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April 27th 2011 was supposed to be just another day. It was my off day from the coal mine and I was looking forward to taking it easy. On my way home from work the previous night I stopped off at Wal-Mart to buy a new grille. I spent all night until 4:30 am putting it together in my garage. I'd say I woke up at about 7:30 that morning with a couple hours of sleep under my belt and fired up the new grille. Close to noon as I had just finished cooking the last bit of deer meat from the 2010 season It started to rain. I quickly pushed my grille into the garage and made my way inside to find my pregnant wife Kinsley putting my three and a half year old daughter Gracelyn in the bathtub and shielding her with pillows. All morning her family had been calling warning her of the storms that were on their way and how we needed to leave our home and seek shelter in a house with a basement. Me being from Texas and growing up in tornado alley thought they didn't know what they were talking about. After the wind picked up enough that you could hear it from inside the house I decided to stand outside on the porch as most men do and look up at the sky. As I peered into the dark overcast sky I was able to see an Oak leaf hovering a couple hundred feet above the tallest tree in the neighborhood and to the left of that was a magazine floating in a circular motion even higher. I immediately knew that there had to be a tornado nearby so I ran into the house to fetch Kinsley and Gracelyn.
We quickly made our way across the street where me maw waited for us on her front porch, as she signaled for us to hurry lightning and thunder crashed all around us. It sounded as if mortars were going off just feet from us as we ran across that road. Once we made it into Me maws house we all made our way down into the basement. I made my way to the windows every now and then just to see what was going on outside and report back. I'll never forget as I watched 25 foot trees whipping in the wind bending so far that their tree tops touched the ground. There was a large crashing sound and then like that it was over.
After maybe a couple of minutes passed, I made my way outside through the basement door and ran around to the front of me maws house to inspect mine for damage. As I rounded the corner I quickly discovered what the large crashing sound was. One of my neighbor's pecan trees had been uprooted and had fallen into his house. Upon investigating the fallen trees and seeing other neighbors making their way out I almost walked into a downed power line that had fallen between mine and me maws house. I quickly ran back into the basement to tell them of what I had seen. As they made their way outside Kinsley's phone started to ring. She began crying and then told us that her mom and dad had lost everything, their whole street was gone. Instantly I ran across the road to my truck and before I even closed the door and fired it up my wife's 14 year old cousin Dalton came running up from down the street. I told him to Jump in as I didn't know what I was getting myself into and I might need all the help I could get.
As we ripped out of the driveway, we found ourselves behind 15 Bessemer police cars. This was highly unusual as Pleasant Grove has their own police force and I'd never seen Bessemer this far out of their jurisdiction. By seeing this all I could think was "This must be bad." It's probably a good three and a half to 4 miles of sub-division between me and my in-laws house. As I made the drive, and got closer I could barely even recognize where I was as almost every tree was gone. I drove as far as I could before being stopped by a jungle of trees that had fallen over covering the road. Knowing that I couldn't get in any closer I parked my truck in a stranger's yard and came to terms with my soon to be 2 mile hike. I didn't know what to expect.
I kicked off my flip flops and threw on some mining boots I had kept in the truck. Then me and Dalton started our Trek. As we entered the Jungle of trees we were greeted by some folks as they were coming out. Halfway through the Jungle I noticed we we're standing in power lines. The way the phases were wrapped around the fallen trees made them look like snakes. We were already too far in to turn back. We now began to move even slower than before through the 100 foot of fallen trees and power lines trying not to get electrocuted. Relieved we made it through, we were immediately greeted by another 60 feet of downed trees. As soon as we made it out of the trees it was like we stepped into a third world country. There was trash everywhere and it looked like the streets of Baghdad, Iraq.
We first ran into a man whose right arm was covered in scratches and blood, his left ear was also bleeding. I asked the man if there was anything I could do to help him, he said he was fine but spoke of an 83 year old man who had been banged up pretty bad and might have a head trauma in the house ahead of us. As he and many others made their way out we continued in.
When we walked up to the house the man had told us about we were greeted by a sweet elderly lady who welcomed us into her home, muddy boots and all. We asked about her husband and she quickly took us to the room where he was sitting in a bath chair up against the corner of a wall. He was on an oxygen tank and had a laceration on his arm which had already been bandaged up. I began to check his pupils as the elderly lady handed me a flashlight, but she insisted he hadn't hit his head as the man had mentioned. Knowing that there was nothing else we could do, we asked the lady if she needed anything. She said that she would really like to contact her family and let them know that her and her husband were ok. Dalton quickly held out his phone to the woman and said "Here you need this more than I do." As we started to leave the elderly woman asked how she could get him his phone, he said "leave it on the porch or I'll just get a new one, no big deal." It blew me away to see a 14 year old give away his cell phone in a time of need like that.
