Stats

Path length: 6 miles

Width:  150 yards

Fatalities:  1

Injuries:  7

Rating:  F4

County:  Williamson

Tornado Path

SPC coordinates:  Start: 35.92 / -86.90      End: 36.03 / -86.78

Corrected Coordinates based NWS Nashville’s path in their summary:

Start: 35.938606/-86.880495      End: 35.979535/-86.782001

Introduction

On the morning of Christmas Eve 1988, an isolated severe weather event unfolded in the Nashville suburbs of Franklin and Brentwood, TN. A fatal and violent tornado tore a 6-mile path through populated neighborhoods in the pre-dawn hours, killing one and injuring at least seven people. In less than ten minutes, the F4 caused millions of dollars in damage but left many families grateful for survival during the Christmas holiday. This twister was the only one recorded that day.

Summary

At around 6 AM CST, a vicious line of storms moved in the southern suburbs of Nashville, TN. The narrow funnel began in the Rebel Meadows neighborhood on the northwest side of Franklin, causing spotty but significant impairment to homes soon after touching down.

Like many other residents were doing that morning, James and Frances Lewis were waking up at their Rebel Meadows home on Chrisman Drive. Frances had just walked away from a window when the sudden roar hit, ripping the roof away. “It was about five minutes of 6 and I was fixin’ to get up,” James Lewis said in The Tennessean’s December 24, 1998 edition. “I heard a squawking and leaves and water were all over the bed.” Their house was severely damaged, but the Lewises were uninjured.

A badly damaged home in the Rebel Meadows subdivision of northwest Franklin. Photo from the December 1988 Storm Data publication and taken by Michael Clancy from The Review Appeal, Franklin, Tennessee.

The twister continued east-northeast across Hillsboro Road and rapidly strengthened as it approached another residential area. The violent funnel was on a collision course for the corner of Spencer Creek Road and Gray Fox Lane, where the home of the Rice family was located.

“If they tell you to take cover, take cover. Because it hits you so quick, everything can be gone in seconds. In seconds, you can be killed. In seconds, it takes everything away.”

Ernest Rice and his wife Ann were hosting eight relatives over the Christmas holiday, with some traveling from as far as Texas. However, this reunion was filled with mourning during a time typically reserved for happiness. After a courageous battle with lung cancer, Ernest and Ann’s oldest daughter, Melinda McLean, had passed away on December 21 at the age of 42. Her funeral was held on the eve of the twister.

The Rice home was winding down after a long, emotional day. Ernest, a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post commander in Brentwood, called a fellow comrade to express his gratitude for the organization’s support through his family’s loss. Ann remembered closing the day with Ernest by reading letters Melinda had written to them. “We were celebrating her life and laughing,” Ann said in The Tennessean’s December 24, 1998 edition. As everyone drifted to sleep, Ernest and Ann exchanged “I love you,” one final time.

Early the following morning, the frightening storm awakened some family members. “We thought it was starting to hail,” the Rice’s son-in-law, Victor McMillan, recalled in The Tennessean on December 26, 1988. He, his wife Melissa, and their one-year-old son stayed at the Rice’s for Melinda’s funeral. “I looked through the window shade and there were two very intense lights. My speculation is that the [electric] wires were snapping.” Suddenly, the tornado hit. “The roof opened up – I had just put my child in between us – then the wall started coming toward us. I straddled him and then I was blown up in the air,” Victor continued. The ferocious winds blew them out of the house onto the gravel driveway, but they were miraculously uninjured. Upstairs, Ann had a similar wake-up. “The next thing I knew, the floor dropped and the house was on top of me,” she said in the 1998 paper. “Wall boards, wires and everything was dangling around me.”

“There was no warning or anything. This happened within seconds. It was just a terrifying, awesome experience,” Victor told the December 26 paper. He pointed to a pile of debris amongst the rubble. “Wayne Sherfield [another family member,] and I got our wives and kids out and we came back and Ann Rice was under some rubble right in here,” he said. Ann escaped death with only minor injuries when the roof collapsed. However, when she called for her husband, Ernest, he was unresponsive. “We went back in to get Ernest and he was already gone,” Victor said. Ernest was 67 years old. Those who were uninjured were able to uncover a dejected Ann from the rubble.

