Storm Survivors: Hawkins Used Parts Rebuilds After Tornado
PHOTOS: WELLSSTUDIO.COM & HAWKINS OF MAYFIELD
May 10, 2016 began as an ordinary workday at Hawkins Used Parts in Mayfield, Ky. By the day’s end, however, the three-generation family business lay in ruins.
It took just a few terrifying minutes for an EF3 tornado to sweep through the salvage yard that day. The storm’s 140-mile-an-hour winds mangled buildings, flipped cars onto their sides and sent parts flying up to a quarter of a mile.
General Manager Wilby Hawkins and salesman Ronnie Egner had been working in the office building that afternoon when Wilby saw a weather alert on his phone: A tornado warning had been declared for the area.
“I looked at Ronnie,” Wilby remembered, “and I said, ‘Tornado warning. That means there’s one on the ground.’”
The two men rushed outside and saw a funnel cloud roaring toward them.
“It kept getting bigger and bigger and closer and closer,” Wilby said.
Running For Cover
He quickly alerted the three dismantlers who were also working that day, and then he called his father and the company’s owner, Glenn Hawkins. Glenn was picking up his grandson at an elementary school five miles away, but even at that distance he could clearly see the funnel cloud.
“Wilby called and said, ‘Dad, there’s a tornado coming right at us,’” Glenn remembered. “And I could see the tornado from the school. I could see it going across the field.”
Glenn told Wilby that he and the four employees should run to a nearby rental house.
“I said, ‘Kick down the door if you have to,’” Glenn said.
The men took shelter in the basement of the rental house as the funnel cloud churned over them.
“You could hear stuff hitting the building,” Wilby said. “It was scary. We got into the basement, and in just about a minute it was over.”
That minute was all the time the tornado needed to devastate Hawkins Used Parts. Wilby and his employees emerged from the basement and stepped outside to an astonishing sight.
“When we came out, nothing was there. Literally, nothing was there,” Wilby said. “It was like a bomb had gone off.”
Buildings had collapsed. Hundreds of cars had been torn apart; some of them tossed hundreds of feet. Parts from the now-flattened warehouse lay scattered in piles. Huge branches had been ripped from trees.
Wilby immediately rushed into the “twisted up” office building to rescue his dog, which was miraculously unharmed.
“That’s when it really hit me, what had happened,” he said. “I think I was in shock until I figured out the dog was OK. There were suddenly a thousand different things to worry about.”
Reviewing The Damage
The main worry was for family members’ safety. Members of the Hawkins family frantically tried to reach each other, but no one had cell phone service.
“Wilby was trying to get ahold of me,” Glenn said. “I was trying to get ahold of him. Everything was chaotic.”
The elementary school was on lockdown, so Glenn had to wait for his grandson to be released. He then tried to get to the salvage yard, but police were blocking traffic.
“You could see debris everywhere,” Glenn said. “I think I was in shock. I just couldn’t believe it had happened. It takes a while to hit you.”
Once everyone was safely reunited, they had to make a hard choice about the future of the business.
“We just kept asking, ‘What are we going to do? How can we get through this?’” Glenn said.
Wilby knew the only choice was to keep the company going. His grandfather, Mike, had founded the business in 1953, the year Glenn was born. Glenn has worked there full-time since 1971; Wilby has been full-time since 2005.
“We decided to rebuild and go from there,” Wilby said. “We’re not going to let it stop us.”
Getting Back To Business
The company re-opened the very next morning. Employees worked inside the mangled office building for nearly a month, using generators for power. The office eventually moved to a portable trailer for the next six months, but that brought a new set of problems. Up to six employees and customers squeezed into the cramped, 12-by-30-foot space, which was cooled only by a small window air conditioner.
“That was rough,” Wilby said. “That was the hardest part of the whole thing. It was five million degrees and absolutely miserable. It took six months for the new office to be completed, but it seemed like five years.”
Another challenge was moving the computers multiple times and not having a phone system. Calls from the 800 number had to be forwarded to Wilby’s cell phone.
“The hardest part was not having everything you need,” Wilby said.
Despite the challenges, Wilby and Glenn were amazed by the help they received from the community. Church members brought food daily, and a high school football team helped with the cleanup.
“It was crazy the amount of support we got,” Wilby said. “We’re still working to get back to normal, but without all of that help we wouldn’t be nearly as close as we are now.”
Customers also played a role in the company’s recovery.
“Every one of our customers was very understanding,” Wilby said. “They understood what kind of predicament we were in. I think they were happy we were still able to provide them.”
What advice would Wilby give to other dismantlers facing a similar disaster?
“Don’t give up,” he said. “The hardest part is not the day of. It’s six months later, or a year and a half later. Don’t make it too hard on yourself, and do what you have to do to make it work.”
“We got through it,” added Glenn. “I didn’t think we would, but we did.”