‘The lightning was unreal’: Roanoke County supervisor recalls Hurricane Camille

‘The lightning was unreal’: Roanoke County supervisor recalls Hurricane Camille
He remembers leaving football practice early the night of the 19th when the storm rolled in. (Source: WDBJ)

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7) - As people in Nelson County went to bed this night 50 years ago, they had no idea that Hurricane Camille was about to change their lives overnight. For some who lived through the storm, memories from August 19 and 20, 1969 are still clear as day for those who saw Camille’s wrath firsthand.

"It's amazing that you can't remember what happened last week, but you remember what happened 50 years ago."

Phil North's calendar this week is bringing back a lot of memories.

"The dates of August 19 and 20th are kinda etched in your mind," he said.

In 1969, North, now Chair of Roanoke County's Board of Supervisors, was a 15-year-old student at Nelson County High School. He remembers leaving football practice early the night of the 19th when the storm rolled in.

"The lightning was unreal, it would light up the room and you look out the window and you could see just like it was daylight."

When he woke up, he heard the Tye River rushing and went out to investigate.

"Right there," he said, pointing to the bridge on a map. "And then our house was like right here"

Just a few minutes drive down the road was the old Southern Railway bridge where North saw the true power of Camille.

"All you could see was two double tracks of four rails hanging like spaghetti from one end to the other."

North snapped and saved a picture of some of the bridge's iron work which later washed up on the Tye River.

"Just twisted it, like it was paper."

But 11 days later, in a feat of engineering, North said the bridge was rebuilt.

"An 11 day miracle they called it," he said, pointing to a caption in a Nelson County History Book.

He says his father, Alex North who worked with the railway, was the first conductor to take a train across it. His mother worked at a bank in Lovingston.

She would return each night from work with fresh accounts of the clean-up and updates on the death toll.

"I think there was one young fella who was a lot younger than us," North recalled, "but he was always a energetic and happy go lucky fella, one of the Zirkle boys from Tyro, he passed."

For North and others, memory and the fierce preservation of it, are proving to be just as strong as the storm that bore down 50 years ago.

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