In the path

A tornado descends, damages and unites

An alarm buzzes at 5 a.m. on March 2, just like any other workday. Jeanette Robertson rises out of bed to get to Henryville Junior/Senior High School by 7.

In the background, the local morning news warns of severe weather, but the rush to get out the door dilutes any urgency in the message. She rouses her daughter and stepdaughters at 5:30. Only when Jeanette’s 14-year-old, Samantha, asks if she can go to her cousin’s house in Salem after school does Jeanette pause.

“We’ll have to wait and see how it looks,” she says before leaving the house. No raincoat, no umbrella. It’s supposed to be warm today.

At 44, Jeanette, a woman with thin, pretty features and a thick drawl, has worked a number of jobs. Her post in the high school’s attendance office is her favorite. She loves the constant buzz of activity, the kids. Her husband, Dale, works in the building’s maintenance department.

She arrives on this Friday with her caffeine of choice, Pepsi on ice, in hand. Today’s a good day — payday. As is custom, all the staff will meet in the library for muffins, fruit, maybe even biscuits and gravy to celebrate paychecks before the first bell rings.

By 8:30 a.m., Jeanette is at her computer, pink fingernails typing in absentees. She calls parents to ensure no one’s ditching. A few report keeping kids home because of possible nasty weather.

Jeanette’s no stranger to storms. Growing up in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, tornado seasons have come and gone. Trips to the basement rarely register as noteworthy. She’s too young to remember the April 3, 1974, tornado that struck Louisville. And too busy, at the moment, to pay attention to any chatter on the radio or TV warning of conditions rivaling that catastrophic day.

By 11 a.m., understandably, the main concern is lunch. Jeanette gathers orders for Budroe’s Family Restaurant across the street. She decides on hot wings.

Next time she sees this modest house-turned-restaurant, a mangled West Clark Community Schools bus will be nestled in its dining area like a plug in a socket. It’s a sight that will accompany headlines around the world.

But at this point, around lunchtime, life in Henryville progresses as normal. St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church prepares for the evening’s Lenten fish fry. Jeanette’s sister and mother-in-law finish up at the hairdresser. Kids count down until the weekend.

Not until around 1 p.m. does the office stir. Jeanette hears businesses are closing in Louisville.

“Are you closing early?” parents call, wondering.

“No, not that I’ve heard,” Jeanette answers.

An hour later — 2 p.m. — her phone rings incessantly. Every line lights up in red. Panicked voices on the other end demand their children be let out immediately. Jeanette starts a list: Stevie, Alyssa, Jonathon.

She searches the computer to see what classes they’re in and calls their teachers. Her list grows by the dozens. If there’s truth to a calm before the storm, it misses the attendance office.

Outside, volatility has been quietly building all day over the Ohio Valley.

A dangerous day

Church bells chime in Henryville, Ind.

It’s just after 3 p.m., exactly one week after a tornado reduced much of their 2,000-person community to a soggy, scattered puzzle.

Inside St. Francis Xavier Church, at the town’s main four-way stop, the Rev. Steve Schaftlein addresses about 30 people hunched in pews, many windswept and sniffling from a chilly day spent cleaning up. Overhead, plywood boards patch week-old gashes in the ceiling. Two red candles flicker at the altar.

In a way, Henryville is lucky. Of the more than 30 people who died in Kentucky and Indiana due to the March 2 tornadoes, only one lived here. Schaftlein reads the names of the deceased aloud as heads bow.

“God doesn’t play games with us,” he reflects. “He loves us.”

The priest knows some of his parishioners have looked to a higher power asking, “Why?”

He can’t answer that question, but hopes the church, its cross unscathed, upright at the top of the steeple, provides comfort. Schaftlein’s been organizing outreach efforts almost nonstop since last week. Sneakers and jeans peek out from underneath his purple vestments. In the church’s cramped basement, food, tarps and clothing await distribution to the needy.

