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Parents were about to take their baby and leave. But Florence hit too fast.

A pine smashed into this mobile home about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, killing 3-month-old Kade Gill as his mother cradled him on a sofa, a family member says.
A pine smashed into this mobile home about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, killing 3-month-old Kade Gill as his mother cradled him on a sofa, a family member says. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Tammy and Olen Gill had decided to take their baby, Kade, from their mobile home in northern Gaston County to their daughter’s brick home in Kings Mountain Sunday.

But the waves of rain and gusts of wind were mild enough that they wondered if they were overreacting, 21-year-old daughter Autumn Gill said Monday. She ate lunch before coming to get them.

By the time she pulled in, her 3-month-old baby brother was fatally injured and her mother was being loaded into an ambulance.

Nothing illustrates the random brutality of Florence, which spent days inching toward the Charlotte area after devastating the coast, like the pine tree that sliced the Gills’ trailer in half. The couple’s sixth child, a “surprise” baby who had struggled to live after being born five weeks early, died as his mother cradled him on a couch to feed him, Autumn Gill said.

Kade Gill.JPG
Kade Gill, 3 months old, died after a tree fell on his family’s home in Dallas, N.C. Family photo

Most of Gaston County was spared the worst of the storm. Less than 24 hours after their tragedy, the rolling countryside where Olen and Tammy Gill made their home about a year ago looks like it weathered nothing worse than a rainstorm.

“People are like, ‘It’s just rain.’ But rain can be dangerous,” said the Gills’ neighbor, Alexis Hawkins. “In the blink of an eye, anything can happen.”

As of Monday Florence had killed 19 people in the Carolinas, including three in the Charlotte region.

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Autumn Gill said her parents, who have been together 22 years, thought their family was complete after five children.

“They didn’t think she could have another,” Autumn Gill said. “Surprise! We got baby Kade.”

Kashton Kade Gill was born on Father’s Day, she said. He spent 10 days in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home to the cluster of eight mobile homes on Moses Court outside the town of Dallas, which their parents had chosen for its quiet and privacy, Autumn Gill said. She said Olen Gill works for Industrial Fabricators in Gaston County.

On Sunday, after days of warnings about the dangers of Florence, her parents decided the tall trees surrounding the trailer court could pose a risk. But the weather hardly matched the descriptions of the historic, monstrous storm they’d been hearing.

“We started thinking maybe we over-exaggerated,” Autumn Gill said. Her parents’ car wasn’t working, so she said she’d come get them after lunch.

Florence trailer tree.JPG
The tree that smashed the Gill family’s mobile home outside Dallas, N.C., was about 20 inches in diameter at the base. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

They’d later tell her they heard only a gust of wind before one of those towering pines smashed into their home. Olen Gill, standing in the kitchen, was unharmed but couldn’t reach his wife and baby. Tammy Gill, who told her daughter she had just settled on the couch to feed Kade, couldn’t move.

Alexis Hawkins said she heard a boom and saw a flash — the power surge that resulted set another neighbor’s power box on fire, she said — then saw Olen Gill run out calling for help. Alexis Hawkins called 911 while her father, Billy Hawkins, went to help the neighbors.

Billy Hawkins and Olen Gill removed a window air-conditioning unit and pulled the baby out just as rescuers arrived, Alexis Hawkins said. Billy Hawkins said the baby had been hit by shattered glass.

The mother and baby were taken by ambulance to Carolinas Medical Center, where the boy was pronounced dead Sunday afternoon, Gaston County Police Capt. Jon Leatherwood said.

Autumn Gill said Monday her mother is “pretty banged up” but didn’t have any internal injuries or broken bones. The family hopes to hold a vigil in Kade’s memory on Tuesday, she said.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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