Woman memorializes tree that saved her life in 2020 tornado

Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville
Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville(Tennessee Tech)
Published: Jul. 1, 2022 at 10:40 PM EDT
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COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - When Lauren Neal planted a tree at her Cookeville 14 years ago, she had no idea that it would one day save her life.

Neal, the manager for the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Tennessee Tech University, was in her home with her boyfriend and one of her children when the Cookeville tornado hit them on March 2, 2020. Officials said the tornado had leveled many houses in her neighborhood and killed 19 people.

The night of the tornado, Neal said she had just received the weather alert and had jumped up to wake her teenage daughter when the front of her house exploded. She said she watched as her daughter was ripped out of her bed by 175-mph winds while a door and flying debris trapped Neal. The entire house was lifted off its foundation before coming to a sudden stop while it was ripped apart by the tornado.

Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville
Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville(Tennessee Tech)

Despite the destruction of their home, Neal and her household survived. Officials said her daughter was found in their neighbor’s pool, miraculously with only minor injuries.

Neal said it wasn’t until later that they realized what had stopped her house from sliding further off the foundation.

“Once we started tearing away pieces of the house and going through everything, we realized where the house was,” she said. “It was up against that tree.”

Even though the wind and the weight of the house had broken the tree down to a large stump, that stump had been strong enough to keep Neal’s home from flying away.

In the days that followed, Neal began thinking that she wanted to do something with the wood of the broken tree that had saved her and her family’s life.

Neal soon decided to contact Cookeville woodworker Brad Sells, a well-known artist and Tennessee Tech alumnus who has had his work displayed all over the United States and overseas. Sells said he was enthusiastic about helping Neal with her vision.

“I could have paid him to make it for me, and it would have probably turned out better. Well, not probably,” Neal corrected herself with a laugh. “It definitely would have been better made. But I love the fact that I was able to learn from him and do it myself.”

Sells taught her how to use a chainsaw to cut the wood she needed from her tree’s stump and then use ever-increasingly fine methods of carving and sanding until she produced her version of the large wooden bowls Sells is known for making.

“The work was something where you’re using your mind, but also you’re not,” Neal said. “It helped me to really access that creative part of me. Brad just gave me pointers and let me do it. So, I was able to work through the process. Not just the wood – the emotions too.”

Officials said Neal ended up selling the property where her home used to be, but the wooden bowl now sits forever on her dining room table in her new home as a reminder of everything she and her family has overcome.

“That tree, I planted it when we first bought our house,” she said. “My son was born in that house that year. My dog’s doghouse was under that tree. It provided shade and provided fun all those years, and then it held my house during that tornado. It stopped it there. What if it hadn’t stopped it there? I don’t know. So, being able to have a piece of that tree is so important to me, and I’m so thankful to Brad for letting me work with him to make something like this out of it.”

Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville
Tree that saved a woman's life in Cookeville(Tennessee Tech)

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