It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the devastating tornadoes of 2011 swept through my part of the country. The unmatched storms of April 27 destroyed much of my beloved Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of my college years) and then powered its way though two of our neighboring towns (Concord and Pleasant Grove, Alabama). After the initial chaos and sadness for friends who lost so much, we went into action. I helped with relief efforts by collecting water, distributing clothes and household goods, even helping move debris from what was left of people’s homes.
As a writer, though, I found that much of my help came in the form of putting our experiences and stories into words. Many of the words came in the form of private musings, hidden in computer files and meant only for my eyes. Others came in the form of interviews with relief workers and victims and ordinary folks who just wanted to make a difference; hearing their stories and then sharing them with readers of local newspapers and online publications helped in my own healing.
On this anniversary of last year’s storms, I wanted to share one of those stories with you. It’s an amazing story of a survivor and the community that saved him, first printed in The Western Star of Bessemer, Alabama, on April 30, 2011.
(And, on a related note, The Tuscaloosa News was awarded this past week The Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News on its reporting of the storms. You can learn more about the award and read stories HERE at the Pulitzer site.)
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“Neighbors, Strangers Create a Tornado Miracle”
Ray Watson and his family know this unequivocal truth: The kindness of neighbors—and strangers—can save a life.
Watson and his wife, Norma, braced for the April 27 tornado as it barreled toward Pleasant Grove. As sirens blared and warnings sounded, they knew that the impending storm could be bad; in what they thought would be the safest move, they sought refuge (as many did that day) in their basement.
When the tornado arrived in their town, it spared most of their home; houses a block away were destroyed. It didn’t spare Watson’s leg, however.
The seemingly safe Watson basement was bombarded by the tornado’s powerful winds which picked up a concrete slab and hurtled it toward the couple. Watson pushed his wife out of the way but, as a result, found his legs pinned under the monstrous slab.
Watson’s sister, Holly Hankins, said that what happened next—even the small coincidences—are powerful reminders that miracles still happen.
“Norma got on the phone and called 911, but no workers could get through,” Hankins said. “One fireman did make it to them on foot, but it was their neighbors and even strangers who were able to save him.”
Watson’s niece, Catey Hall, found out just minutes after the tornado hit that her uncle was in a dire situation. “My dad got word about Uncle Ray and he immediately left to pick up his lifelong friend Martin Tucker and his brother, Austin,” Hall said.
The Tuckers lived just a few minutes from the Watsons and had one unharmed vehicle—an old Ford F-150. “They navigated the half mile drive to Ray’s house driving over trees, through yards and blown down houses,” Hall said. In the process, the truck’s axel was destroyed and is now undriveable.
In the meantime, nurse Sherry Brazelton had set out on foot from her Highland Forrest neighborhood looking for anyone who might need help. When she came upon Norma crying in front of her house she asked if she could help. Norma responded, “My husband’s bleeding to death.”
“When the concrete slab fell, it fell on his leg and caused an artery bleed,” Hankins said. “The challenge was getting him out of there before he bled to death.”
Neighbors—including the Watsons’ close friend, Jerry Stitzel—began working furiously to get Ray out from under the concrete. They eventually got him loose, then carried him out on a door ripped from his own house. Brazelton immediately made a tourniquet for his leg, did everything she could to slow the bleeding, and forced him to continuously drink water. She and his neighbors piled into the back of the Ford, while the Austins begin driving through the debris that covered the neighborhood’s yards and roads.
“Outside Pleasant Grove, my brother Matt Watson and his father-in-law were desperately trying to get into the city,” Hall said. “After driving through softball fields and yards, they met up with Matt’s friend John Fields, a local homebuilder who had equipment out in the roads trying to clear for rescue teans. Matt climbed up into the seat of a massive front loader and bulldozed his way toward his uncle’s house.”
They soon met up with the truck carrying Watson and Brazelton, who was still working furiously to keep Watson hydrated and conscious. She knew he wouldn’t make it much longer if they didn’t get him to help.
Leading the way with the bulldozer, Matt Watson helped the truck find its way out of the demolished neighborhoods and hours later (although just miles away) they arrived at the city hall which now served as a triage center. They loaded Watson into an ambulance and Brazelton rode with him onto UAB. At one point, Watson looked down at his injury and said, “I’m gonna lose that foot.”
Two days later, Watson emerged from a fog of sedatives and found out that he had indeed lost that foot; his leg had been removed from above the knee. He also found out about the other losses he suffered—the house, and camper, and car, and cat that had been lost in the storm.
Even with his losses, however, he stayed positive and grateful. He joked that his family would have to start calling him Lieutenant Dan (the leg-less character from “Forrest Gump”) and was concerned about the truck that his neighbor had destroyed in trying to rescue him.
Hankins said that his brother knows he’s alive because of the love, concern, and hard work of neighbors, family members, and a nurse that didn’t even know him. “We all know that if weren’t for that whole community working together, he would have bled to death,” she said. “And that’s just a miracle.”