I first want to say how blessed Dan and I are to be here on this earth and have each other! There has been so much love poured out upon us I feel like I’m swimming in love and prayers and it’s the most amazing feeling in the world. I can’t help but cry sometimes and be emotional and sad, but nothing brings me to tears faster than kindness shown to me. Seeing the Tide ‘Loads of Hope’ where they bring out about 30 washers and dryers and put them out on the main street and do peoples laundry for free- tears. When Jessica Koerner’s mom puts me on the phone with a dentist in Utah who wants to do all my needed dental work for free to me, a stranger- tears. When people write to me on Facebook and say the most heartfelt, kind, and expressive comments to me that make me feel humbled and inadequate for such a comment, but so thankful – tears. When old family friends overnight money to us and a card with uplifting words to show their love – tears. I can literally feel the prayers. It is real. Heavenly Father’s love for me is real. As real as and tangible as when Dan’s arms were wrapped around me protecting me in the bathtub. Going through an experience like this is humbling, for lack of a more powerful word. People refer to me as a ‘survivor’ and my first thought is, “Oh, that’s silly.” And then I think back about what I went through and I realize I am a survivor. And I am so thankful I am a survivor. But my thoughts quickly and repeatedly turn to the girl who I tried to save, who was not a survivor. Why her? Why her? Why her? Why her? She was young. She had so much life. She had absolutely no idea that typical Wednesday would be her last. She would have called her mom. She would have done so much. But she was not a survivor. I want to hug her. I want to express my feelings to her, that I wish she was still here with us. That I know it’s not fair that I was a survivor and she wasn’t. That she should be here, with me, cleaning up and moving on and trying to rebuild. She has moved on and I know she has peace. I know she can look down on me and I wonder if she does. Does she watch me and the things I do and think about me? Does the scene replay in her head of when she was lying that taking her last breaths and I was desperately trying to save her but I could not? Did I do everything I could? If a more experienced nurse would have been there at her side would she have been able to be a survivor? I can’t describe the massive, immense, empty feelings of helplessness I had. I couldn’t save her. I sobbed inside as she took her last breath but my cheeks were dry in pure shock and disbelief.
Code grey is a ‘severe weather alert.’ We had a code grey at work the night before. About 5:00 am on Wednesday morning, April 27, 2011. We begrudgingly moved all out patients out into the halls away from the windows. I thought nothing of it. Nothing came of it. It was like all the other warnings we had had before. A warning- no damage. No change in my life. I tried to protect my patients and did. We lost power but it came back up and all was well. The day shift nurses bustled in and were talking about the big tornado coming, that is was going to be the worst one in 16 years, and so many comments I can not even remember. I thought about how I’d heard it all before and I’m sure we would be fine. I had never been through a tornado before. I had never really been through a severe storm before. It wasn’t real. It was maybe going to cause some power outage 20 miles away in the country, but not me.
The traffic lights were out on my drive home from work around 8:00 am. Everyone at work had been so concerned I started to wonder if I should be. I had texted my husband as I walked out to the car… “Are you okay?” No reply. I thought nothing of it, arrived at home, and found my sweet husband sound asleep in bed like every other morning. I told him what had happened and told him to check the weather. I told him school might be cancelled and he could stay home with me! Nope, school was not cancelled. He saw some tornado warnings on the internet but it was nothing too out of the ordinary. I laid down and was asleep in no time.
I think I woke up once to go to the bathroom, typical. I checked my phone and had a couple text messages that mutual was cancelled that night. I had a doctor’s appointment and had a call from them that the appointment was cancelled as well. I thought, okay, well I guess I can just sleep then and not have to worry about it. I snuggled back up in bed and quickly fell back asleep.
“RACHAEL GET IN THE TUB NOW!” Is the next thing I remember. Dan was screaming at me. I jumped up as fast as I could. I heard loud wind and trees rumbling and breaking. Dan closed the door behind me and I stepped in the still damp tub. Dan had grabbed a flashlight as the power had gone out. I huddled up as tight as I could and Dan wrapped his arms around me. I was crying because I was so terrified. What was happening? I don’t remember many details about what I saw and heard, more just how I felt. I was scared. I was so scared. It was so loud. It sounded like trees were falling all around and the wind was massive. It all sounded and felt so close. It had never felt so close. But our bathroom was okay. I think our frame fell but it was hard to tell with only our little flashlight. It was suddenly calm. Whatever it was had gone and passed. It was quiet. Dan says it rained briefly right after but I don’t remember it raining. I just remember it being dark and quiet and an eerie, nervous feeling. I don’t know how long we were huddled together in the tub. It didn’t seem like very long, maybe a couple minutes. Dan got up first and opened the door. I remember seeing some pink fluffy insulation in the hallway from what I could see from the bathtub. It was right by our utility closet so I thought it had just fallen out of the closet right there. Dan stood and started to wander in shock. I think he said something like, “Oh no.” But didn’t say much. I carefully stepped out of the tub, walked through the doorway, and saw the sky above me. It was a dark, cloudy sky. There was indescribable destruction. The roof and some of the walls of our living room were gone. The other walls were fallen down flat on or couches and everything else. It was hard to make anything out or distinguish what was what. There was glass and pink fluffy insulation everywhere. Chairs down. Walls down. Roofs gone. Chips of wood. Big pieces of wood. Bricks. Debris. Everywhere. I was utterly and indescribably speechless. I took a step back into the bathroom so I wouldn’t step on any glass. I asked Dan to help me get me some clothes and shoes.
