Amid death and destruction in Johnson, a story of survival

A car is upside down next to a demolished house, shown on Monday, March 5, 2012 in the Johnson County community of Denver, Ky.   Residents are still cleaning up debris while crews work to restore power in the community after Friday's storms.  Photo by David Perry | Staff
A car is upside down next to a demolished house, shown on Monday, March 5, 2012 in the Johnson County community of Denver, Ky. Residents are still cleaning up debris while crews work to restore power in the community after Friday's storms. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

PAINTSVILLE — Residents were struggling back to their feet Monday in an isolated patch of the Johnson County woods, where two young people died after winds tossed their trailer down a hill and into Middle Fork Creek.

An estimated 280 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged; hundreds of trees were yanked from the soil, denuding entire hillsides. Some roads remained blocked by debris and the rumbling trucks of utility workers laboring to restore power in freezing weather.

"It's a miracle. We had two fatalities, but when you look at the extent of the damage out there, it's amazing that it wasn't even worse," Johnson County Judge-Executive R.T. "Tucker" Daniel said.

Residents of the affected area — about 20 minutes southwest of Paintsville, the county seat — said the storm was over Friday evening almost before they realized what was happening.

"I couldn't tell you what it sounded like when it came through. To be honest, I was too busy praying to hear it," said Tim Kirk, whose home in the Denver community lost only a few windows and roof shingles, and some siding.

Not far away, in the Middle Fork community, Chad Reinthaler, 35, walked the lines of demarcation, surrounded by the snow-covered ruins of his neighborhood.

His mother's house sat untouched across the road. His own house is standing, but it's a shambles. Winds lifted and dropped the roof. His back deck and much of his back wall is gone. It will be months before repairs are finished and Reinthaler's family can return.

But his family is lucky, Reinthaler said. He approached the lot next door, where Gregory Perry Sr. rented a trailer with his son, Gregory Jr. The Perrys and a friend, Shane Shepherd, 16, were standing outside with Reinthaler on Friday as the sky darkened.

"We knew a storm was coming, but we didn't know it would be that bad. I told them our basement door was open if they needed to come in. I ran to my house. They ran back into their trailer," Reinthaler said.

Minutes later, Reinthaler emerged from his basement, leaving his wife and three children inside. The Perrys' trailer was gone. Only the brick foundation remained, with three steps leading to nowhere.

"I shined my flashlight down into the creek, and there's Greg Sr., he's standing there," Reinthaler said. "I said, 'Greg, how did you live?' He said, 'I don't know, Chad, but I need shoes so I can get out of here. The boys are still in the trailer.' He was in shock."

Volunteer fire-and-rescue teams hacked their way through downed trees to enter the neighborhood within hours. An excavator lifted the trailer's remains from the creek. In the early morning, searchers recovered the bodies of Gregory Jr. and Shane.

"At first, when I first came out of the basement, I thought that maybe everybody in the holler was dead," Reinthaler said. "I didn't see how anyone could have survived this."

Reinthaler is grateful that his father insisted that he build a storm shelter in his basement. The shelter is reinforced with steel, concrete and cinder block, at a cost of $10,000. He's also irritated that he didn't know to open the windows in the approach of tornadoes, to equalize the air pressure inside his house and prevent the roof from popping like a cork.

In the tree outside his house, a back-yard shed was lodged in the branches. It held many of the possessions of his sister's family. They were between homes, temporarily living with his mother, and they had stored their belongings in the shed. A man operating a John Deere forklift gingerly tried to pry it loose without breaking it like a piñata.

Middle Fork Creek is the area's lowest ground, so many of the personal effects strewn around the landscape are finding their way into it. Rein thaler pointed to the creek and his Yamaha motorcycle, one wheel sticking out of the greenish water.

"We'll be all right. I always said we were blessed to have more material things than we really needed," Reinthaler said.

On Monday, on the ribbon of blacktop linking the communities, a pickup truck carried bottled water, coffee, soup and sandwiches, driven by volunteers from the Hager Hill Freewill Baptist Church. The volunteers stopped at every house that was standing to check with residents, if any remained, and offer nourishment and an encouraging word.

Daniel, the county's judge-executive, said he's impressed by how well his county's residents are looking out for each other.

"We talked about this Saturday morning, because we had opened an emergency shelter and nobody showed up. Hundreds of houses — where did everybody go?" Daniel said. "We worried that maybe once the sun rose, we were going to find a lot more bodies."

Instead, Daniel said, people took shelter with family and friends.

"In Eastern Kentucky, you don't see a lot of homelessness," he said. "Families look out for each other, and in times like this, they take each other in."

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