Storm victims search for Purple Heart amidst rubble in Holt

Storm+victims+search+for+Purple+Heart+amidst+rubble+in+Holt

Victor Luckerson

Though many residents of Holt are no longer picking through the remnants of their homes, one family is still searching.

Larry and Margaret Krallman have been combing the lot of 24 Crescent Ridge Road East and the surrounding area since the night of April 27, when an EF-4 tornado left much of the Holt community in shambles. The three-bedroom house belonged to Larry Krallman’s 89-year-old mother, Thelma Bennett Krallman, who died during the storm.

Initially, the search was for Thelma’s body. Shortly after the storm, Larry and Margaret Krallman found her body a few hundred yards from her home.

“Thank God we found her because there are so many that are not going to be found, ever,” Margaret Krallman said.

The next morning at 6:30, the Krallmans began searching for the artifacts that were defining elements of the family line—a pair of wedding rings, a wedding band, an American flag and a Purple Heart earned by Thelma’s husband, George Henry Krallman, during World War II.

“That’s just stuff you can’t replace,” Margaret Krallman said. “You can’t buy it. We’ve just been digging for personal effects. That’s what we’re hunting for.”

The American flag and Purple Heart are particularly precious to the Krallmans, as they memorialize the life of the late George Krallman. He served in the South Pacific during World War II, where he was wounded by machine gun fire. He recuperated at Northington General Hospital, a World War II military hospital in Tuscaloosa. The couple liked the town so much that they stayed and eventually made Holt their place of residence.

When George Krallman died in 1983, he received a military funeral, and his wife kept the flag that draped his coffin in her home. Larry was to receive the flag upon his mother’s death, while his younger brother, Richard, would receive the Purple Heart.

Now these family treasures are buried under mountains of debris, and bulldozers are beginning to roll into the disaster area to carry the rubble off to landfills.

With no luck in their search the day after the storm, the Krallmans kept digging.

“We dug from Thursday morning until Sunday night,” Margaret Krallman said. “My husband fell and broke his wrist. I fell out of the tree we were digging in and got knocked out, and I ended up going to the hospital.”

The first two days were the toughest, before the volunteer effort had fully mobilized in Holt, and the Krallmans were mostly fending for themselves amidst dangerous wreckage.

After Sunday, the family’s focus shifted to funeral arrangements for their matriarch. They held a memorial service for Thelma here in Alabama, then took her to be buried in her home state of Arkansas.

“We’ve been in such a whirlwind of activity,” Margaret Krallman said. “I don’t think the shock of it has really set in yet. When everything is calm and settled is when I think everyone is going to really feel it.”

This week, the Krallmans are back in Holt, and the dig continues.

It’s unlikely that the Purple Heart rests on the land Thelma once owned, as all that remains of her home are the stone steps to her front door.

“Nothing on this lot is hers. There’s not one piece of furniture that was left on her lot,” Margaret Krallman said. “We can’t find anything from the living room or the bedroom. [The tornado] took everything.”

The medal could be hundreds of miles away, as people from around the state have contacted the Krallmans saying they found Thelma’s address labels and other personal belongings.

“Anything that has her name, we’re just so grateful to get it back,” Margaret Krallman said.

A living room that was once packed with 200 framed pictures lies in pieces across the neighborhood and possibly west Alabama. Margaret Krallman said they often find the frames, but the glass and the photographs are gone.

Still, there are small victories. Larry Krallman has found wet, dirty photographs of himself as a child, pictures that his wife had never seen before. “You just hope you find something to remember [Thelma] by,” he said. “You only have one mother, and there’s nothing you can do for her now except look around.”

The house, which the Krallmans built in 1959, had seen generations pass through its doors.

“I’ve been cutting this grass since 1960,” Larry Krallman said. “I know every square inch of the yard.”

He spent last summer remodeling the home and put the last drop of fresh paint on it in November, he said.

The pieces of the home Larry Krallman knew so well have become landmarks that signal where to search in a sea of debris. On Wednesday, Margaret Krallman stooped next to her elementary-school-aged nephew, Alex, handing him a small rake to use to sift through the dirt across the street from the Thelma’s lot.

“Take your little rake and rake around this hole because that’s where a lot of her jewelry was,” she told him.

Even as she was being interviewed, her eyes were constantly scanning the earth, looking for some corner she had not yet searched. She said she wanted to dig flower bulbs from the earth below her mother-in-law’s home, just to have something living from her property.

“You can’t imagine to have totally nothing of her life left,” she said. “Your mind can’t grasp that it’s gone…Five minutes, and that’s the power of God.”

Still, the Krallmans remain optimistic and appreciative.

“In all this, I would say God’s hand has been here. He has helped and protected us,” Margaret Krallman said. “It’s been the prayers of people that have sustained us. He’s the one you hold to when it gets so bad you can’t stand it.”

Though the destruction remains sprawled across miles of Holt, much of it has been organized into neat piles along the roadside—piles that might hide a Purple Heart, or the corner of an American flag. Margaret Krallman said she was astounded by the progress that has been made in Holt in the last two weeks.

“You can’t ask for people to be any kinder or more generous than they’ve been in Tuscaloosa,” she said.