2011 tornadoes became symbol of survival, unity in Sanford
Posted April 11, 2016 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated April 11, 2016 6:35 p.m. EDT
Sanford, N.C. — Of all the images from the 2011 tornado outbreak in central and eastern North Carolina, perhaps the most iconic were those from the Lowe's Home Improvement store in Sanford.
The Lee County store's roof was ripped off, and walls of the massive building had collapsed – one of them on a truck with a man inside.
Mike Hollowell was a manager at the store that day. Before the storms arrived, he was helping a customer in home decor.
"It was a busy Saturday," Hollowell recalls. "April is our busiest time of the year."
Outside, clouds had gathered, signaling the approach of a line of storms that would take lives across the region.
Lowe's employee Ray Allen said he knew of only one thing to do once people realized the tornado was closing in – run.
"I never looked back. I just kept going. It felt like it was right on the back of my heels," Allen said.
Hollowell had warned customers on the store's intercom, and he and other employees rushed everyone into windowless offices and break room in the back of the store.
One of the customers was Aubrey Cox, who was shopping with his brother and 5-year-old nephew.
"(My brother) threw my nephew on my back, and he jumped on me, and we just rode the storm out," Cox said. "The last thing I remember is looking up, and I could hear a popping noise. It was sucking the roof off. Loudest thing I ever heard in my life."
Others said the tornado sounded like a jet engine.
"Everyone, at that point, was screaming, because at that point, you don't know if you're going to live or die," Hollowell said.
Employee Ashley Deyo said she remembers crouching down and holding a friend's hand.
"I got down like we learned in elementary school," she said.
After the storm did its damage, the deafening sounds were replaced with deafening silence.
"It was like an eerie silence," Hollowell said. "No one made a sound because it was like, what do we do now?"
An assistant manager soon began digging into a mound of debris. He found a man in a pickup truck crushed by a falling wall near the lumber section.
The man wasn't hurt seriously – a staggering fact that also applied to the other 100 or so people inside the store at the time.
"The good Lord was with us, that's all I know," Allen said.
Days after the storm, President Barack Obama called Hollowell to thank him for the actions that likely saved lives. Hollowell said it was an honor to speak with the president.
"Definitely, my team was very proud of that. It wasn't anything I did that day, it was what the team did," he said.
Hollowell has since moved to a Lowe's store in Knightdale, but the store in Sanford was reopened five months after the storm.
Many of the store's employees are still there, including Ashley Deyo.
"Before when I was here, it felt like just a job and I just work here. But when I came back, it felt like true friendships were built, and a lot of relationships became stronger," she said.
A symbol of that mindset still flies outside the store – an American flag draped above the entrance was pulled from the rubble on the day the tornado rolled through.