The next little while is a daze. We wandered around looking at things trying to fathom what had just occurred. There was debris covering our entire house. Every window had been shattered. There was no roof on our closet and the roof in our bedroom had a massive crack in it like it would collapse at any time. There was a craft picture that looked like it had been made by a child in the corner of our bedroom and other people’s pictures. The kitchen looked like it had been completely destroyed. It looked like there was mud all over the floor, covering our cutting boards and spatulas and everything else that was strewn all over. There was broken glass everywhere. The wall between our neighbors apartment and our own was gone. I looked out over the complex and the destruction was so massive and incomprehensible. Climbing over wooden beams and walls and destroyed objects trying to get from one room to the next. A boy who looked like he was in his early twenties came around, “Is anyone hurt?” “Anybody there?” At that point I had not even thought of trying to find others. I was in a shock and a state of stupor. Dan starting running around with this other man trying to find anyone who was stuck or injured or needed help. A few minutes later I heard Dan yell up to me “Someone’s dying. A lady is dying.” He got a little closer, “Rachael, hurry down here, someone’s dying.” I ran into the second bedroom and grabbed my first aid kit as fast as I could. I stumbled through the apartment and climbed through the kitchen window as that was the only way to get outside, being careful not to cut my hands on the shards of glass. I ran over the tumbled down bricks and made me way down the stairs, over the immense piles of rubble, and made it around the corner. I saw Dan and that boy who had been running around with him standing over a woman. I ran over as fast as I could to try and assess her and see what her condition was. She was unresponsive. She was breathing. She had a faint pulse. But she was breathing. “I should be able to save her. I can save her. I’m a nurse. What do I do? What do I do? Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.” These were all thoughts going through my head at the same time. “Find out where she’s bleeding from…” I told the boy. There was blood on her head, her face, and her whole body. She was actively bleeding from the side of her abdomen. We gently turned her over and there was a large, maybe 6-inch open wound with her internal organs hanging out and massively bleeding. Dan handed me gloves from my first aid kit. I had him search through it and find ACE bandage. We wrapped her abdomen and sides all the way around to cover her bleeding and apply pressure. I tried to calm myself and get my thoughts together… “ABC’s. ABC’s.” She was gurgling on her secretions. I turned her on her side so she wouldn’t choke, trying to secure her airway. Her respirations began to slow and before I could even think of what to do next she was gone.
I can’t explain the helplessness and disbelief I felt at that moment because even I don’t understand it. I found out a couple days later after talking with my apartment manager that her name was Nicole and she was 21 years old. I think about her many times throughout the day. The only thing that brings me hope is that I know she is Heavenly Father’s hands. I know that it was her time, or she would not have been taken. I know that she is in a place without destruction and despair and she is safe. When I say prayers I talk to Heavenly Father about her and pray for her and I feel a sense of peace.
We covered her body with a tarp and started to look for anyone else who may be in need. We couldn’t find anybody. We were confined to a small area due to trees being down blocking the road out. People were wandering in disbelief, just staring. I stepped on a nail in the rubble, it went through my old vans slip-ons and drew blood. I took my shoe off and cleaned it out as best I could with the alcohol swab I had in my first aid kit and put a band aid over it. I never knew how much that hurt! For days too.