Goodwill has descended on Henryville, and you can hear it on the other side of the yellow brick walls. It’s a cacophonous blend: rhythmic chirps from trucks reversing, generators humming, the occasional cough of chainsaws firing up. Hundreds of volunteers, some from as far away as Denver, are behind much of the effort. Even corporations want to pitch in. The local Family Dollar donated cartloads of food. The yeasty smell of dough rises from a Little Caesar’s truck baking free pizzas.

It’s an impressive response to what will go down as the worst tornado outbreak for early March on record.

Eighty tornado sightings were reported that day in the southeastern United States. One tornado that tore through Southern Indiana stayed on the ground for 49 minutes, covering 49 miles, hopping the Ohio River into Trimble County, Ky., before finally dissipating.

At its greatest magnitude, the tornado extended up to a half-mile wide and hit the penultimate classification, an EF-4, meaning winds reached around 170 mph. Inside this massive tornado, mini-tornadoes snuck around, a concealed army of power saws.

At the National Weather Service in Louisville, eyes widened when meteorologists noticed a ball of debris appear on the radar minutes after the tornado dipped into the Indiana countryside. This was going to be bad.

That morning, some sensed impending doom, like Pierce-Polk Township volunteer fire chief Robert Mull. The New Pekin, Ind., native knows the Borden Valley — where the town is situated — seems to attract tornadoes: the powerful twister of 1974, a smaller one in 2004. On the morning of March 2, he snapped his multi-channel public safety radio, pager and cell phone onto his belt before leaving for work. The night before, he predicted to his wife, “We’re due.”

For Mull, it was a gut feeling. Others relied on deep knowledge.

The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore, a chiseled, recognizable oracle, staged his crews in Louisville by midday, ominously telling a Courier-Journal videographer it was a “dangerous day” for tornadoes.

“We’re not here because Louisville per se is going to get hit, even though they may,” Cantore told the C-J.

But we didn’t. Though droves of Louisvillians headed home from work and school early, their precautions were for naught.

Many sat on the couch, waiting for the cue to seek a “safe place.” But the mischievous atmosphere’s tantrum would veer 20 miles north. As harmless rain dampened the streets of Louisville, the storm felt a world away.

Soon, all the sad details emerged. More than 400 structures in Indiana’s Washington and Clark counties alone were damaged or destroyed. A mother protecting her two children lost her legs after falling debris crushed her. An entire family of five died.

It’s an indelible disaster, especially for those who were in the path.

‘It’s going to hit Henryville’

The pace of phone calls from worried parents hastens as the 2 o’clock hour wears on. Jeanette Robertson can’t keep up. Thunderstorms rolled through just a few days before, why such anxiety today?

A light gray shades the sky. Nothing menacing, just a feeble sign of shifting climates. But supercell storms take
their time.

Today’s starts early, with a warm front from the Gulf of Mexico unleashing wild veins of lightning before settling down with a blanket of unseasonably sticky air. The sun then rises. Winds deploy. The key ingredient to a tornado, wind shear, essentially a layer cake of winds from opposing directions, stacks up. On the ground, winds blow to the south. Then from the southeast, up a spiral staircase, until the top layer gusts from the west. All this develops as a cold front moves in. High in the atmosphere, the strong jet stream wiggles, adding to the instability. It’s the final ingredient in concocting the supercell that will spawn today’s tornado.

Around 2:30, Henryville High School principal Troy Albert receives a call.

The district superintendent wants to know if the busses are at school.

Albert says yes.

“You’ve got 30 minutes to get everyone home … it’s going to hit Henryville,” Albert recalls the superintendent saying.

Albert, a burly, gentle 51-year-old, grabs the intercom. He instructs students to go straight to their busses or cars and head home. Staff, too. Jeanette detects an unusual gravity in his voice.

“Mom, what’s going on?” Samantha, her daughter, asks upon walking into the office.

“Just hang on to me and stay with me,” Jeanette says.

The school clears, quicker than anyone could’ve anticipated.

By 3 p.m., robotic warnings from the weather radio escalate. The ultimate alert, a tornado emergency, has been issued by the weather service. A tornado is on the ground, traveling at roughly 60 mph.

