Tornado flings E. Tenn. officer's wallet more than four blocks

By: Mike McCarthy
By: Mike McCarthy

LOUDON COUNTY (WVLT) -- A Lenoir City family was back home safe on Sunday evening, just two days after a tornado ripped through their downtown Atlanta hotel room.

Ben and Julie Harkins escaped just moments before the storms 100 mph-plus winds blew their belongings more than four blocks away.

"Words can't describe it, unless you were there," said Julie. “It was pressing on our ears, and it was just a pressure I've never experienced before."

Outside of feelings, there will be no forgetting the devastating sights and atmosphere.

"We heard the familiar freight train sound everybody says they here," said Ben. “It was extremely scary.”

The Harkins’ had traveled to Atlanta with their son and his girlfriend to cheer on the Vols during their SEC quarterfinal game against South Carolina on Friday.

When Ben, who is a Captain with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, and his family returned to their hotel room, they noticed the stormy weather was starting to get dangerous.

“We actually saw the funnel cloud,” he said. “Then there was debris flying in the air and coming right for us."

That’s when the Harkins’ decided to seek out shelter, and in seconds, they were headed down the 16th floor hallway to the center of the building.

“We just huddled there along with about a half dozen other people," Ben said.

The decision to leave the room may have saved their lives, because just moments after their door slammed shut, an EF-2 tornado with winds in excess of 130 mph smashed directly into the hotel.

"It sounded like explosives,” he said, “it was extremely loud. You could here debris striking the walls of the room."

By the time it passed, the hotel room was soaked with rain and covered in broken glass.

The tornado also flung Ben’s wallet out a shattered window, sending it more than four blocks away.

Later in the night, an Atlanta Police officer came upon it while setting up a road block, and quickly noticed that Ben was wearing a Knox County Sheriff’s Office uniform in his ID photo.

"He realized I was an officer, called Knoxville, and they tracked me down," Ben said.

Unfortunately, the storm had carried off everything in the wallet except his ID and video rental card.

According to Julie, the storm did blow in a surprise once they arrived in their new hotel.

"I got in the elevator and Bruce Pearl was on it,” she said, “I was so excited to see him."

The Harkins’ are huge Vol fans, and their trip to see the South Carolina game was part of Ben’s 53rd birthday, which was also on Friday.

They also said they want to especially thank Atlanta Police officer David Someis, who found the wallet.
After the eventual start to the weekend, they returned to Loudon County on Saturday, happy to be back in East Tennessee.

"It feels very good to be home," Ben said.


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