Saturday, December 3, 2022

Tornado Destroyed ‘Hammerhead’s Restaurant, But Not Spirit

Andre “Hammerhead” Thomas was aware of the weather reports that Monday morning. But with weather radar showing a wide area of possible tornado activity, with unpredictable storm systems separated by hundreds of miles, he decided to prepare his restaurant for the week’s customers.

Hammer's before and after the April 28th tornado.
Hammer’s before and after the April 28th tornado.

It was typical stuff. With the restaurant closed on Mondays except during football season, he did what he would normally do to get Hammer’s Buffalo Wings, which has been in business 12 years, ready for the week. He swept the floor; mopped it even. “Nothing unusual. I did what I would usually do.”
But Thomas is used to sniffing out trouble. As a hard-nosed running back for Ole Miss in the early 1980s, the Tupelo-native had to match strategy with the likes of Bear Bryant – who once described him as a “tough runner” – and talent-rich SEC teams like Auburn and Georgia. From one week to the next, Thomas, who played professionally in the USFL, faced teams loaded with men who would go on to long NFL careers.
Nothing, however, would prove as formidable as the April 28 tornado that ripped through Thomas’s hometown, its 150-mph winds reducing his restaurant to rubble, damaging 200 homes and 16 businesses along its path. It would turn out to be a deadly day in Mississippi. Fourteen people were killed; 10 in Louisville and Winston County, four others in Issaquena, Leake, Lee and Rankin counties. President Obama declared several Mississippi counties federal disaster areas, making it easier for those affected to receive aid. Hundreds of homes and businesses were either destroyed or heavily damaged.
Before the EF-3 tornado hit Tupelo, Thomas saw the ominous weather – “it just got worse and worse” – and headed for his mother’s house, about four blocks from his restaurant. “It got bad for about five minutes. That’s all the time it took to hit the shop.”
When the storm passed, and after hearing reports that it struck the mall a few miles north of his restaurant, Thomas decided to venture out to see if his business had sustained damage. “I couldn’t get through because of the trees. There were trees down everywhere. I saw cars stacked on top of each other. There was nothing but fire.” It turns out, Barnes Crossing Mall just three miles north didn’t sustain damage. The story was different around North Gloster Street and other parts of Tupelo. North Gloster, one of the hardest hit, was where Hammer’s Wings once sat.
After encountering one impassable street after another, Thomas finally maneuvered his way to his restaurant, traveling more than 30 minutes in his car for a ride covering only four blocks, usually five minutes tops. What he saw left him in shock and saddened, not just for his business, but for the destruction the tornado left in its wake. It’s his hometown, the place where he ran the ball for the Tupelo Golden Wave, where people to this day still affectionately call him “Hammer.” It’s the place where people love him – and he loves them back. They are his friends and his family. And he saw many of them lose it all. It was no time, he said, to only think of himself.
“I couldn’t say anything,” when he saw the damage, he said. “I sat there with my mouth wide open.”
He quickly realized that had Hammer’s Wings been open for business, employees and customers would have been inside. Closed on Mondays. On this stormy April day, people’s lives may have been saved because of it. “When I thought about that, all I could say was ‘thank you Jesus.’ My wife (Ole Miss alum Debbie Wheeler Thomas) said: If you had been in that restaurant, think about where you’d be. I was standing outside and looking, thinking. ‘I may not have made it.’”
Thomas, who was renting the building, said he is considering leaving the restaurant business and moving on full time to a career he knows all too well: Sports. He already coaches basketball at a Christian school in Tupelo and stays busy coaching kids at the AAU level. “It’s something that I do well,” he said humbly, without any inkling of the reason he got the nickname, Hammerhead. “We seem to win.”
Internet chatter is encouraging him to give Hammer’s Wings another try. He said he’s been grateful for the public’s support. “I’ve had so many phone calls and texts. It’s gratifying to know how people really feel about you.”
— Ronnie Agnew, a former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. E-mail him at Ronnie.Agnew@mpbonline.org

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