We could not find anyone who was hurt or injured or in need. We went back up to our apartment and moved our clothes and other salvageable items into the bathtub so they would be safe from rain. We packed up a suitcase and a backpack with a couple outfits, our important documents, some money we had stashed for emergencies, Dan’s scriptures (I couldn’t find mine), and whatever else we thought was important. The sun was started to go down so we knew we had to hurry. It was hard to think clearly at that time to think of what to grab, but I really didn’t care about any thing at that point. We had been trying to make calls out to see if people were okay and I wanted to talk to my parents. The phone lines were so overloaded we couldn’t make any calls. One of my friends from work was able to get through to me, I think because she was near in distance, and made sure I was okay. Our home teacher was also able to get through to us after a little while. He had been at his parent’s house about 15 minutes outside of town in Duncanville, AL and him and his dad were going to come get us. We were one of the last people at the apartment complex and as I climbed through the kitchen window to leave I remember looking over at the destruction and just feeling the most surreal feeling I’ve ever felt. I felt like I was in the movie I Am Legend or Deep Impact, just because I have never experienced anything even close to this in real life. I wore the backpack and Dan brought the suitcase. We made it through the window and over the bricks and debris across the walkway. Thank goodness the stairs survived. We passed by our car on the way out and took some pictures just in case. We took any important documents we had in the car since all the windows were shattered and anybody could get and took some pictures just in case we wouldn’t be back. We were careful as we stepped over large trees and under downed power lines. We made our way our of the apartment complex and started walking towards where the Blowers were going to meet us. I had been trying to get a hold of my parents. I didn’t know whether they would know what happened yet, but I just needed to talk to them and heart their voices and let them know I was okay. I was finally able to get through to my Dad. I got the usual “Hey sweetie! How are you?” with so much love and happiness in his voice that he was talking to his little girl. I tried to keep my voice together as I said, “We got hit by a tornado. But we are okay…” His voice instantly changed. He couldn’t believe what I had told him. He immediately gave thanks to Heavenly Father for sparing the life of his little girl and her sweet companion and he knew we were literally spared by the hand of God. We just felt grateful that we could talk on the phone. That we were safe. That we had each other. The ruined car that was graduation gift from my dad, the demolished apartment, and the crushed belongings were of no importance. We talked about how not a prayer goes by that my parents do not pray for the safety of their children. That sometimes it sounds repetitive when they pray for the same thing every prayer, every day, but how real it suddenly became.
We continued to walk down the street when we saw David and Cody Blowers walking towards us. Cody put his arms out and we hugged each other. We started to walk towards their car. They were unable to drive very close to us because the downed power lines and trees everywhere were blocking the road. I continued to talk to my dad as we walked. My mom was working in the temple that evening so my dad called her and told her what happened. She called me and I will never forget the calm in her voice. She was not frazzled or frantic. She was calm and peaceful. She said she immediately said a prayer in the celestial room of the temple, thanking Heavenly Father for protecting her children. She knew we were safe and protected with God as our keeper. She knew that she did not need to worry because we were in the best hands we could be in and what could be more comforting than that.
David and Sherry Blowers took us in to their home like we were family. We felt so comfortable and loved and taken care of. We felt safe and that was the best feeling we could have. They lived far enough out of town that they still had power and didn’t have to especially conserve water. We got to take hot showers and eat the most delicious hot meals that Sister Blowers made for us. They went grocery shopping just for us. She busily cleaned the bathroom and got our room ready. She continually told us how thankful she is that we are okay. That we are so blessed. I could feel her genuine and honest care and concern for us in her voice. I am so thankful for the most humble and kind family who took us in and let us stay for as long as we needed. Who let us wear their pajamas and socks and leave early and come in late and drive their truck and borrow their moisturizer and medicine.
Those first two nights were hard. We didn’t sleep too much. I slept better than Dan because I took cough syrup and Benedryl. After two nights of not sleeping at all, I finally convinced him that a little Benedryl was okay when you needed to sleep and you would be up working hard all day. We would wake up multiple times in the night and have to relive it all. I would wake up and realize where I was, that I wasn’t home, and would have to play the whole event back in my head. I would just hold Dan so tight and could hardly have him leave my side. I wanted to be with him. He is my safe haven. It doesn’t matter what has happened or where we are or aren’t, if I’m with him I am safe and I need no more.
The next few days all we did was work. The day after we were able to sneak into our apartment and salvage some belongings. There was a gas leak and it was not structurally safe to be up there so we only had a few minutes before they kicked us out. Looking around at my painfully destroyed apartment trying to think of what to grab was horrible. Every time I went back there every feeling came back and I lost all rational thought. My eyes teared up and I would just wander with no rhyme or reason. I just couldn’t think straight. So decide now what you would take if ever faced with a situation like that. Because when the moment comes it’s a little too overwhelming. Dan wanted his surfboard and fishing poles. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know or care. I grabbed the bookshelf. My reasoning was that it was one of the few pieces of furniture we could save and it was expensive. I can’t remember what else I grabbed or what rational thoughts did not enter my mind..
