November 15th, 1989: Gone but never forgotten

The Story
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - November 15, 1989, marks the 30th anniversary of one of Huntsville's deadliest days. An F-4 tornado wedged its way down Airport Road, rolling over two mountains before ending on Dug Hill Road. 19 families lost loved ones that day. One of those was the McCord family.

Walking down the sidewalk in front of the old Huntsville Hospital Emergency Entrance, Robbin McCord pointed to some doors and said, “That's where the patients that were ambulatory came in.” Robbin was the director of the hospital’s emergency room for 11 of the 30 years he worked there.

He remembers November 15th, 1989 as one of the worst days of his career. Sitting in a trauma treatment room, Robbin told me, “We knew things were happening and it might not be a good day.” The first patient arrived in a Huntsville Police Department patrol car.

“And it didn't stop,” Robbin said, “Kept coming in and coming in and we're talking with HEMSI, the police department and Crestwood. Everybody’s communicating and it's just not stopping.” The floodgates were open. “People just keep on coming so then you know, this is going to be bad,” he added.

“You've got physicians directing people, you've got charge nurses, what I assigned myself to do because somebody had to do it was taking bodies to the morgue,” Robbin told me, “People were trying to find loved ones that, they can't find them.” Robbin’s day was about to get worse.

His family couldn’t get in touch with Louise McCord. “My stepmother who was just like a mother to me,” Robbin said, “that's how much I loved her.” Louise worked at Goldbro Jewelry at Westbury Mall.

When Robbin heard the tornado made a direct hit on Airport Road, he called he said. “He said yeah, she's working so I haven't heard from her,” Robbin recalled, “Well, she probably just can't get to a phone.” The call never came.

Robbin sighed and said, “I kept coming up with reasons that she wouldn't contact him.” He was holding onto hope Louise was okay. “Oh certainly, certainly, cause you don't think your loved one is involved,” he said, “You want to say, no they're not. There's some reason she's not contacting us.”

A police officer told him to check the funeral home. “He said Robbin, you might want to go to Spry,” Robbin remembers, “I think she might be there.” That’s when it hit him that Louise was gone. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I didn't tell my dad.”

Robbin waited along with other families who were there to see if their loved ones had been brought there. When he went back, he looked at his stepmother’s hands hoping to identify her by her rings. But they were missing. “And then I looked at her clothing and I said, I think those are her clothes,” he remembered, “And then I finally accepted, that's her.”

Robbin drove to his dad’s house. “I had to break the news to him, and I called my brother and my sister up and told them,” he said, “You just don't think those things are going to happen to you, you just don't.”

A week or so later, an HPD officer knocked on their door. “He had known Louise. He had worked there as an off-duty policeman and he found her body and took her rings off,” Robbin said choking back tears, “because she'd always said she wants her granddaughters to get her rings.”

Today, Louise’s rings are family heirlooms that will be treasured forever. “She was a wonderful lady,” Robbin said, “She didn't have to treat me as her own child, but she did.”

There are so many heartbreaking stories of loss from that day. Robbin’s is just one of them. He adds the city is much better prepared now than it was 30 years ago to deal with a natural disaster. In 1989, Huntsville Hospital had two trauma rooms. Today, there are six trauma bays. Each can handle three patients at a time. And there are 82 treatment rooms in the ER.

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