As we traveled down the seemingly war torn streets trying to make it to my in-laws we began seeing more people who were wounded from the storm. We came across a group of women standing at an intersection in the road, staring at the remains of their homes in disbelief. We asked if they and their families were ok and they responded yes. Then we kindly asked them if they wouldn't mind checking some of the other houses on their street looking for people that might still be trapped. They disbursed and I'd like to believe they went on to help others.
The next house we came to we couldn't help but stop. A man, and three of his teenage children were crying frantically in their driveway. One kid was even laying on the ground which made me think he was hurt. As I ran up I quickly noticed the father of the three had an open gash on the side of his head. He was crying and began to tell me how he was helping the children, then reached back for his wife and it was too late, She was dead and there was nothing he could do. I knew that there was nothing I could do but stop and say a prayer for the man. I assured him that help was on the way. This was the first casualty we came across and this was the moment the realness sank in, and made my need to get to my in-laws house even stronger.
About 80 yards from the first casualty we ran into another obstacle. It was a downed Transmission line with all three phases lying across the road. I swallowed hard looking for ways to engage this obstacle without putting me or Dalton in any danger. It was a short moment before I saw a couple of people cross over it and figured if they could do it, we could to. We found a spot we thought was safer and we crossed. Once through the High Voltage Transmission lines we had to fight through more downed power lines tangled in trees.
At this point we had already ran over a mile and were growing closer to our destination. As we neared the unrecognizable road where we needed to turn we ran into multiple strangers. They all stopped us and said "There are two children trapped in a basement, you've got to save them." So we changed course and went to help the trapped children. Even as we made our way towards them, people were stopping us to tell us about the trapped kids and how we needed to help them. The devastation grew worse the closer we got to the kids. Most houses had nothing left but the steps leading up to their used to be front doors.
As we sprinted closer to the house I saw a young teenager maybe around 12 or 13 dragging a heavy jack. He seemed as if he were having trouble with it so I reached down and scooped it up and onto my shoulder. I asked him where the children were. He just pointed at a small group of people and said "Over there." I ran as fast as I could with the jack.
When we made it on the scene I ran through the crowd of people with the Jack in hand and began to lower it into the basement when a voice said, "We don't need it anymore." I then threw the jack out of the way and tried to get back in the huddle to help. As I eased closer I realized they were counting down to lift someone out so I backed off so I wouldn't hinder any rescue attempt. As I stood there waiting to see the a child being pulled from the rubble it never happened. Instead they pulled out a woman. As soon as they got her chest high I realized who it was. They then pulled one more time and layed her down at my feet. It was mine and my wife's good friend Carrie Lowe. In a state of shock I instantly thought of a time two weeks from then that I sat across from her at her house while delivering gifts for her newborn son Tucker. I quickly snapped back and began asking about her child. Finally someone said that he was ok and some neighbors were taking him to get cleaned up at a house nearby. People began working frantically to try and resuscitate Carrie by means of CPR. I called her name "C'mon Carrie, C'mon." But nothing happened. Then My friend Josh appeared. He was cut up pretty bad and had a limp where he'd sprained his ankle. I ran to Josh to comfort him. I felt like I was all he had so I stayed with him as they worked on his wife. I asked him about his son and he said he was fine. He then said he had instructed the neighbors that had his son to meet up with his brother in-law up the road who was also in the same basement they pulled Carrie from. His wife and two children were injured so they were already in route to seek help. Josh then asked me to check on Tucker. I ran back down the road as fast as my legs could carry me trying to find Tucker and see that he was alright. When I came across Tucker he was being held by a young black woman named Monica and a friend of Josh's whom I'd never met was walking alongside her. The friend told me she was going to see that Tucker made it to His brother in-law. Before I left I told Monica that she needed to care for Tucker as he was her own. I told her that Carrie was dead and Tucker was all Josh had left. I felt that by telling her this it would stress the importance of her protecting Tucker. I quickly made my way back to Josh where neighbors were still working hard to try and bring her back. I walked with Josh a little while and explained how a friend of his was seeing to it that Tucker made it to his Brother in-law. It was moments later that this same friend returned and told us she didn't know where Tucker was.
