I know I need to document our experience with the tornado, but I’m having a hard time mustering up the words. I know I need to write it all down before I forget the details, even though I keep going over it in mind constantly. This is going to be pretty long so I understand if you just want to move on to something a bit more light-hearted.
Olivia and I take our cameras everywhere, mainly because we blog,
little did we know what laid ahead of us this night!
April 27, 2011
Wednesday morning I was awoken by hail hitting my bedroom window, that is stronger than a cup of coffee to get you going! Shortly after that our power went out. Jeff and Josh were out most of the day cutting trees with the fire department.
All day long the weather guys kept telling us bad storms were coming and to take it seriously. Late in the afternoon Jeff insisted we stay at the fire department (their power was on) and it might be safer than our house. There were several fellow firefighters there too. We watched the TV and the sky…
we even watched things fall from the sky, aluminum siding, shingles, papers…it was all so strange. Some of the papers were from Tuscaloosa, 160 miles away!!!
The man that lives next to the fire department found a $100 in his yard!!!
Which at the time was kind of funny, but now it’s not…
we had no idea the suffering that came with the bill!
We heard a tornado had hit Shoal Creek Valley where many of our friends lived. I tried calling and got no answer. I called Robin and asked her to try to call the Boyds, I didn’t have their number in my cell phone. I knew it was taking her a long time to call me back. Meanwhile some of the Huie family (dear friends and church family) had pulled up at the fire department to talk. We were all curious about our friends 30 minutes away in the Valley.
Robin called me back and said the Crawfords home was gone. We then heard that people were dead. Jeff and Josh ran to grab the chain saws and flashlights; then they took off in Josh’s truck and the Huie’s suburban. Shortly after they left, Trish (Mrs. Huie), Olivia, Emma and I decided that we needed to go too. I think it was 8:00.
Driving down there in the dark with rain and lightening, we listened to the radio for reports, thoughts raced through my mind wondering who was dead, was it Kelly? Was it her children? Was it Aaron? Was it the Boyds or Leses? I couldn’t picture in my mind Kelly’s home being gone, I spend a lot of time there. At the same time I was thinking how my husband was going to be so mad at me for heading down there without his protection (anyone that knows him knows I am his #1 priority!). I fret quietly…Trish frets out loud…she was saying all the tings I was thinking.
There are two ways into the Valley. The guys were about 15 minutes ahead of us (not knowing we were coming) and they were turned around to come in the long way; come to find out they were only letting emergency crews in on the short end. By the time we got there the guys were just turning to go the long way and they were RIGHT IN FRONT OF US! It is a miracle that we ended up at the same place at the same time and them in front!!! This became a very important part of the night.
Josh’s truck was the first one behind the first responders (county/city trucks?), then the Huie’s suburban, then me in a minivan with women not dressed or prepared for a cool, rainy night…Olivia had on flip flops and a skirt! We had NO CLUE what we were about to drive into. I expected some trees down, but not 6 1/2 miles of downed trees and power lines!!! And it wasn’t a few tress here and there, it was piles of trees!
For 5 hours Jeff, Josh and John, along with other men, cut through downed trees with flashlights and the lights of trucks. They cleared one lane of the road for us to squeeze through.
At one point the trees were not movable and the trucks were going around them making a mud pit. Fear came over me because my minivan did not have 4 wheel drive, I knew I would not make it; I dreaded the thought of hindering the people behind me trying to get through to help. About that time John came walking back to me and gently reassured me that I was NOT going to be able to make it through the mud, especially with a FLAT TIRE!!! I must have popped it as I scraped through the last bunch of trees. He got in the driver’s seat and pulled it as far out of the way as possible, then all of us girls got in the suburban.
Jed Huie, 17, was driving Josh’s truck; Johnny Huie, 19, was left to stay with us in the suburban. John ran on with a chain saw to catch up with Jeff and Josh. Dozens of men would walk past us carrying chain saws.
Duane, Johnny, Trish
Then we saw a familiar face, Duane Prittchet, another dear friend of ours, who also lives 30 minutes away. He confirmed to us that it was Tom Lee (husband and father to 13), that had died and that 2 of his daughters were injured, Duane was on his way to the front line.
Johnny begged his mom to let him go on with the other men, we all just wanted to get to our friends! Trish ended up driving the suburban and Olivia 20, drove Josh’s truck.
(This picture was taken 2 days later, but it is what the men worked through during the night.)
We just inched on up as the men cleared. Occasionally a tractor would come trough, what a welcomed site they were!
At one point we were stuck sitting for and hour or so, we heard there was a gas leak. We were sitting in front of 2 houses that were just a pile of bricks and rubble. We watched injured people walk by. Then we saw people walking up and begin to yell, and scream, and run. It was horrible! Family and friends were finding out that this family died. I have no words to describe this scene. Finally some rescue trucks made their way in and a school bus that was all lit up. When they pulled up in the driveway the inside lights were turned off, we realized they were loading dead bodies. I watched the coroner walk away, he was in high demand that night.
