13 years ago today: 30 tornadoes ripped through NC, killing 24

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  • Twenty-four North Carolinians lost their lives that day, including eight people in the WRAL viewing area, and hundreds more were injured.
  • Approximately $328 million in property damage was done across North Carolina.
  • Approximately 88% of that damage came from the Sanford-Raleigh tornado and the Fayetteville-Smithfield tornado (both were EF-3).
A map shows the range of tornadoes that hit central and eastern North Carolina on April 16, 2011.

A day no one could forget

Tornadoes hit the Deep South on Friday, April 15, 2011, foreshadowing what was to come for North Carolina. WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said meteorologists were tracking the storms for days, but no one was prepared for what happened.

“I can remember we were watching this several days before these tornadoes arrived,” Gardner recalled. “We could see the development, we could see the atmosphere looking like it could support some strong thunderstorms and tornadoes. But the day of, the storm prediction center gave us the very highest level risk (level 5) for severe storms, and that was something I had never seen in our area before.”

Johnson said it started as a nice spring morning, but things quickly changed.

“You could feel it,” he said. “There are days you just feel the atmosphere loaded with energy, and you knew it was going to be a long day, you knew it was going to be a rough day. Our job in that moment is just to try to get people through it.”

Maze and Johnson agreed — the deaths shook them.

“You knew that these were tornadoes that were doing damage and potentially causing injuries and killing people, and that was when it really hit home for me just how truly serious this event was going to be,” Johnson said.

“We were exhausted,” Maze added. “You are always sad when there are fatalities in your market, and you always think ‘What could I have done better, what did I miss?’ I’m hoping that was the worst tornado experience in my career.”

“The story that haunts me from that day is the family in north Raleigh, in their home, doing everything right, and the tornado just fell in the absolutely wrong place,” Johnson said. “They did everything right, and we still lost them.”


On April 16, 2011, at 2:53 p.m., a tornado slammed down in Sanford. Then, moving northeast at 500 yards wide, the storm hit Holly Springs in southern Wake County.

“I looked out the window and it was all dark, all the wind, stuff was blowing everywhere,” one woman recalled.

The storm then moved over downtown Raleigh. The National Weather Service office was in the path of the tornado, and staff there took shelter, handing off responsibility for the storm for seven minutes to the Blacksburg, Va., office.

Everyone at WRAL News went into the basement except Maze and Johnson, who stayed in the newsroom to track the storms.

The storm hit the Stonybrook mobile home park off Brentwood Road in Raleigh then continued traveling a total of more than 65 miles, finally dissipating on the far side of Roanoke Rapids just before 5:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, at 3:31 p.m., another storm was spotted in Hoke County. Within 15 minutes, the EF-3 tornado touched down, carving a path 800 yards wide.

At 4:33 p.m., a storm crossed the Bladen and Cumberland County line. The EF-2 tornado killed three people as it moved toward Clinton in Sampson County. Around 5 p.m., the storm weakened and the tornado dissipated.

Ken Smith was anchoring the coverage from the WRAL Newsroom that day.

Fayetteville man revisits April 16, 2011

WRAL Fayetteville reporter Gilbert Baez covered the storm 13 years ago and recently revisited one of the hardest-hit communities, where he found a survivor who was inside his house when the tornado blew it apart.

Michael Wilson’s brick house in Cottonade, located next to Fort Bragg, was destroyed in 2011. Deadly winds ripped the home apart, the garage smashed his car, the roof disappeared and tall pine trees sliced through just about every room.

Wilson said it’s difficult to look back and realize he could have died that day.

“You know, they tell you to get into the bathtub,” Wilson said. “There was a gigantic pine tree, and it fell over and crushed the bathroom. The bathtub was, like, almost cracked in half. If we had gotten in that tub, we would have been killed.”

Wilson also lost his cat, Patches, but was reunited with her later.

“She ran by and my wife was like, ‘Patches, no.’ And I’m grabbing like, forget the cat. I mean, the roof is flying off like in The Wizard of Oz.”

Dozens of homes in the community along Yadkin Road were destroyed. Across the street from Wilson’s house, Mike Lewis’ property looked like a bomb hit it, but somehow his American flag continued to fly.

“We were lucky,” Wilson recalled. “There were cars stacked up like pancakes and an overturned tractor trailer right around the corner.”

Thirteen years later, new homes remind Cottonade residents of the tornado’s path and memories of what used to be. Baez said, while everyone had their own incredible story to tell, they all said they’re happy to be alive.


Four children were killed in Raleigh neighborhood

Former WRAL reporter Mike Charbonneau, one of the first reporters on air that day, revisited some of the hardest hit places in Wake County to tell community members’ stories of recovery and reflection.

Charbonneau said he didn’t realize just how devastating and deadly the storm was in Raleigh until he arrived.

In one of the most heartbreaking stories of the 2011 tornado, four young children ages 3, 8, 9 and 6 months old, were killed when a large tree crashed through their mobile home in the Stony Brook North community.

Among those who died were Yoryanni Ramirez Vazquez, 8, and her 5-year-old brother. A plaque still stands down by the pond marking the tragic day and memories of those lost.

The tornado blew Joe Stiles’ home off its foundation with his family still inside. A neighbor helped them all out safely just before the home collapsed. It took nearly a year to rebuild the home and even longer for their street to return to normal.

A Decade Later: WRAL reflects on April 16, 2011, tornado outbreak