Written by Leslie Criss
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” — Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Every Christmas season for the past nearly 30 years, I’ve shared this story with readers of whatever publication employed me at the time.
It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories about a young girl who has become a big part of the history of the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Her name is Carole Ann Moses, and these days she’s a resident of Texas. But on a long-ago Saturday she was a carefree 4-year-old anticipating the annual arrival of Santa and attending the birthday party of a friend.
While a feature writer for the Vicksburg Post in 1993, I was one of several people working on a series of stories to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tornado that traversed the Mississippi River and hit the city.
Doing research, I’d seen an old black and white photograph in a yellowed newspaper of a little girl, dark eyes staring at the camera, her head wrapped in heavy bandages and Santa by her bedside in the Vicksburg Infirmary.
It took some time, but I finally learned the identity of the girl in the photograph. It was Carole Ann Moses.
Dec. 5, 1953, was an unseasonably warm day in Vicksburg. Downtown was humming with shoppers and folks waiting for the start of the city’s annual Christmas parade.
And over at the Saenger Theater, Carole Ann and 15 other children who were attending a birthday party watched a double feature.
With no warning, at 5:35 p.m., the tornado touched down. Within a matter of minutes, the twister left a trail of destruction — 38 dead, 270 homeless.
At the Saenger, as actor Alan Ladd and his leading lady stood on a ship’s bow, the theater caved in.
“The next thing I knew we were underneath our seats,” said the now 70-year-old Carole Ann. “Everyone was crying. I was crying, but I stopped because my head hurt.”
The brave 4-year-old calmed herself, then she prayed. At her insistence, the children held hands. Carole Ann would find out later that the little girl next to her was dead.
Then Carole Ann led the other children in the singing of Christmas carols so rescuers would be able to hear and locate them under the rubble.
Five hours later, rescuers trailing the tune of “Jingle Bells,” found the children — living and dead — and pulled them from the theater’s remains.
Carole Ann was taken to the Vicksburg Infirmary where, after brain surgery, she remained in a coma for two days. Doctors doubted she’d live. In fact, at one point, her mother was told Carole Ann had died. But she didn’t; she survived to be the mother of two sons.
“I’ve always thought more of the little girl next to me who died than I think of my living through the tragedy,” she said.
Whenever folks recall the tornado of ’53, the conversation almost always includes the story of the little girl who likely saved the lives of her young friends that long-ago December day.
With courage and grace.
And a beloved Christmas carol.