Local mom: "Survivor's guilt took my son"
April 27th, 2011 is a day the Tennessee Valley will never forget. More than two dozen tornadoes touched down across the southeast, killing hundreds.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama was hit with an EF-f4 tornado that tore the college town to shreds, leaving $2 billion in damage.
The twister, packing winds of over 190 miles per hour, left a path of destruction for 80 miles. 64 people were killed in Tuscaloosa on that April afternoon, including six University of Alabama students.
One young man from North Georgia was in Tuscaloosa when the storm hit. He made it out alive, unfortunately his roommates did not.
Since then, it's been a struggle with survivor's guilt.
Tillman Merritt's mother tells me he felt he should have died with his three friends that day, though his instincts helped him to survive. But the guilt got the best of the Sand Mountain native, and he took his own life.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, other than losing him. It's so hard to see your child suffer like that," said Mitzi Merritt, Tillman's mother.
She described watching her son go through a tragedy many of us will never experience.
Before Tillman had a bright future. He loved playing the guitar and basketball, and he was loved by many.
"I had lots of other sons with Tillman. I had lots of them that were his friends that always were so close," Merritt said.
The closest was Scott Atterton. Friends since middle school, the pair went to the University of Alabama together. They were roommates when the deadly April 2011 tornado outbreak hit Tuscaloosa.
"He told me that when the tornado was getting ready to come, they had all four got in the hallway," Merritt said.
But a gut feeling told Tillman to go to the closet. His friends wouldn't follow.
"He said he finally was able to crawl out of the closet, then he found his friends," his mother said.
Scott and their two friends, Morgan Sigler and Blake Peak, died that day.
"He has dealt with that feeling survivor's guilt, feeling like he should have gone with them," Merritt said.
Tillman went to counseling and tried to move on with life with his girlfriend. They're expecting a baby next month.
But Tillman left subtle signs he really wasn't ok. He took his own life on July 12th.
"He said 'I feel so bad today mom'. He said 'this is the worst day I've ever had'. I should have got up right then and gone over there," his mother said.
Experts say survivors guilt is a common side effect after a natural disaster or any traumatic loss of a loved one.
Mitzi Merritt wants to help educate families in hopes of saving at least one life.
"It literally takes your heart away. I mean it's like your heart is broken, and a big piece has gone out of it, and you miss him so much," Merritt said.
If you need help with suicide for a loved one or yourself, visit the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network's web site.
The Merritt's are holding a benefit dinner this Saturday evening to help pay for Tillman's funeral costs. It's happening at 5:00 p.m. at North Sand Mountain High School.
The family has also set up a bank account for anonymous donations. You can go to the Citizen's Bank and Trust at Bryant, Alabama. You can make donations out to the Tillman Merritt Saving's Account.