Another daughter of the Rices, Marilyn Sherfield, was miraculously the only other injured in the house. She and Ann were both quickly treated at Williamson Medical Center. When the dust settled, once again, they had to face the loss of a loved one.

“We’ve lost a real leader,” John Furgess, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs told the December 25, 1988 edition of The Tennessean. Ernest Rice was a World War II veteran who served as a B-17 bomber pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps in Germany. In 1983, he led the organization of Brentwood’s VFW post. Although Ernest slowed his role as a medical equipment salesman in his later years, he kept busy with the VFW. He was also vital in helping raise money for a VFW project called “Helping Hands,” which provided trained monkeys to people with quadriplegia.

The monkeys help with tasks for people with physical needs. Additionally, Ernest and his wife Ann were active Belmont United Methodist Church members, where they served for 35 years. “As a Vietnam veteran myself, it was a joy to see Ernest take hold of a service organization like the VFW and really run with the ball,” Furgess said. “He thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing and the comradeship he felt in the VFW. He was a real delight to work with, and to see the pain in his eyes yesterday [Friday] when he buried his daughter really hurt.” But through his pain, loved ones said to the paper that he “seemed to rise above the pain to be a source of strength for the rest of his family.”

Sometime after the tornado over the years, Williamson County officials changed the name of the road where the Rices lived to “Ernest Rice Lane.” “When the wind blows, the trees are bending, the rain is coming down, and there’s lightning and hail, you get a little frightened feeling,” Ann said ten years later in the 1998 paper. “Even though you keep telling yourself it’s not likely it’s going to hit you. I didn’t take it seriously before it hit our house. If they tell you to take cover, take cover. Because it hits you so quick, everything can be gone in seconds. In seconds, you can be killed. In seconds, it takes everything away.”

The leveled Rice family home (bottom left). Photo from The Tennessean and taken by Rick Musacchio.

Across Gray Fox Lane from the Rice home, the violent tornado heavily damaged the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The remaining interior walls were shifted half a foot off the foundation. The church’s gymnasium also had its roof collapse. Next, the twister sliced through Franklin Road, then Mallory Station Road, where destruction resumed.

“I’m glad that you’re talking to me instead of writing my obituary.”

“All I know is I got up to get myself a cup of coffee, but the power was off. I started back to the bedroom and heard two fast whistles [of wind] and that was it – I was blown off my feet. The next thing I remember [is that I] was on the floor,” Hardy Britton said in The Tennessean’s December 24, 1998 edition. The Hardy residence was hit squarely by the funnel, and shoved 30 feet off its foundation. “The house was virtually gone,” he continued. Mary, Hardy’s wife, was injured when she was thrown from their residence through a window. She was found 100 feet away in a field. “I knew I was in trouble when I passed my car in the air,” Mary said.

The Brittons lost everything. But Hardy, Mary, and their two daughters survived. “I’m glad that you’re talking to me instead of writing my obituary,” Hardy said. The Brittons rebuilt their home on the same property within five months and were still living there as of 1998. But the trauma of the storm lived on. “I’ll never forget it,” Hardy proclaimed. “I was scared to death.”

Across the street from the Brittons lived Frank and Betty White. Aside from their brick residence, they owned a unique private antique aircraft park. The twister swiftly grazed their house, causing some damage. “It was just like a train going through the house, a lot of wind and it was whistling real loud and glass was flying everywhere,” Betty White said to The Tennessean’s December 24, 1998 publication. The Whites and their two sons emerged physically unscathed. However, the nearby airpark suffered far worse, where six antique aircraft and the structures that housed them were destroyed.

Past Mallary Station Road, the narrow tornado churned to the Brentwood Pointe Condos, where 13 units were damaged. The business district along General George Patton Drive and Moores Lane was next. It was here where the destruction was most dense. Miraculously, only one person was injured along this stretch of the twister’s path.

