Historic Church leveled in Hancock County deadly tornado

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News 12 at 6 o'clock, February 19, 2009

CULLVERTON COMMUNITY, HANCOCK CO. -- A powerful and deadly tornado hit Hancock County Wednesday night. The National Weather Service says it was an EF3 tornado with 140 mile per hour winds that killed Hancock County Employee Johnny Frank Baker.

The tornado touched down on Hickory Grove Road off Highway 16 near Sparta.

As News 12's Lynnsey Gardner found, the twister not only destroyed lives and homes, it also took a piece of history.

The Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church was 143 years old. Rev. Michael Curry says the church had recently undergone a massive restoration and renovation project estimated near $300,000. The project was completed the January, and within a few weeks, a tornado destroyed it in a matter of minutes.

Rev. Curry looked was in a state of shock while surveying the damage. His church, a historic place of worship, now the picture of disaster. "I just can't think what would've happened if we were all here last night." Rev. Curry says at the last minute, he canceled Wednesday night's bible study because of the storm.

The tornado destroyed the building, leaving a pile of rubble where it once stood. A concrete vault was even uprooted from behind the church after a tree beneath it fell to the ground in the storm."Just wonder why, but I know it's not good to question God." adds Rev. Curry.

Also gone in the storm, a faithful member of the congregation and neighbor of the church, Johnny Frank Baker. Rev. Curry, "His grandchildren and daughters loved him very much, and so did we."

The tornado blew Baker's mobile home off the foundation and across the street, with the family inside. Baker's body was found in the roadway, still clutching his pillow. Investigators believe he was sleeping when the storm hit. His daughter and her two children, a boy and a girl, were found in the rubble across the street.

Charles Allen found them. "I heard a child crying for help. The baby, he was in pretty bad shape, he kept going in and out. He'd wake up, then he'd go in and out." All three were transported to Atlanta hospitals with major and minor injuries.

Charles says Baker's death is hard. "I just went to pieces when I saw him. I just turned around and went back to my truck because him and me were real close, he was like a brother. He and me stay about a half mile apart."

And Rev. Curry promises a church that has seen three centuries, will see another day. "I want my congregation to know out of this tragedy, we will triumph."

Rev. Curry says his congregation has about 250 members. On Thursday night they had planned to meet at a nearby church, Victory Baptist Church, to discuss their plans to move forward, starting with this Sunday's service.

Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church did have insurance and plans to rebuild.

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