Laurel couple laid to rest in tornado-ravaged plot

Mourners leave the chapel after the service for storm victims Wilburn Pitman, 81, and Virginia Pitman, 73, of East Bernstadt on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at Bowling Funeral Home in London, Ky. Photo by David Perry | Staff
Mourners leave the chapel after the service for storm victims Wilburn Pitman, 81, and Virginia Pitman, 73, of East Bernstadt on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at Bowling Funeral Home in London, Ky. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

LONDON — Denny McCowan recalled Wednesday how Wilburn Pitman gave McCowan a treeing dog 45 years ago, getting him started on a lifelong love of hunting, and what a fine mother Virginia Pitman was to the couple's five sons.

"They were precious people," he said.

McCowan, pastor of East Pittsburg Baptist Church, spoke at the funeral for the Pitmans, the first of three scheduled for the five people who died after a deadly tornado destroyed their homes in Laurel County on Friday.

Wilburn Pitman, 81, and Virginia Pitman, 72, were at their mobile home on a ridge in the northern part of the county when the tornado hit. One of their sons, Clint Pitman; his wife, Tracy; and their grandson Konnor, 4, were home next door.

As the fast-moving storm roared in, Tracy Pitman put Konnor on the floor and covered him with a pillow, then wrapped her arms around him while Clint Pitman covered both of them, she said.

They could feel their 14-by-70-foot mobile home rocking, then flipping and twisting before the tornado slammed it down, shattering the structure, Tracy Pitman said.

Clint Pitman pushed debris off of them, and led them out of the rubble to a truck in the yard. The three were cut and bruised.

Pitman, 47, immediately went to look for his parents, but their home was gone and he didn't have a flashlight to penetrate the pitch blackness.

He drove his wife and grandson through a fence and a field to the home of a neighbor, who returned with him to look for his parents, Tracy Pitman said.

Frantic searchers found the couple in the wreckage of their home, which had been blown into a treeline about 200 feet from where it had sat.

The two were clinging to life. A grandson, Dale Pitman, carried his grandmother to a waiting truck to go meet the ambulance. Clint Pitman and others carried Wilburn Pitman on a piece of wood, Tracy Pitman said.

"He kept saying, 'Son, take care of your mom,'" Tracy Pitman, 41, said Wednesday.

Wilburn Pitman died by the time emergency workers got him to St. Joseph London hospital.

His wife died the next day at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

The couple, who had 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, would have been married 56 years in July.

They lay together Wednesday in separate polished-wood caskets in the chapel of Bowling Funeral Home, flanked by flowers and photos of themselves as a younger couple.

Virginia Pitman had worked at the American Greetings and Caron Spinning factories in Laurel County and later at Shiloh restaurant, where some called her Granny, Tracy Pitman said.

Virginia Pitman enjoyed decorating her home and yard, worked hard and was devoted to her family, Pitman said.

"Her family was her life," Pitman said.

Wilburn Pitman had been a truck driver for the state. He was a kind, humble man who loved to trade dogs and hunt.

He also was an Army veteran, serving in the early 1950s.

The funeral for the Pitmans opened with a recording of Amazing Grace played on the bagpipes as an honor guard from Chapters 66 and 158 of the Disabled American Veterans filed in.

Randy Bingham, pastor of Hazel Patch Baptist Church, which Wilburn Pitman attended regularly, talked of how difficult it is for the couple's sons to lose both parents at once.

"There's going to be a great void," he said.

Bingham also noted the hope of heaven that Christians have.

"There's another life out there," he said. "I want you to trust that your parents are in the hands of a merciful God."

The five deaths — and the injuries and destruction caused by the tornado — have caused great loss in the county, but the disaster also has brought an encouraging outpouring of support from the community, Bingham said.

"You've got a community that's behind you in this hour of grief," he said to the Pitman family.

As the funeral procession of dozens of cars traveled north from London on U.S. 25, oncoming cars pulled off the road. One teary-eyed woman stood in her yard and bowed her head.

At the graveside ceremony, the honor guard fired a 21-gun salute before playing a recording of taps.

The Pitmans were buried side by side, the first two graves in a new family cemetery on the ridge where they lived, where their family still faces the job of clearing away the wreckage of lives cut short and turned upside down.

Tracy Pitman said her mother-in-law had wanted to be buried beneath a big cedar tree on the ridge, but the tornado uprooted it.

Her sons plan to dig up another cedar nearby and plant it near the graves.