Among the destruction on General George Patton Drive was Bill Ormes’ cable television studio, WAGG-TV. Bill usually woke up at 5:30 AM for work. But on this particular morning, he overslept. “I was 30 minutes late or I would have been covered up,” he told The Tennessean in their December 24, 1998 publication. Bill arrived only to find that the violent winds had flattened his studio. An office clock found in the rubble read 6:15 AM.

Nearby, several of Brentwood Self Storage’s units were churned into a pile of metal. Leigh Anne Brown, the facility’s manager, was asleep with her husband when the tornado hit their apartment complex across the street. “We never knew what happened,” Leigh Anne said in the December 27 edition of The Tennessean. “I thought it was just high winds, so I called the owner and said a couple of things were gone. Then, I walked outside and everything was gone.”

Crumpled sheets of metal litter the Brentwood Self Storage facility. Photo from the December 1988 Storm Data publication and taken by Michael Clancy from The Review Appeal, Franklin, Tennessee.
A cleanup crew clearing debris from the Brentwood Self Storage facility. Photo from the December 1988 Storm Data publication and taken by Michael Clancy from The Review Appeal, Franklin, Tennessee.

The Browns, who had only settled in Franklin eight months prior to the storm, were offered temporary accommodation at the Franklin Holiday Inn. As they grappled with the loss of their home and business, Leigh Anne advised those with surviving units to swiftly remove their contents, as looters posed a significant threat. “Some people have their whole lives stored here because of divorce or living with their family or whatever,” she said.

Mindy Tate, the managing editor of the Brentwood Journal, woke up to a confusing phone call from Williamson County EMA Director Mike Thompson. “[He] told me to get up because there had been a tornado,” Mindy said in a December 21, 2018 article by The Tennessean. “He said it was on Moores Lane and it hit the building we were in. He said I had to come right away.” Mindy navigated through downed trees, powerlines, and closed roadways to the building on Moores Lane. She found the roof missing and water drenching the structure’s interior. Some of the brick exterior was also ripped away.

“We also had a metal warehouse on the back of the building,” Mindy said. “When we would finish the paper, we would put the pages in a box on a table back there. The warehouse was just destroyed. Metal garage door gone and the refrigerator was open, but the pages box was sitting perfect on the table.” The Franklin Review Appeal helped The Brentwood Journal function while their business was repaired. Editors worked feverishly to publish the Christmas paper as repairers immediately began fixing the publisher’s walls. “It was a surreal experience, and it helped me understand and have more empathy for people I reported on,” she explained. “And we still got the paper out.”

Damage to the Brentwood Journal building. Photo from the December 1988 Storm Data publication and taken by Michael Clancy from The Review Appeal, Franklin, Tennessee.

Across Moores Lane, the Trinity Ministries building suffered significantly. “I’m just glad it hit us and not those condos,” Pastor Dave Erickson told the December 27, 1988 edition of The Tennessean as he pointed to the Mooreland Estate homes nearby. “If old Dave took the brunt, amen. At least nobody was dead.”

Damage to the Trinity Ministries building. Photos from the December 1988 Storm Data publication and taken by Michael Clancy from The Review Appeal, Franklin, Tennessee.
Aerial view of the destruction to businesses along General George Patton Drive and Moores Lane, looking northeast. Photo from The Tennessean and taken by Mike DuBose.

As the tornado moved from Franklin into Brentwood, it crossed Interstate 65, where two people were injured when the storm caused their car to crash. Past the highway, the twister moved into the Brenthaven neighborhood, where several residences suffered.

Along Knox Valley Drive, the Kivilaan home was one of several that were damaged or destroyed. Mary Kivilaan was in her bedroom when the tornado hit. She credits the blinds over her window for deflecting debris away from her as shards of glass were driven into the wall over her bed. “If it wasn’t for the venetian blinds, the fireman said I would have been cut to ribbons,” Mary said in The Tennessean’s December 25, 1988 edition.