It exits Washington County at 3:08, having ripped up 5-inch thick asphalt chunks, trailers and thousands of trees along the way.

It touches Clark County at 3:09, winds clocking 120 mph. Barreling toward Henryville, the tornado grows wider, faster, elbowing semis away, trapping drivers along Interstate 65.

A bus driver spots the funnel cloud. The school’s up ahead. He pulls in and rushes the students still on the bus into the central office.

Jeanette can’t help but look. She hustles to the window behind her desk and draws open the blinds. She remembers a guidance counselor saying earlier in the day she’d always wanted to see a tornado.

“Renee,” she calls out to her.

But when Jeanette’s hazel eyes peer out, her curiosity ceases. A piece of metal siding the size of a refrigerator rotates in the air. Random bits of Indiana merrily spin before her.

“We’ve got to get down,” she says.

The principal’s designated a windowless, approximately 3-foot-wide hallway leading to the nurse’s station as shelter. Thirty-three students and employees pile in, grabbing textbooks to open and fold over their heads as protection.

“We all got in this together,” principal Albert says. “We’re all going to get out of this together.”

Jeanette lies on top of Samantha, hugging her tightly. And waits.

It’s a surreal taste of the gap between life and death. And yet, it so closely mimics tornado drills — the crouching in hallways, textbooks. Sure, the fear of being sucked away briefly rattles Jeanette, but the ease of motions allows a calm to envelop her.

“Dear Heavenly Father, please watch over us and keep us safe,” Jeanette says on repeat, a shiny cross dangling from her neck.

Other voices chime in.

“Dear Heavenly Father, please watch over us and keep us safe.”

A roar begins. It’s incredible. Just like everyone says — a freight train.

Rumbling treads underneath the skin. Ears pop. Jeanette hugs Samantha a little tighter.

The tornado shreds metal like paper with 170 mph winds. An entire wall of the gym gets sucked in. Jeanette’s Toyota Corolla flips and lands upside down in the school’s group presentation room, right outside the office. Its dome light switches on. Ceiling tiles drop around Jeanette, but none fall onto the narrow hallway stuffed with bodies.

It’s like the hand of God was right there, she’ll later say. Perhaps. But the principal also knew that above the small space lay two sturdy steel beams, bracing the framework.

On the other side of the school, in the elementary wing, clusters of students and staff cling together in closets. School busses forfeit their chassis. A cafeteria disappears. Windows burst.

Jeanette will forever remember the twister lasting one, maybe two minutes. But time expands in a tornado. Seconds seem like minutes. It’s estimated the EF-4 sped through Henryville’s elementary and high schools in about 15 seconds.

Then it’s gone. For a few minutes the sky is quiet, though the school’s confused fire alarm blares.

As the tornado trudges northeast, icy softballs begin to fall.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Craters form as they strike soft ground.

“It sounds like hail,” someone says in the central office. Firefighters and police already out on the streets — rescuing ensnared victims — suffer welts from the science-fiction-sized precipitation.

State police appear at the school to usher everyone out of the crumbling husk. Power’s out and no one knows if another tornado is on its way.

Jeanette walks out to a twisted, broken world. She’s shocked by the plumes of insulation, yellow and delicate, strewn like confetti.

Her husband, Dale, rushes to turn off a ruptured 4-inch gas pipe as the rest of the group runs next door to the community center.

Hail gives way to heavy rain, making it hard to see. Cold, wet needles prick Jeanette’s skin through her shirt’s sheer sleeves. Water gushes inside her backless shoes.

Hours of chaotic aftermath are a blur. Some cry. Jeanette develops a throbbing headache. It creeps from the base of her neck, curling over to the front of her head. It pulses as she returns home to find broken windows — hail damage. That night, as she and Dale get ready to sleep, profound nausea takes root.

She races to the bathroom and throws up. The day that started like any other is finally over.

Search and Rescue

For John Miller, time feels like it stops around 3 p.m.