Tuscaloosa was chaos. Every streetlight was out. There was destruction everywhere. Everyone was driving around, probably just to see what had happened so traffic was ridiculous. No body knows that when the streetlights are out it’s a four way stop. The gas stations were all out of service. The grocery stores freezers and fridges were out of power so they were losing all their frozen foods. We were able to get a rental car that insurance covers for a month. For the past week we have been working all day. We first took care of our ward members who were affected and helped move them out of their apartments. We’ve been cutting down and moving trees and eating at the moose lodge. It has been a blessing to be able to spend all day every day with our dearest friends. It truly is medicine to the soul! We have all just wanted to be together. After going through something like this, we all suddenly aren’t too busy anymore and we prioritize our friendships above all else. We ate dinner together every night for probably four or five nights at the Richards house. They were safe so they have been kind enough to let their house be the “home base.” We kept all of our things there for a while and Josh and Kimberly Mays have been staying there. They are our dear friends who also lost their home. It has been good for us to have people to talk to who really understand that it’s just hard sometimes! Those nights of just hanging out and laughing and eating good food were very good for us.
The day after I got a call from "Jill from CNN." She had me tell her 'my story' and then said "Do you want to be on live national news with Wolf Blitzer in about 40 minutes?" UHMM... like I hadn't been through enough emotional trauma... it was too stressful. Fumbling over my words. Trying to find pictures to send them. Trying to tell friends and family to watch. I mumbled and fumbled and barely got through it... but I got through it! Wolf and everybody else were really nice. It was my 15 seconds of fame. I'm thankful I was at least thinking straight enough to give Heavenly Father the credit! I am now all over "jesustube.com" and "godvine.com" and all these other Christian websites... "Girl who survived tornado gives glory to God." It's the best. Here is that story.
Dan and I were also interviewed and photographed by the Associated Press. Here is that story. They did a really awesome story intertwining the stories of five different people/families. They were also very kind. We had our picture taken by one of the photographers, which was a funny experience. They wouldn't let us get into our apartment so we settled for some other rubble. I liked one of the other pictures he took more. He would chose that one. Gee whiz, I almost dreamed about a day when my picture would be on the cover of newspapers around the country and I at least thought I would have my hair and makeup done and not be wearing taped up hiking boots from DI. SIGH. Life had much different plans for me. I was also interviewed by a girl in the other ward and my story is in the Milford Times (Milford, NE). I felt the need to share because my family roots are from Nebraska so I wanted to represent the James name. Hopefully somebody will read it and say, "Oh, that's Garth James' son Syd's daughter!" So I have told my story far too many times. I'm done with it.
We were really guided in getting into a new apartment. So many people are displaced and have no where to live. We immediately began contacting people and looking for a place to live the night of the tornado because we knew it would get crazy. We found an duplex right by campus that we love. We were so blessed to be able to contact the girl who we are subleasing from and get our papers in and get our background checks and take care of everything quickly so we could move in. She was kind enough to leave all her furniture and cooking and cleaning supplies and toilet paper, paper towels, etc here for us to use for the summer. The lease is only for three months so we will have to find a new place to live come August. But we could not feel more thankful to have a place to call home now. There is something special about having your own place. Somewhere to sleep at night where you can just let out a big sigh when you get there and know your home. The apartment is two story with a spiral staircase. The upstairs is just one big bedroom and a walk in closet. The downstairs has a nice living room and kitchen with a bar. And to top it all off the bathroom has a Jacuzzi tub! It is divine. We feel like we live in a hotel. We are trying to make it feel like home. It’s hard with someone else’s furniture and art and everything. When you have to move in 45 minutes it’s much less than organized, so unpacking has been tedious. We had to wash all our kitchen appliances and dishes and everything before putting them away because they were so filthy. We have to wash all our clothes before putting them away because they are filthy and have the ‘tornado smell.’ Less than pleasant. Andrew and Kelly Batteen gave us the key to their apartment while they are out of town so we could do laundry. They are such sweet friends to us. We went grocery shopping the other day at Target and got the basics so we have some food now. We didn’t have to buy food for literally a week after the tornado because everybody was giving away free food and drinks all day long to people who were out working. And the Moose Lodge. It has been incredible to see the community come together.
We are recovering and rebuilding every day. We are trying to keep moving and be positive and keep working. But it is hard. Dan hasn’t quite been his same light-hearted self. The littlest thing brings me to tears. But relatively we are doing well. We have come a long way in a week. We have learned and are still learning so much about life and love and death. We will forever be changed from what we have gone through. My dad said in my baby blessing that “You would live to see the day when there will be destruction all around you and your life would be preserved by the direct intervention of the Lord.”
I have never gone through such a humbling experience in my whole life. To be the one who is receiving help and support is very humbling and just makes me quietly thank my Heavenly Father for his constant love and the tender acts of kindness shown to us every day.