up and sent them down here. We do not know how many children are out and we do not know how many children are still left in. I think there were about 30 or 40 children still at extended day.”

“We could have lost everybody.”

Three decades later, McQueen vividly recalls every detail of that day.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been thirty years since it happened, but those minutes waiting to make sure all those kids were out, seemed like a lifetime,” she said.

Tara Alt, Penny Cato, Mary Jean Levasseur and Torre-Ann Owens were the only other teachers still inside the school when the tornado hit, along with custodians Annette Ellison and Robert Langham and painters Roy Campbell, Curtis Clemons, Bryant Duke, Billy Dupree, Larry Ferguson, James Justice, and Isaiah Wilson.

Together, those 14 adults and 37 students survived. Ultimately, McQueen knows why she was placed at that school for that job.

“To take care of those kids,” she said.

Before her time at Jones Valley Elementary, McQueen worked as an emergency medical technician, training that proved to be invaluable on that day.

“It was crazy,” she said. “It’s one of those events that you just act. You do what you have to do in that situation and that’s what we all did. All the teachers that were there, there were five of us and then the two custodians and painters. We just acted. And if the kids had not listened and followed instructions as well as they did, it would have been a different situation.”

Time has passed, but McQueen continues to think about that day often and the miracle she witnessed.

“We could have lost everybody,” she said.

The only other school devastated by the tornado on that day was Holy Spirit Catholic. After five years in retirement from the Huntsville City School System, McQueen is back in the classroom at Holy Spirit teaching many of the same lessons she first learned 30 years ago.

“I try to incorporate severe weather into my classes now,” she said. “I let my students know that they don’t need to be afraid of tornados, they need to respect them and understand them. We spend a lot of time talking about catastrophic events in the sixth grade and from that day on, I just made it my goal.”

“I’ve got more children to teach.”

McQueen bolstered that lesson plan again in the last decade. Twenty-two years after her first direct hit, she and her family stared down another storm as an EF5 tornado barreled through her Anderson Hills home along Highway 53 in Madison County on April 27, 2011.

“My neighborhood was hit pretty badly,” she said. “We were one of the fortunate homes, that we got hit, but not as bad as others.”

Despite these encounters, Mother Nature cannot slow down McQueen because she has a purpose to fulfill.

“I’ve got more children to teach,” she said.

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