He’s just watched a funnel cloud slice through his hometown of New Pekin, flattening the old Mt. Washington church up on the hill, along with a 10,000-square-foot plant belonging to Airgo Industries. A shipment of cargo containers bound for a military base in Afghanistan is gone. So is Worley’s Lumber, a small lumberyard just over the railroad tracks in an area known as Old Pekin.

John, a volunteer firefighter with the Pierce-Polk Fire Department since his teens, knows he’s needed. Running on adrenalin, the outgoing 22-year-old flees the plastic manufacturer where he works and heads into a volley of hail the size of baseballs. One pelts him in the chin where a triangular patch of hair grows.

It feels like a fastball, the former catcher remembers.

He hops into his Chevy pickup and heads toward Old Pekin. As usual, he wears his firefighter belt buckle, about the size of a fist. On the bronze oval, one firefighter holds a boy and a girl, another carries a little girl down a ladder, behind the firefighter’s symbol — a Maltese cross.

By the time John arrives at Old Pekin and Hurst roads, his fire department’s deputy chief, Jeff Miller (no relation) is already there, bleeding. Hail sliced open his right ear. Chief Robert Mull is on the scene, too.

Thick debris coats fields along the rural road.

The Chief dubs this place ground zero, though the tornado’s left 14 miles of destruction in their precinct. Within the hour, first responders from all over the region trickle in to assist the small department of 20.

Glancing into the vast mess, the strength of the storms becomes clear. Metal rods from a nearby welding shop wound up lodged in the logs of Worley’s Lumber like little darts.

Instinctively, Jeff senses fatalities. His dad was a storm chaser. The two used to watch training videos together. The 35-year-old, who carries a lawman’s brawny grit, braces for death, injury and the unknown. Neighbors help dispatch the particulars of potential victims.

A trailer used to sit on this field. Only ruins remain. A family of five is unaccounted for. The grid search orders go out.

John Miller carefully begins sifting through rubble. It’s almost impossible to walk across the snarled metal and snapped trees. Nearby, a busted propane tank hisses, spewing a gentle fog.

“So eerie,” he later recalls.

A man who lives in a now-decimated home tells rescuers he tried to get the family into his house, away from the trailer that would surely crush in the storm. But his efforts came too late.

John’s large blue eyes scan for life. He comes to a dirt pile, followed by gravel. Then he sees him: 21-year-old Joseph Babcock lying on the ground, still.

He yells to Jeff, but grumbling diesel engines muffle his shouts.

John radios in.

“I found the guy,” he reports into his two-way. It strikes him how much the body resembles a mannequin, like the lifeless dolls they use in training.

“Oh, shit.”

About 10 feet away, John sees a baby, a little girl. Her name is Angel. She’s bruised, dirty. Tiny grunts leave her throat. Her 15-month-old legs kick. She shows signs of head trauma, but she’s alive.

John tenderly lifts Angel. Her neck slips into the cradle between his forefinger and thumb. His other three fingers line up to brace her upper back in a C-spine hold, just like he learned in first responder class.

John sprints about 100 yards to the nearest EMT squad and passes Angel to them. Minutes later, John locates the mother, 20-year-old Moriah Brough, not far from where her husband’s body rested. Another firefighter retrieves the family’s 2-month-old, deceased in a car seat, along with their 2-year-old boy.

Firefighters deal with death all the time. Tragic car wrecks and work-related accidents occur so frequently that one develops a tolerance, almost an immunity.

This feels different. Even for fate and circumstance, the callousness seems unfathomable.

Despite counsel by chaplains, John still struggles with the idea that nothing could save the young parents, a toddler, an infant and Angel, who died from traumatic brain injury at Kosair Children’s Hospital two days after the storm.

“That image ain’t ever going to be out of my head,” he says. “I know everything about it.”

The family of five is one of Pierce-Polk’s first search and rescue missions of the evening.

As they forge ahead, a few miles up to one of the hardest hit communities, Daisy Hill, the sun comes out, birds chirp.

