Tornado victims: How they coped with tragic aftermath

Eric Endicott tosse a tub full of debris into a fire on Feb. 23 in Ezel. He and his brothers, Chris and Charles, lost their parents and grandmother to the March 2, 2012, tornado. Eric was injured and his brother, Charles, refused to leave his side during the recovery.   Photo by John Flavell
Eric Endicott tosse a tub full of debris into a fire on Feb. 23 in Ezel. He and his brothers, Chris and Charles, lost their parents and grandmother to the March 2, 2012, tornado. Eric was injured and his brother, Charles, refused to leave his side during the recovery. Photo by John Flavell Lexington Herald-Leader

Their lives are delineated by a great divide: Before the tornado and after the tornado.

Yet survivors of the storms that tore through Eastern and Southern Kentucky on March 2, 2012, causing 25 deaths and millions of dollars in damages, have refused to allow personal tragedy to define their lives.

They remember, but they move on. They grieve, but they live.

Here are the stories of some survivors, one year after their lives were turned upside down.

Regaining order

Eric Endicott, 19, wakes up every morning wanting to talk to his parents and grandmother. He huddled with them in prayer before he watched them die when a tornado struck their mobile home in Morgan County.

There isn't a day when he doesn't feel the absence of his parents, Charles Endicott Sr., 51, and Betty Sue Endicott, 50, and his grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, 72.

A neighbor's hand-drawn picture of Charles and Betty Sue Endicott is the cover photo on Eric's Facebook page, and most of his posts tend to be tributes to his parents. He posts references to the solace he gains from his Christian faith or his daily struggle with "facing the fact that Mommy and Daddy and Granny's gone and thinking of the good memories we had."

The scars of the tornado are mental and physical.

"When it storms or something, I have to be at a neighbor's house in the basement," he said.

He has spent part of the past year recovering from his injuries.

Eric spent 11 days at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, recovering from a torn aorta and a broken femur. He used a walker for three months before deciding, "I can get around."

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Photos: Menifee County damage, March 3, 2012

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Photos: Kentucky storm damage, including schools, March 7, 2012

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Then he shifted his focus to rebuilding. Eric and his brothers — Charles Jr., 25, and Chris, 23 — have tried to work every day at "just trying to get everything back in order."

The Endicott brothers have returned to their father's land in Ezel and have placed a used mobile home about 100 feet from where their parents' mobile home was destroyed.

Charles, Chris and his wife, Stephanie, and Eric all live in the replacement mobile home, bought with money from FEMA.

Chris said it's small for four people, but they think it's important that Eric be with them: "We're trying to help him get back on his feet."

Charles and Chris have been working seven days a week at a factory in Georgetown to save money to build a house and barn on the property.

"My dad raised me to be a hard worker and take care of my family, and that's what I am doing," Charles said.

Charles hopes to begin building a house by spring, Eric said.

The tornado wiped out Chris Endicott's finances. He had to replace a vehicle and his own mobile home, which stood near his parents' home.

"Right now, I can't afford to do nothing but live," Chris said.

Eric, who dropped out of high school before the tornado, wants to start working toward his GED so he can get a job like his brothers. Until then, he's taking care of his father's horses, which survived the tornado.

But life is "nowhere near the same."

'In the blink of an eye ... they are just gone'

Wendy Johnson did not try to rebuild on the land in Johnson County where she lost her home and her son, Greg Perry Jr., 20.

"I couldn't go back to that land. To me it's no good. I couldn't walk out on my front porch every day knowing that my son died there," she said.

Johnson had driven to neighboring Floyd County on March 2 to pick up her daughter Bethany from school, and they had no choice but to wait out the storm there. She called Greg to tell him the tornadoes were coming.

"They are not going to hit down here," her son told her. "We are just going to get the wind from it."

"He said, 'Don't worry. I'll be all right.'"

Later though, Greg left a voicemail on his sister's phone: "Whatever you do, sissy, you and Mommy don't come home."

When Johnson did get home, "it was just a horrible scene."

The bodies of Greg and a 16-year-old family friend, Sean Shepherd, were in the creek, she said. Her ex-husband, Greg Perry Sr., who had been visiting their son when the tornado hit, was injured but refused to go to the hospital because he couldn't bear to leave his son behind. What belongings Wendy Johnson had left were hanging in the trees.

"In the blink of an eye, everything I ever worked for was gone. All my pictures, all my kids' trophies. My son was a football player in eighth grade; he made all-county conference. All that stuff is gone. And my son," Johnson said. "They are just gone. It's horrible. ... I don't wish it on my worst enemy."

