At first, rescuers thought it was a doll. Then it moved. In a grassy pasture strewn with toys, splintered lumber and bricks tossed by the tornado’s widespread wrath, 11-month old Kyson Stowell was lying face down in the mud, 150 meters from where his home once stood.
“It looked like a baby doll,” said David Harmon, a firefighter who had already combed the field once looking for survivors. Then he checked for a pulse. “He was laying there motionless... and he took a breath of air and started crying.”
The field had already been combed once for survivors, and finding anyone alive seemed improbable. Hours after the storm, there was devastation everywhere: The body of the boy’s mother was found in the same field, houses were wiped to concrete slabs and a brick post office was blown to bits. But except for a few scrapes, Kyson was fine.
At a makeshift shelter for storm victims at Hartsville Pike Church of Christ in nearby Gallatin, the Rev. Doyle Farris said the child was a reminder that people “should never give up, even in the midst of the worst storm.”
“If you look, you can find an inspiration or a bright spot,” he said. “The child will always be a reminder in this community of that message.”
Kyson’s story emerged as a tale of hope amid spectacular misery as residents in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas tried to piece their lives back together after the nation’s deadliest twister rampage in two decades killed 59 people.
The extent of the damage was still being tallied on Thursday, two days after the storms.
Federal and state emergency teams dashed into the hardest-hit areas, along with utility workers and insurance claims representatives. President George W. Bush, who declared five Tennessee counties major disaster areas and ordered federal aid, planned to visit the state on Friday.
Though homes were destroyed, communities flattened and loved ones lost, there were signs everywhere that recovery, while far away, was possible: Food and clothes began pouring in for the homeless. The morning coffee was brewing at a service station.
In Greenville, Kentucky, 18-year-old Samantha Oakley gave birth to a healthy boy in the dark soon after the storm knocked out power at Muhlenberg Community Hospital.
As the lights went out, doctors “hollered flashlights, and nurses took off and got one,” the baby’s grandmother, Vicki Reed, said.
There were countless stories of people relieved to be alive. James Krueger, a 49-year-old electrician, opened the door to look out of the 100-year-old home he was restoring and the wind sucked the door from his hand. He dived onto the ground “as if I was sliding into first.” The house was pulled out from under him Ñ and when it was over, he was on bare ground.
“It was like God was holding my leg and beating the (expletive) out of me for everything I’ve done in my life,” said Krueger, of Lafayette. “Maybe I tried to question God too many times, but the bottom line is something kept me there.”
Charity efforts were beginning for those who lost their homes. A classroom inside the Pleasant Field Full Gospel Church building in Scottsville, Kentucky, was filled with bags of clothes and a nearby kitchen was stuffed with donated food, ready for residents displaced by the storm.
In Arkansas, 16 workers were in the middle of a tornado’s path when the storm hit the Rivertrail Inc. boat manufacturing plant. The workers were on the job late to get a shipment of boats onto a tractor-trailer.One died, but 15 survived. The big rig was still there on Thursday, part of a massive pile of twisted debris, all that remained of the plant.
“Look at all that. Can you believe 15 people walked out of there?” plant worker William Aderholt said.
Back in Castalian Springs, there was good news to celebrate. Baby Kyson was discharged from a hospital and was in the care of his grandparents. He had scrapes and gashes on his cheek and by his big blue eyes, but otherwise was fine. Clinging to his grandmother, he fussed a little – something he normally does at naptime.
As word the tornado was coming spread through the community on Tuesday, the Stowells called their 23-year-old daughter Kerri warning her to take cover. In a phone call with her fiance’s sister, Kerri said she was bracing for the storm in the bathtub, clutching her baby to her side.
The phone cut out as Kay Stowell and her daughter spoke. Then came an ominous voicemail – no words, just the sound of wind.
It took two hours for the Stowells to drive around the downed trees and power lines and make the four-mile trip to Kerri’s home – or what was left of it. It was during that time that rescuers Harmon and Karl Wegner decided to give the pasture one last look.
When the Stowells made it to the scene, the first thing Douglas Stowell saw was a firefighter holding the baby. Not long thereafter, another emergency worker showed Stowell a photo of a body found nearby. He confirmed it was his stepdaughter.
“If it had been both of them, I couldn’t have handled it,” he said.
Kerri Stowell’s fiance, 22-year-old Charles Scott, believed she tried to keep her son safe as the storm closed in.
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