While all of that was happening others around us were pleading for help as their loved ones were trapped up the road, one lady way crying out that she couldn’t find her brother. We were helpless, we had no flashlights because the men had them. Olivia did go comfort one women whose family was dead.
While the dozen of men cut through what seemed like a forest of trees, we were hearing stories of people suffering and dying on the road sides.
The Welsh Retreat Center on day 3, the Lee’s home was just on the back side of it.
The windows were blown out and everything tossed around inside.
Remains of the Lee’s Home – Day 3
When Jeff first got word that the Lees were trapped he left his chainsaw and began running and climbing mounds of trees to get to OUR PEOPLE! By the time he got there the Lees had been dug out and moved to the Retreat Center; then he ran to the Boyds, there he found the rest of OUR PEOPLE. Praise the LORD!
Our men came back to where we ladies were, dehydrated gasping for water and totally soaked in sweat as if they had just run a marathon. Jeff’s throat was raw from all the pine and lack of water and could hardly sallow. Again, it was confirmed that Tom was dead and John, who is a veterinarian, with an urgent, yet calm in his voice insisted we get to Tiffany as fast as we could, he was very concerned about her going into shock.
John, Trish, Johnny, Jed and myself arrived at the log cabin style Retreat Center which was still standing but looked as if a bomb had been set off on the inside. The Lees were sheltered there, they had already been pulled from their shredded house next door.
The EMTs were loading the Lee girls in an ambulance, their brother was already taken away. The family’s younger children were huddled in the center of the living room with only a few flashlights and the children were wrapped in blankets as they sat on top of debris, at least they were out of the rain and wind. Tom’s body was also in the Retreat Center but out of sight waiting for the officials.
Sherry Lee was the PERFECT image of a Godly woman. She was truly clothed with strength and dignity! (Prov 31). There were several fathers and sons there to aid Sherry and the children. There was a STRONG peace in that room even in the midst of physical and emotional pain. It was a totally different scene than what we had witnessed during the hours of trying to get to them.
Trish and I were the first women to arrive there with Sherry. She sweetly smiled when she saw us walk in, she hugged us and thanked us for coming. She praised our husbands and sons for their efforts to aid them. I have never been so humbled in all my life! Each of her daughters, even the little ones, crawled out of their blankets and thanked us for coming. This is how the Lees live, always thinking of others first! She talked of neighbors, concerned for their lives because some were not Christians. I felt so helpless! I just wanted to gather them all up and carry them out of there.
It was the most sobering, heart breaking thing to listen to Jordan slowly and clearly give the officials his father’s full name and birth date, never quivering and staying in complete control; what a heavy weight for a young MAN, his dad would be so proud!
I listened and watched as Jordan GENTLY led his mother into decisions that needed to be made. He led in a way that still gave her the final say. He would tenderly and slowly suggest what he thought was best and patiently waited for her decision, she trusted him. This was a family that lived in a spirit of love and unity, which brought the blessings of walking through a crisis in peace and unity.
Body Home Day 3 – Which has become a command center.
Jeff, Josh, John, Johnny, Jed and the girls went back to the Boyd’s home which was damaged but standing as it held all of our friends that were sheltered at the Crawfords, a total of 35 people. Trish and I stayed with Sherry. Then two men from our church came walking in, Ted Phillips, who is an elder and does most of our preaching and Alan Marsh, a deacon, both dear friends. It was so comforting to see “family” there. Their presence was strong, yet calm, just as everyone else’s in that Retreat Center. I must say, these men are REAL MEN…all of them. They all treated Sherry and her family with so much tenderness and respect.
(Revised and Updated) Account from Ted Phillips:
Mark Travers took the Lee family to the Travers home. Jordan, Duane, Alan, the Shultz brothers and I helped the coroners load Tom’s body into their vehicle. Then we stood still and watched silently with Jordan as they drove down the long drive and down the road out of site. When the coroner’s vehicle disappeared in the night, someone said, “Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Father”. After that Duane took Jordan to find his brother and sisters in the hospital and I went to the Boyd’s until daybreak.
It was about 3:30 am by this point and Jeff came to make me go home. Some of Sherry’s closest women friends, the Shultzs, had arrived by now, and Tom’s body had been removed.
Our family got in Josh’s truck and drove carefully back to the van, passing ambulances and rescue squads; we watched the Lifesaver helicopters finally make their way in and out of the Valley several times.
Jeff and Josh changed my flat tire by flashlight…THEN I had a dead battery from the flashers being on so long! It was this feeling that we were never going to get home! Thankfully Josh had 20 ft. jumper cables…otherwise we’d been there longer.
We arrived back home a little after 4 am and collapsed into our beds only for the phone to begin ringing at 6:00 am, which began the work of clean up and food preparations …and A LOT of hugging and saying I LOVE YOU!
The Christian homeschool community here is a very tight knit one and a big one. This began the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed, where God gives beauty for ashes…: Part 2