John helps pull a man out from underneath a trailer. A makeshift backboard constructed from a ladder and fabric carries the injured man away. Winds here exceeded 175 mph. One by one, teams treat injures, clear driveways, manage calls for help, not stopping until about 11 p.m.

In a volunteer fire department, in a town of about 1,300, where most are born and raised, it’s hard not to internalize the disorder. Even though John and Jeff’s houses were untouched, the tornado didn’t hit close to home, it hit home.

John admits, hugging his nieces and nephews post-tornado instigated a “halfway” break down. Meanwhile, Jeff, a 19-year veteran, says his filter is among the squad’s strongest. He keeps emotions out.

“I’ve got friends and family in this area,” he says. “I train to try and help them get through this kind of stuff.”

‘Better Than Before’

Since the storm, First Baptist Church in Henryville has become one of many helpful hubs. A couple hundred volunteers have shown up daily, ready to haul debris, deliver medication — whatever’s needed.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a team from Lowe’s pops into First Baptist, a pleasant surprise as skilled laborers will be what’s needed in the weeks ahead.

A few minutes later, a familiar face arrives. Carol Stoffregen, 56, has been coming to this church for more than four decades.

She’s here to fill out a work order form so crews can move boxes of salvaged belongings.

“Are you here to volunteer?” a woman stationed at a sign-in table asks.

“No, I’m one of the broke-down homes,” Carol chuckles, laugh lines radiating from her wide smile.

One might think joy returns in measured spoonfuls after a tornado destroys your home of 30 years.

Not for Carol.

“So how are you weathering all this?” asks the woman.

“I’m fine!” Carol replies, a cheery tilt to her voice.

The storm’s awakened within her a thankful spirit. She’s happy her family’s alive. The quilt Carol’s mother finished just two weeks before her death? Salvaged. Her daughter’s baby book? Found. The family cat, Tokyo? Discovered clinging to a tree.

On top of that, Carol recently learned insurance money will pay off the three years of mortgage payments she and her husband, Willie, had left on their home. It should also cover reconstruction.

Of course, on the afternoon of March 2, Carol’s mood was neither appreciative nor grateful. Rather, anxiety crept in.

As the storm approached, she left her job as an aide at Henryville Elementary, her 18-year-old son and 7-year-old great niece in tow. For years, First Baptist has opened its basement as a storm shelter. On this day, about 250 filed in.

Carol stacked tables in a corner room beneath the sanctuary. Together, the three hunkered down and prayed as sirens wailed.

A few blocks away, the tornado smacked Carol’s two-story home, splintering the gray vinyl siding.

When it was over, she climbed the church’s wet stairs, crunching glass shards with every step. She looked out the shattered window and could see the apartments well past her home on North Francke Road.

“My house is gone,” she said to no one in particular.

First Baptist’s pastor, Toby Jenkins, went with Carol to see what was left, tiptoeing around pieces of Henryville.

All six of her children were raised in that home. Standing at the lip of destruction, the house looked naked. No roof. No doors. No walls. The bathroom partially existed. Pastor Jenkins hugged her. The mother of six isn’t a hugger, but she welcomed this one. It felt safe to cry, and so she did.

On a recent warm morning, Carol checks in on the progress of clean up. As she walks from First Baptist, she takes note of all the volunteers and organizations that have been so generous: United Way, Red Cross, the list goes on.

The night before, Henryville Community Church committed to building 100 homes for storm victims without insurance.

Carol gazes out at gloved volunteers still removing ton after stubborn ton of domestic detritus: Christmas ornaments, dining sets, couch cushions.

“They’ve been so great,” she gushes.

For now, Carol’s family splits their time between her sister-in-law’s home and a borrowed RV. They plan on returning to the same hillside. She couldn’t imagine otherwise. The school where she works and church where she worships sit steps away.

“I love my little town,” she says. An EF-4 can level all that’s known, but it can also deepen bonds.

Before leaving the wreckage, Carol eagerly waves goodbye to workers. “Thank you!” she shouts.

Overhead, the day’s warmth lazily casts off clouds.

“We’ll be back,” she says. “Better than before.”