Johnson moved to Floyd County, where she and Bethany, now 17, live in a mobile home on a rented lot.

Family and friends have been there at every turn, Johnson said.

Bethany's cheerleading squad at Prestonsburg High School threw a household shower for them, and one of her teachers gave them an oil painting of Greg Jr. Other friends enlarged a family photo for them.

Johnson said she is moving forward with life, but her son is always on her mind.

On her land in Johnson County where the boys died, Johnson said, she erected a cross in their memory, but someone stole it. Johnson said she's undeterred. On Saturday, she planned to erect a 5-foot wooden cross with their names on it.

She decorates Greg Jr.'s grave in Floyd County every holiday, and she makes the 30-minute drive there almost every Sunday. "He would have been 21 Aug. 4," Johnson said. "We celebrated his birthday at his grave site. There was probably 100 people there."

"I'll memorialize him until the day I die," she said.

Friends and family post messages to Greg Jr. and Sean on a Facebook page dedicated to them.

Fearing storms

The Keeton family — Gene, 46, Amy, 35, and son Zachary, 7 — is more conscious about the weather since a tornado destroyed their home in the Morgan County community of Moon.

The whole family is more edgy when the wind picks up. Zach is especially nervous when skies darken.

"We have to keep him calm, and he won't sleep by himself during a storm," Amy Keeton said.

Their mobile home on Ky. 172 was destroyed in the same tornado that demolished West Liberty. In the first big wind storm after that, Zach came running in from outside "and jumped in the recliner and got in a fetal position and just started rocking," Amy said.

Television reports about threatening weather can upset him, she said.

"I have to keep him away from it. If he hears a tornado warning from another state, he thinks it's going to come here," Amy said.

On Feb. 21, news reports of tornadoes in Texas and Louisiana transfixed Zach and his dad as they watched TV in their new mobile home.

"We see stuff on TV where tornadoes hit these other places, and we know what they're going through," said Gene Keeton, who works for U.S. Coal in Magoffin County.

When their home was destroyed, Amy's cousin allowed them to stay in his house in Martha. With a low-interest loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Keetons were able to buy a new mobile home. They moved in the week of Thanksgiving — and they have a greater appreciation for the word "thanksgiving."

"It just makes you appreciate things. Things you took for granted. It's the pictures and, like, Christmas ornaments I'll never get back, like 'Baby's first Christmas.' That's what I miss the most."

And she said, "You just wonder, every time it storms, if you're ever going to get over the fear."

'The material things don't mean much'

In the great room of their new house, Bette and Richard Dotson display about 20 antique dolls that she had collected over the years. The collection was much larger before a tornado plowed through their home atop a ridge near Botts in Menifee County.

Bette Dotson, 63, said she has stopped collecting anything, "because it can be gone in the blink of an eye."

Richard Dotson, 57, a disabled coal miner, agreed.

"The material things don't mean as much," he said. "I'm not saying I don't care about my place, but it doesn't mean what it did at one time."

The couple had lived near Lizard Ridge since 1999. They were comfortable in their brick ranch house with a basement.

They rode out the storm with neighbors in an underground cistern converted to a storm shelter.

"You live in the hills and all your life you've been told, 'You're in good shape with tornadoes because they hit the hills and they stop,'" Richard Dotson said.

The new house has three bedrooms, two baths and a full basement. Beneath their front porch is a long storm shelter where they store cleaning supplies and canned food.

"We spent pretty much everything we had" to replace the house, Bette Dotson said. "We had insurance, but truthfully, insurance doesn't cover everything. But you better have it."

Even after months of living in their new house, the Dotsons speak of a sense of disorientation and loss.

"There was one day I thought I would make zucchini bread," Bette Dotson recalled. "And he said, 'Do you have everything?' and I said, 'Yes.' But when I started making it, I didn't have baking powder and I didn't have cinnamon, and I just busted out crying because I thought I did have that stuff. One of my friends called, and I was bawling, and she said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'Just calm down' and she came over later and she had the stuff."

'I took life for granted'

A tornado tore down her house, but Valda "Jill" Adams of Wellington in Menifee County said it reinvigorated her faith.

"I think I have dealt with it really good because I have had God with me," Adams said. "He protected me, and I am closer to God now than I was then."

The divorced mother of two grown children said that before the tornado, "I had quit going to church. I wasn't close to God. I didn't pray every day. I took life for granted. I was just involved in work" as a math teacher at the Frenchburg Job Corps.

