Fortunately, the couple and others in the restaurant survived the ordeal and on Monday, Sept. 12, were some of the first patrons invited by the district manager to celebrate the business’ first day back in business.
“I saw on the Waffle House Facebook page where they were going to finally reopen,” said LaRoche, “so I con-tacted them and told them ‘for Karma reasons’ I wanted to come and pay my bill from that night. My wife had just looked at the bill when the tornado came and she remembered the total was for $9.62.”
Three employees and about 10 customers were in the establishment when the twister hit. LaRoche said a very upset woman came running across the parking lot, yelling and forcing her children inside in a very disturbing man-ner, which confused him and his wife at first. Within minutes, another patron said he saw a “funnel cloud” hit the Taco Bell, which sits across the street, and everyone took cover in the back room. Kelley, LaRoche’s wife, said the woman’s son had his arms wrapped around her legs and asked her several times, “Are we going to die?”
“I really didn’t know what to say,” said Kelley. “I just kept patting him and brushing his hair out of his little face.”
When the storm died, LaRoche said his toast was still on his plate, but his cell phone was gone. The couple’s truck was completely “totaled” and covered in debris, so they called a relative for help and ended up walking all the way to Ga. 2A before they were able to meet up with their rescue ride.
“It was like the last scene of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ where the Jews are walking,’” said LaRoche. “All the people in the hotels were just wandering up and down the roads with bags and pets. It all seemed so unreal.”
On a positive note, LaRoche said he got a call some time later from a Catoosa County deputy to let him know they had found his phone about 50 yards behind the restaurant site, and a friend of Kelley’s called to inform her that the woman with the children from the storm was actually a co-worker of hers and wanted to help them connect so they could speak again. In addition, Waffle House owners have pledged to donate the proceeds from the first 24 hours of business to the Ringgold High School athletic department, which was also destroyed in the storm.
The doors officially opened around 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 12 and a steady stream of customers happily filled the bar stools and booths. One particular patron, Johnny Maxwell, was one of the first in line. Maxwell said he and his wife have been coming to that Waffle House daily for 26 years, sometimes three times a day. As a matter of fact, since Johnny’s wife, Maxie, couldn’t attend the Sept. 12 opening, they allowed her to come in briefly the day before to have a cup of coffee.
Fifteen-year employee David Miller, Waffle House HR manager, said many of the employees floated to other Waffle Houses during the rebuild, but just about all the staff had returned and were happy to be back. Miller said whether you’re an employee or customer, you just can’t help getting hooked on the place.
“Once you get Waffle House in your blood,” said Miller, “you’re here to stay.”