In the next room over, Mary’s son Alecks was showered with glass when his window blew out. “The first thing I thought was a gas explosion. I was scared out of my mind,” Alecks explained. Mary’s parents and another son, Kris, were also present when the twister struck. All six of them were uninjured. “This is about the worst thing you can imagine to happen on Christmas Eve,” Kris said. The roof of the Kivilaan home had also been blown off. However, the Christmas tree and presents in the living room were all salvaged.

A few hundred yards east-northeast of Knox Valley Drive, the funnel suddenly lifted for good.

In all, one person was killed, and seven were injured along the 6-mile path of this twister. Additionally, 54 homes, 13 apartment units, 31 businesses, and six airplanes were damaged or destroyed. According to the December 1988 Storm Data Publication by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the death and injury toll could have been much higher had the tornado occurred during regular working hours.

Recovery

The tornado practically ruined the holiday season for many families, with people in a daze spending Christmas Eve and Christmas surveying their losses. But citizens of Franklin and Brentwood expressed their gratitude for being alive. Hundreds of volunteers took to the streets to assist in debris cleanup. Electrical crews restored power to many homes in the area by the evening. The American Red Cross quickly set up an emergency shelter, for people who lost their homes, in Franklin Middle School. Salvation Army brought food and supplies. Franklin resident Debbie LaFevor pitched in with food for survivors, even though her home was damaged. “I just felt sorry for the ones that are going to be without this year,” Debbie said to The Tennessean’s December 25, 1988 edition. “I feel like the Lord is showing us something here – that we get so wrapped up in ourselves and buying. And He is saying: Take care of each other,” she continued.

Friends were comforting friends, and donations were flooding in during the season of giving. “We’ve got pages and pages of people that called wanting to make donations,” Robert Roberg, a Nashville Red Cross volunteer, told the paper. Many churches in Franklin and Brentwood were among those who offered relief. “We were fortunate that none of our members were affected by the tornado,” Rev. Thomas Baker of Brentwood First Presbyterian Church told The Tennessean on December 26, 1988. Following their Christmas Service, members of his church contacted the Red Cross and the Williamson County Emergency Relief Fund to assist.

The swift recovery was largely attributed to the local radio stations, which played a pivotal role in disseminating information about the disaster and coordinating relief efforts. In a January 2, 1989 column in The Tennessean, Richard Schweid detailed their efforts: “I believe WSM Radio’s coverage and the people who were a part of it shouldn’t go unnoticed. During the morning, we also received help from Franklin radio stations WAKM and WIZO which had lost power because of the tornado. We also received assistance from Porter Massey of Mid-Tennessee Electric, David King with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Don and Wilford Brown at Franklin Elementary School who told our audience what they could do to help the victims of the twister. Maureen Culberson, a dispatcher with the Franklin police department, gave us updated information on the areas to avoid for travel. During 1988, WSM Radio received dozens of news awards and honors for its news programming. But, the recognition is secondary to our work. The most important part of our job is providing a community service to our listeners in life threatening situations. With the help of our staff and the people who assisted us recently, we did just that.”

In Loving Memory

Ernest Apling Rice Jr., 67

Videos

Damage between Franklin and Brentwood. Video shared by Jay Franklin on Facebook, and recorded by his father.

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the SPC & NCDC Databases, the December 1888 Storm Data Publication, the NWS Nashville Summary, Thomas Grazulis’ Significant Tornadoes: 1974-2022 publication, and found the following differences:

Injury Count:

  • Newspapers indicate up to 15 injuries.
  • Remaining sources list 7 injuries.

Start/End Time:

  • All sources indicate a start time at 6:04 AM CST.
  • NCDC has an end time of 6:04 AM CST.
  • Storm Data has an end time of 6:13 AM CST.
  • Remaining sources do not offer an end time.

Start/End Coordinates:

  • The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) begins the tornado path at 35.92/-86.90 and ends it at 36.03/-86.78.
  • The National Weather Service in Nashville, TN begins the tornado path at ~35.938606/-86.880495 and ends it at ~35.979535/-86.782001.

    Sources

    The sources compiled in our research for this summary can be found here.

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