Then the twister came and took away much of her split-level home and its contents. She had lived there 35 years.

"The whole complete top floor was gone. My stove was never found. My dishwasher. My springs and mattress. I lost everything. Everything.

"But it's material stuff that can be replaced. I lead a simpler life, but I'm happy. I lived in a two-story brick house. I had three vehicles. I thought I was about ready to retire. I lost everything but my life and my children.

"But churches, this county, a few churches in Lexington, volunteers that came from Virginia and the New England states — they picked up the debris and stayed with me for days and days and days. Morehead State University (her alma mater) brought a school bus twice with volunteer students and worked several days picking up the debris."

All that remains of the old house is the basement level, a bathtub and a small American flag left by a Job Corps student.

Adams now lives with her dog, Elmo, in a new double-wide mobile home a few miles from her demolished house. Although she wasn't injured, Adams said she thinks the trauma of the experience affected her memory.

"I'm better now than I was," she said. "But I can be talking to somebody and I forget the words I want to say. Or things I used to know, I have forgotten."

Nevertheless, she is thankful to be alive. She attends Korea Church of God up the road.

"You realize God has all power in heaven and earth. He'll take things out from under you to make you realize."

Natural beauty stripped away

Debbie and Jim "Chub" Melvin of Moon in Morgan County have replaced their home, but what the retired Johnson County teachers can't replace so easily is the beauty of nearby hillsides.

Strong winds felled hundreds of trees around "the loop," a mowed walking path the Melvins maintained on a plateau behind their house. They've tried to have some of the downed timber removed, but the steep hillsides make it too difficult and too dangerous.

"It wasn't the 'things' that we miss most, but it was the beauty of the natural things that were already here," said Debbie Melvin, 62. "We just groomed and kept what was native to this space. So if the lay of the land was curved in a certain way, we might place our landscaping to go along with what was already there."

"We put a lot of effort into this place," said Jim Melvin, 64. "We kept it mowed. We kept walking paths mowed. After it happened and you see all that destroyed, the thing you worked on for 40 years and in 20 or 30 seconds it's gone — I just don't have the heart to go back and redo all that. That's why I hate that term 'new normal.' You can't go back and rebuild in a year or two what it took 40 years to accumulate."

The Melvins salvaged some possessions. One room off the kitchen contains some mission-style shelves and an 1899 organ that belonged to Debbie's great-grandmother. It's like a little corner of their old house.

"We just enjoy this room because it's more familiar," Jim Melvin said.

It does get better

Glen Chaffins' family has endured a great deal of loss, but he says things have improved since the days that followed the tornado.

Chaffins lost his granddaughter Samantha Wood, 14, and watched his wife of 45 years, Joyce Chaffins, 65, die in front of him. Chaffins, who was struck by the front door, was taken by helicopter to a Huntington, W.Va., hospital for treatment of broken ribs and wounds on both legs "from the knees down," he said. It has been a long recovery, physically and mentally.

"The first half of the year was pretty rough. The second half of the year was rough, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. However, "We are all beginning to kind of accept maybe and move on. ... To remember them today is not like remembering them two days after that accident."

Chaffins, his daughter Karen Wood and Wood's two sons, Austin 17, and, Tyler, 19, lived in a hotel room for 30 days.

Wood, 44, said it was up to her to take care of legal matters, arrange for the cleanup of the property, plan two funerals and burials and find a rental home. She nursed her father back to health.

"He had doctors' appointments for four months," she said. "We had to change bandages every day."

All these new pressures she faced while trying to get a handle on grief over losing her daughter and mother.

"In the beginning, you have to fight and claw for every second of sanity," she said.

After the tornado "people showed up for five days running. We had people from all over Lawrence County who did not even know my name. People just showed up to help."

Some of those people pulled from the rubble about the only thing the family has from the destroyed home: Two or three plastic tubs of photos that included Glen and Joyce Chaffins' wedding pictures.

The family found comfort in those photos. Over time, things started to come back together.

They eventually bought a house in Louisa, the Lawrence County seat, and focusing on getting settled helped in some ways.

"It does get better," Wood said. "Not easier, just better ... You do your best day to day. ... I still have days where it's ungodly hard to even get out of bed in the morning, to be perfectly honest."

Wood said she's proud of the strength of her father and her sons.

"We've had a lot of horrific moments," Wood said. "We've also had a lot of blessings come out of this year. That's what I want people to know. God has blessed us through the horrific nightmare that was this year."

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