20th Anniversary Of Deadly Downtown Tornadoes Remembered

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It's been 20 years since downtown Nashville was rocked by tornadoes -- killing a student in Centennial Park, injuring dozens, and cutting a scar right through the heart of Music City.

PHOTOS: 1998 Nashville Tornado

The tornado touched down on the afternoon of April 16, 1998 near the intersection of Charlotte and 46th Avenues. From there, the storm moved through downtown, across the Cumberland and into East Nashville, Donelson, and Hermitage before petering out in Wilson County.

"It looks like a bomb went off."

The storm blew the windows out of buildings downtown and left residents shaken. It passed right by NewsChannel 5 studios; many of our current staff witnessed the destruction firsthand. At least one passerby was pulled inside the studio for safety, a young woman in tears. 

Our journalists came out of the studio to find many people still sitting in their cars, trembling and near catatonic in fear. One dazed witness told us it looked like a bomb hit downtown.

"Jesus took care of us and kept us safe."

The storm ripped the roof off the Grace M. Eaton Day Care center in North Nashville. NewsChannel5 was there as young children were brought out of the building crying. Incredibly, all 120 children were unhurt.

Deborah Eriamiatoe witnessed it all.  She told us later, "God took care of us. Jesus took care of us and kept us safe."

In East Nashville, several churches were damaged. The 139-year-old Tulip Street United Methodist Church was one sanctuary slammed by the storm. It lost an entire wall, but soon after the tornado lifted, a parishioner went to the bell tower and played "Amazing Grace" to soothe the ravaged neighborhood.

"He's our miracle"

Kevin Longinotti had a reputation as a fighter and an overachiever. The Vanderbilt ROTC member was admired and respected by his classmates and colleagues. He was in Centennial Park picnicking with other ROTC members when the storm hit. A falling tree left him badly wounded.

His family and friends said it was his fighting spirit that kept him alive for 17 days. He passed away, a "miracle" to his mother, a tragedy for our city. The 22-year-old was the storm's lone death.

"It never dawned on me that it would hit the station."

For newsroom veterans Chris Clark and Ron Howes, it was supposed to be just another day at work. A little stormy maybe, but nothing either man hadn't seen hundreds of times before. But April 16, 1998 would be very different.

"That was the moment we realized we were going to be part of the story."

The downtown tornado took NewsChannel 5 off the air and left the building with no power and no phones, knowing that the community would depend on their broadcasts to stay safe. With no other options, they headed to our transmitter tower to set up a temporary "studio" and beam that information directly in to people. For some time, the broadcast had no audio, so Chris Clark used a legal yellow pad to relay information to the screens of shaken families.

As one viewer would later tell Chris Clark, "I liked your coverage best because it looked like a real disaster."

Stay with NewsChannel5 as we bring you more of the incredible stories and amazing images of that day. We'll showcase some of our coverage from the year 1998 on the air and in our special section online: Trail of Tornadoes 20 Years Later.

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