Mother of tornado survivor waits and hopes daughter will turn tragedy into testimony

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2012 

Amy Harris and her mother, Carolyn Hobbs

  • Coming Sunday

    Columnist Tom Eblen looks to cities healing from devastating tornadoes for advice for West Liberty.

What Carolyn Hobbs will always remember is seeing her only child after the March 2 tornado in East Bernstadt, her tiny frame battered and broken, bone sticking from her left leg like a stripped branch.

"She looked at me with those brown eyes and said, 'I'm sorry,' and I said, 'Amy, why?' " Hobbs said Friday, a week after the tornado. "And she said, 'Because I didn't come home.' "

An hour before, Hobbs had been on the phone begging Amy Harris, 23, to seek a safe place.

Hobbs replays that day over and over, a loop of "what ifs" that pass through her mind as she keeps a vigil by the hospital bed of her daughter.

What if she and Harris had come to Lexington for a planned shopping trip to Fayette Mall instead of staying home in Laurel County? What if Carolyn and her husband, Paul Hobbs, had insisted that Harris come out to eat with them instead of going to the trailer home of her fiancé, Eric Allen, and his parents, Sherman and Debbie? What if Carolyn Hobbs could have suffered the pain and horror of those few seconds of the tornado instead of Amy?

Her daughter's leg had to be amputated below the knee. She suffered chest trauma and fractures in both arms, her collarbone and vertebrae. She is still heavily sedated and in critical condition at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital and has not been told about the amputation.

Eric Allen is in UK's intensive care unit. The hospital would not release his condition Friday. Hobbs said he suffered an eye injury.

A parent's love is the thing that shines brightest when things look worst. As Hobbs leans over her daughter's bed in the trauma unit — careful not to disturb all the tubes and monitors around her 5-foot, 100-pound body — Hobbs murmurs repeatedly, "My baby."

When the storm went through March 2, Carolyn and Paul Hobbs were watching TV at their home and had seen the tornado warning for East Bernstadt. They called Harris. Carolyn Hobbs urged her daughter to seek shelter within the trailer, and Eric Allen suggested perhaps moving into a bathroom. Then the call ended.

The couple sped the 7 miles from their home to the site of the Allens' trailer.

Harris, Debbie Allen and Eric Allen had been crouching beneath a mattress inside.

While emergency workers combed the grounds for the people who had been inside the trailer, several women stood and prayed with Hobbs. Someone found Harris' purse and brought word that she was alive and talking. Hobbs clung to the purse.

Emergency workers had to cut off Amy's glossy brown hair to detach her from the two trees that pinned her after she was thrown 100 yards from the site of the blown-apart trailer.

Sherman and Debbie Allen, both 49, died. Eric Allen told Carolyn Hobbs that he remembered a sound like an explosion, then nothing else until he was being treated by emergency medical personnel.

Hobbs described her daughter as the kind of person who loves to know exactly where her debit card is; loves UK basketball; her Yorkshire terrier, Sophie; swimming; summer; getting an 84 on a community college math exam when math is rough going for her; and her parents. Amy Harris' father, Stafford Harris, died in 2010. Amy Harris made all the choices for his funeral, Carolyn Hobbs said.

Amy Harris and Eric Allen met while students at North Laurel High School. Both had struggled with physical ailments, and Eric uses leg braces. They recently became engaged. Carolyn Hobbs now wears her daughter's engagement ring, along with a ring from her daughter's childhood, on a lanyard around her neck.

Harris was born prematurely in 1988 with an esophageal malformation and had stayed months in UK's children's hospital. She has two curves in her spine, her mother said.

The day before the tornado, Harris had proudly purchased a headstone for the grave of her late father and added an inscription about how much he loved to fish. She was excited that she would have a nice display for her father's grave in time for Memorial Day.

Hobbs returns to her daughter's room in the trauma unit, where Harris has begun to run a fever.

Then, because her only child's Cats are trailing Louisiana State University in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Hobbs leans close, strokes Harris' hair and tells her daughter: "UK is playing. I guess you'd want to know that. They may lose. I don't know if I should tell you that."

Hobbs smiles a small, hopeful smile. Harris' eyelids flutter.

Hobbs said she has faith that her daughter, who has had to fight since she was born weighing not quite 3 pounds, will not only live but be able to turn her tragedy into a powerful testimony about overcoming obstacles. Harris has no internal bleeding and her brain is intact. A prosthetics fitter already has visited to assess Harris' stump.

For these things Hobbs is grateful.

"God's just been everywhere all over this child," she said. "I knew there was a plan for her because he kept her here."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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