I guess in a state of shock she turned around and came back leaving Monica with a child she had no idea who the father was.
After an hour of working on Carrie with no response a nurse who had made it on the scene told Josh that Carrie was dead. I remembered for a brief moment imagining my wife there as they worked to try and bring Carrie back. I couldn't or I can't even now Imagine the amount of pain my friend was suffering that day right in front of my eyes. I told Josh he needed to find his son. Tucker needed him more than anything right now and he had to be strong. Josh wouldn't leave though. He told me he couldn't just leave Carrie lying there. I understood his pain. As I looked at Josh and then at Carrie it became apparent what I had to do. I told Josh I would stay with Carrie. It didn't matter if I had to stay until the next day, I wasn't going to leave her side. He thanked me and then he went off to find Tucker.
I sat there next to Carrie with Dalton waiting for any sign of rescuers. I tried to wrap my brain around why someone so young, a mother of only 7 weeks and a good friend had to leave life this way. Where were the rescuers I thought. Me and my 14 year old cousin made it in on foot and yet after hours had passed by we hadn't seen one uniformed person. Where were all of those Bessemer police I followed in?
It started to get dark. Once again thunder and lightning crashed around me and Dalton so we devised a plan to find shelter in the event of another tornado. As the rain pounded down I told Dalton to get in Josh and Carries car directly in front of us on the street. There was only room for one as the car was totaled by the tornado so I made Dalton get in to try and keep him out of the rain. I put my hand on Carries shoulder and said a prayer. Moments later the rain picked up even more and the wind was starting to give us a scare. I got up and headed towards the car to see if there was anyway I could squeeze in with Dalton. As we were working to clear the shattered glass a lonely light came limping down the road. This was the only light I could see and it was growing nearer by the moment. As the light made it to the hood of the car it shined in my eyes and when I thought it might be a rescuer, to my surprise it was Josh. He was soaking wet and had walked all the way back to us. I asked him why he came back and where Tucker was and he told me that he couldn't find him and that we needed to leave and find him. I explained to him that Carrie had been covered by a sleeping bag and was marked by a stake with a red flag so rescuers could find her. We then made our way back towards my truck. We stopped a few times to let Josh rest as he had been walking the whole evening with a sprained ankle.
When we made it to where the downed trees used to be there were workers still clearing the road. Ambulances and all of the rescuers were staged behind them. People were being toted out on doors and I was still in awe that not a single paramedic had made his way back there. As we crossed the makeshift checkpoint Josh was reunited with his mom and dad and some of his other family members. They embraced each other, cried and asked about Tucker. After Josh and I caught them up with the details they wantede to find Tucker. I volunteered to go back in with one of Josh's Family member's and search for Tucker while Josh went the opposite direction to check with the local portable medical center that had been established and see if Tucker was there.
The next problem was getting back in. We came out but they weren't letting anyone go back in. So Josh's mother pleaded with a Sherriff and got us a ride in. The first place we went was the house where nurse who had worked on Carrie and also checked on Tucker before handing him over to the neighbors lived. When we knocked on the door her husband had answered and said she was still out there helping people. We also asked a few neighbors but they didn't know anything. As we made our way back out of the Sub division we stopped and asked officers if they saw Monica and Tucker. A couple of them told us she had been by an hour ago. This was a sign of hope. The last officer we talked to had said he thought her and Tucker went back in. We continued to the medical center to see if we could find Tucker. We met back up with Josh and half his family outside the medical center which was set up at city hall and we all marched up with hopes of finding him there. We had no luck, but personnel took Josh's name and number and the name of the Lady who had Tucker assuring us that they'd call if they found him.
It was moments after that when it was sinking in that we may not find Tucker until the next day that someone called Josh and told him that Tucker was on the news and they found him. Apparently one of his family members had called the local news station and told them about Tucker being separated from his father and gave them a photo and within minutes Monica called the news station and Josh had an address. I went to Josh's house to wait for his call as there wasn't any room in the back of the Sherriff's car for me to ride back in with him. We got the call at 11:30pm that night that Tucker and Josh had been reunited. I then told Josh's family to tell him I loved him and he would be in my prayers. As I drove home I reflected on the day. It all hit me at once like the tornado, Maybe I was trying to be strong for Josh or maybe I was in shock so much I couldn't cry, but when I drove away from Josh's house The tears poured out like rain.