HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – On November 15 ,1989, an F-4 tornado ripped through south Huntsville resulting in 21 deaths.
More than half the people killed that day were in a vehicle, running routine errands near Airport Road, like going to the grocery store or traveling home from work. A simple scheduled task is what put the Chen family on the road that fateful day.
Karen Chen Hawkins said her little brother, Godwin, was always full of energy.
“He really just had that joy,” she said, “that exuberance for life.”
Despite their five-year age difference, the two often bonded over typical kid fun, like fort-building and sports. Godwin also always wanted to go where ever his big sister went.
“Younger siblings just want to be a part of whatever you’re doing,” said Karen.
On the afternoon of November 15, 1989, when it was time to go to Karen’s piano lesson, seven-year-old Godwin came, too. The family drove north on Whitesburg Drive, not knowing the weather had turned violent. As they neared the intersection at Airport Road, the tornado came tearing through it tossing their car from the street.
“My dad was in the front seat,” she said. “He had his seatbelt on, so he was still in there, but my brother and I did not, so he was thrown out of the vehicle. My dad suffered some broken ribs and he said he had to get out of the car and look for us.”
When Karen’s father found Godwin among the rubble, she said he was awake with no visible signs of trauma. When her father found her, she was unconscious with brain swelling and several broken bones.
Both children were rushed to Huntsville Hospital, but Godwin was just concerned about his big sister.
“He cared about me a lot and he was concerned about me,” she said. “Even in the hospital, he was asking how I was doing because they had to take me to a different area.”
Before the sun rose the next morning, Godwin died from internal injuries. Karen remained in a coma for 23 days, unable to attend her brother’s funeral.
“My brother was really happy, very joyful,” she said. “When he passed, I think the next year, when I was able to process it, I asked God to give me his joy, so that I could just be able to carry it on and have it doubled in my life.”
Thirty years after the loss of her brother, Karen is married with four children of her own.
“I always make sure that they know that I love them because you don’t always get that,” she said. “You don’t always know when it’s going to be the last time.”
Three decades later, Karen knows Godwin understood her love for him, too.
“I think we did it more through action,” she said.
In addition to Godwin’s joy, Karen also carries gratitude with her. As her body continued to heal in the weeks and months following the storm, both loved ones and strangers showered her and her family with cars, gifts and support.
“We were not left just set aside and to grieve on our own, but people were really there for us through the whole process,” she said.
Three decades later, she still has many of those cards and gifts and she continues to cherish them along with the memory of her brother.
“I wish I could just really find these people, just to find them and say thank you,” she said. “And I think God gives us a story that if we suppress it or deny, we will never be fully complete until we let that full story come out. And so it’s been really a healing journey.”