By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY — Life hasn’t been easy this past year for Jason Miller. Even though he alone survived a massive EF-4 tornado that ripped apart his Pekin home and killed a family of five that sought shelter there, Miller remains uncertain as to what the future holds.
With mounting medical bills and no job because of his injuries, the 33-year-old recently returned to his Southern Indiana hometown in search of opportunities as well as, more importantly, a renewed peace of mind.
“I’ve been swimming in a sea of indecision for the past year. I haven’t been able to make decisions even beyond my health just because I haven’t felt like the same person,” Miller said in an interview on the anniversary of the destructive March 2, 2012, tornadoes.
After the storms, Miller’s story became headline news. CNN and “The Today Show” interviewed him for segments detailing the tragedy. It’s strange to think that only 11 years ago, the Salem native wouldn’t have been able to view these very news shows he was set to appear. Miller was born to an Amish family where their conservative practices guided his upbringing. He left the community early in his 20s, the first of his 13 siblings to do so, and established himself in the outside world.
Only six weeks before the deadly storms hit, Miller had moved to a house in Pekin with his girlfriend and her son. Always good at working with his hands, he had just landed a new job with Hoosier Uplands as a weatherization contractor. His first assignment with the organization had just been completed the night before the disaster struck.
On the morning of March 2, 2012, he decided to stay around the house to monitor the reports of severe weather approaching the area. He remained glued to the television for the better part of the afternoon and found himself relieved when the red blobs on the screen appeared to be shifting away from his town.
He was mistaken about the storm’s track. For whatever reason, Miller opened his front door later that afternoon and caught his first glimpse of the tornado coming over a nearby hill. As close as it was to his house, the twister didn’t look like the ones people see in movies.
“I don’t remember seeing a funnel cloud, but just a path,” Miller said. “It was more square when I saw it. I just remember seeing this solid black wall coming at me.”
His neighbor, Moriah Brough, was outside waiting for a ride when she saw the tornado too. Miller said he yelled for her to bring Kendall, the 2-month-old baby she was carrying, and take cover in his double-wide home. Shortly after, Joe Babcock and their two other children, 2-year-old Jaydon and 14 month-old Angel, joined them inside.
Miller can recall only bits and pieces of what happened next. He said he remembered opening the door to his home in order to photograph the twister with his camera phone. But it was too late. The roar of the tornado was already upon them. All Miller could do was jump on top of the Babcock family and pray.
“The house shook so hard. It was unreal. To this day, I think about the house shaking. It should have fell apart,” Miller said. “The inner funnel cloud, I really believe, came right over our house and that’s why the house didn’t disintegrate right there. My last memory was the entire house in the air. The floor came up from under the house and it started to spin.”
That’s around the time Miller blacked out from what he has come to determine as an absence of oxygen in the center of the funnel. He said he’s fairly certain the Babcock family most likely lost consciousness early on, too.
“I believe they all blacked out and that makes it a lot easier to accept what happened,” Miller added.
Moments later, he would awaken in a muddy field more than 100 feet away from his home. Even after walking to the nearby sawmill, he still couldn’t recall anything about how he had arrived in the pasture, and only a little later was he able to tell the first responders that the Babcock family was in the house with him and needed to be rescued as well. Soon after, rescuers would find four of the family members dead and the little girl named Angel clinging to life. She succumbed to her injuries two days later.
Eventually, an ambulance transported Miller to a hospital in Salem, then to the University of Louisville Hospital for emergency medical treatment.
“We’ll never know what happened. I know I was a couple hundred of feet up in the air at one point and I landed in a cow field,” Miller said. “I make the joke, I landed on a cow I think. I landed on something soft out there.”
Soft landing or not, the doctors thought at first they may have needed to amputate Miller’s mangled arm. He also suffered broken bones in his elbow, back and ribs. For two weeks, he remained hospitalized and underwent numerous surgeries to try and repair his shoulder and biceps with metal plates. After his release, he decided to move first to his parents’ home in Ohio, then to his sister’s in Minnesota to start the recovery process.
Four surgeries and a multitude of scars later, Miller has returned to the place he considers home. Times are still rough for the survivor. Despite U of L Hospital forgiving more than $260,000 worth of medical bills, he still owes another $250,000 to doctors and other medical personnel, a daunting sum. Bankruptcy, he said, may be his only option.
Due to the injuries sustained in the tornado, the former contractor cannot return to the only work with which he is familiar. He’s looking for a job in the area in hopes that it will help him get back on his feet.
“The work I know how to do and for so long what I’ve done, I can’t do it anymore,” Miller said. “All of a sudden, I go from having everything to not having everything. And it’s not about that. It’s about knowing how to function. It’s kind of like coming out of the Amish into a new society.”
Individual donations have been collected for Miller, but he said they don’t come close to covering his medical expenses. A church in Minnesota bought him a car, and Northside Christian Church in New Albany contributed $3,000 to fixing it up. A website, helpJason.org, still exists for those wanting to contribute money toward his bills.
Financial and medical burdens still do not compare to the emotional turmoil Miller said he has felt since the storms. At first, he hesitated to meet family of those who didn’t survive for fear they might be angry with him. Counselors have told him he harbored survivor’s guilt, a feeling in which he blamed himself for being the only person not to perish.
“I took responsibility for them and they died. It took me months to get over that,” he said. “I felt guilty for being alive, and that was half the battle.”
Time has helped remove some of Miller’s self-blame. He has visited the graves of the Babcock family on several occasions and at times has spoken to their kin.
Only in the past eight weeks has he felt like he’s headed in the right direction as far as his life goes. He now said he hopes to find employment so that he can once again have the ability to support himself.
“If I could get back into a job and feel like my life could resume …, I could focus my energy in taking my life a certain direction. That’s going to help me more than anything,” Miller said. “It’s starting to, and I’m starting to get a grasp just in the past month of that. I can get this back. I can make it work.”
Although he experienced emotional and physical troubles immediately following the tragedy, Miller said he never suffered any loss of faith. He added he knows God was with him that frightening day and that there must be bigger plans for his life. He credited his survival both inside and out to a higher power and insisted something good will come out of his year-long suffering.
“I think what the devil made for evil, God is going to use for good, and I’m going to be a part of that,” Miller said. “I’m going to try and make something good out of it.”