However, this Sunday, the church’s most spirited singer will be silent. Sawyer, along with his parents Joshua, 30, and Erin Kimberlin, 29, were killed in a tornado that carved through their town, Cookeville, Tenn., just after midnight on Tuesday.
In the cover of night, the storm took at least 24 lives in the state. In Putnam County, where the Kimberlins lived, 18 were killed. Sawyer was the youngest. This was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Tennessee since at least 2011. There was little time to prepare.
The Kimberlins, who didn’t have a basement in their one-story, teal house, had a plan in case of a tornado: drive to the nearby home of Erin’s parents, her brother Clint Pitts told The Washington Post.
As they went to bed that night, though, they didn’t realize they needed to take cover. No one knows if the family was awake when the tornado barreled through.
“If you were just looking at our parents’ house, you’d never know there was a storm,” Pitts said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
Earlier in the night, meteorologists on TV forecasted bad weather for the area, but nothing close to the tempest that tracked across Tennessee.
“It hit so fast, a lot of folks didn’t have time to take shelter,” Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said at a news conference. “Many of these folks were sleeping.”
Hours after the twister, the Kimberlins’ family and friends searched for the missing three. Erroneous tips led them to think they had survived.
Erin, a former schoolteacher, spent her time doting over Sawyer and devotedly praying and teaching Bible classes at her father’s church.
Josh was a mechanical engineer and also taught Bible study with Erin.
Days before the Kimberlins were killed, family and friends gathered at their house to celebrate Sawyer’s second birthday.
Sawyer excitedly ripped open his gifts. Pitts got him a baby blue toy truck with the ability to crash and fix itself. Family and friends oohed and aahed, holding up their cellphones to capture the toddler’s joy.
“Open,” Sawyer commanded.
But it didn’t compare to how excited he was when his aunt gave him play blocks, each side decorated with a different phase of the moon.
“All other toys became just obsolete,” Pitts remembers. “I don’t know what it was about the moon, but he was obsessed.”
The family wondered if Sawyer would grow up to be a scientist or an engineer like his dad.
“He loved the moon, being outside, and was a Jedi like his father before him,” reads the 2-year-old’s obituary.
“He was an avid fisherman, kid at heart, was always making people laugh, and forever will be a Jedi,” his father’s epilogue echoed.
When Pitts returned to the same house days later, he couldn’t recognize it.
The Kimberlins’ house, their green lawn, their neighborhood were all gone. Treelines were flattened. Roofs, walls and windows speckled the ground.
Even days after the storm, people across the 50-mile swatch torn apart by the twister are finding belongings of people killed, the Tennessean reported.
Five miles from the Kimberlins’ neighborhood, a photo of the couple walking on railroad tracks — from their younger years, before they were married — was recovered. It was brought to the Cookeville Community Center, where Erin’s brother Matthew Pitts found it among the other belongings swept up.
Some residents recognized the beloved family in photos.
A GoFundMe page set up to cover funeral expenses for the family had raised more than $63,000 as of Friday night, exceeding the $10,000 goal.
Comments highlight the reach the family had.
“Josh and his family are the most wonderful, kind, and caring folks I have ever met. Bless all of them!”
“I went to McMinn Central High School and graduated with Josh. He was a sweet, kind person who deserved nothing but the best life had to offer.”
Erin and Josh met in a church group in college. Despite the adoration that both of them inspired, they were opposites, their family remembered.
“Erin was our oldest. She was a very . . . routine-minded child. She had a way that things were supposed to be done,” Rodney Pitts told WBIR. “. . . Josh was the laid-back, funny guy that everybody loved because he’d make you laugh.”
They would have celebrated their sixth anniversary this spring. Instead, they died together.
“They wouldn’t have wanted to live without each other,” Clint Pitts said.