BY AMANDA BEAM
Since tornadoes ripped through their small town on the afternoon of March 2, things haven’t been the same for Henryville residents Russ Smallwood, Ryon Youell and Brian Lovins.
Among the first to lend a helping hand to rescue Stephanie Decker and other victims along Henryville-Otisco Road, all three neighbors still harbor horrendous memories of the disaster.
Yet as they sat down to discuss the aftermath of the tornadoes, the men also recalled stories of cooperation, fearlessness and, above all, triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity.
For each man, the beginning of the chaos started differently.
Lovins, a Clark County Sheriff’s Department deputy, waited at home for his two girls to get off the bus. They arrived just before the first tornado passed within a mile and a half of their house.
Smallwood had returned early from work to hunker down with his wife, Dana, their young daughter and some other family members in the basement bathroom. Youell also headed home from work early that day, and sought shelter in his log cabin home, knowing his wife, who is Smallwood’s sister, remained safe at the Smallwood house.
Although not sustaining a direct hit, the first tornado’s path traveled close to all the men’s homes. Immediately after, the three ran outside to offer assistance to their neighbors.
“After everything cleared up, I left to go check around. I ended up running into Ryon on the hill,” Smallwood said. “We’d seen some trees down. Brian came running down the hill. He said Stephanie was trapped in her house and wanted to know if we could get through.”
Together, the men, alongside Eddie Cissell and a few other neighbors, journeyed toward the destruction, avoiding downed power lines and fallen trees. Smallwood’s parents lived in a house directly across the street from the Decker’s. The tornado had destroyed it completely. Luckily, neither his mother nor father had been at home during the storm.
When they arrived at the Decker residence, the assembled rescue team shouted for Decker in an effort to locate her. The second twister hit while they were searching. Baseball-sized hail pounded down as they headed for cover.
After the second storm, the men ran into the Deckers’ children, who had managed to escape the debris and run to a neighbor’s house for help. The rescuers decided to return home to gather further supplies to aid in their hunt.
Once their search resumed, they began to call Decker’s name again. Finally, they heard a soft voice whispering back.
“We kept hearing something that sounded like it was coming from a pipe. We kept looking around and couldn’t find anything. Eventually we looked up and saw her in a corner,” Smallwood said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked at that point. Brian came over and got everything under control.
“Thank goodness she wasn’t covered in anything. I don’t know how. It was the only spot in the house that didn’t have anything. Everything worked out for a reason.”
Upon finding the injured woman, Lovins said he knew Decker’s legs needed immediate attention. He called for the men to wrap a makeshift tourniquet around her upper thigh so the heavy bleeding would stop. The men tried several different objects, but nothing would wind tight enough. Finally, someone from above tossed a belt that, when applied, stymied the blood flow. Lovins told Smallwood to “hold this thing like you’ve never held anything tighter in your life.”
“She wasn’t in shock. She was talking just like me and you,” Lovins said. “I’ve worked so many wrecks where people are completely out of it and don’t know how injured they are. She knew exactly what she had.”
Youell remembers Decker’s condition as well.
“She was concerned about the kids and concerned there at the end that she wasn’t going to make it. And honestly, I didn’t think she was going to make it either, with all that blood she lost,” Youell said.
HELP ALL AROUND
During the rescue, other neighbors started to prepare the way for help to arrive, as well as a route for the injured to escape.
“While we were pulling Stephanie out of that rubble, people were already out with tractors and chain saws. I could already hear chain saws cutting trees up out of the road,” Youell said. “Immediately, I mean right after it happened. People were already coming out and getting ready to help who needed help. Just the fact that everybody was doing what we were doing and were trying to help anybody. I’ll never forget that.”
Stumbling to remove Decker from the debris, the neighbors transported her to a truck. Youell and Lovins returned to help others in need. Smallwood tended to Decker in the back as a driver drove them north away from the devastation.
Both fully aware of the severity, they spoke about the situation. Even in immense pain, he said she managed a few jokes.
“We talked for a long time. I said ‘Oh my God. Your foot looks awful.’ [Decker] said, ‘You don’t look that great either,’” Smallwood said. “She said, ‘There goes my pedicures.’ I just looked at her in shock. What am I going to say to that?”
Eventually, Smallwood rendezvoused with an ambulance which then transported Decker to the hospital. In the following days, doctors amputated portions of both of her legs. She has since been recovering and received national attention for helping protect her children from the storm. She has been to Yankee Stadium via invitation from the team and on Friday, met President Barack Obama at the White House.
“I got really emotional about all this because I knew Steph. We’d been to their house. They’ve been to our place,” Lovins said. “It worked out. That’s all that matters.”
Smallwood nodded in agreement.
“It did and I don’t know how. Every card fell in place,” he said. “We were definitely being looked over because it could have gone wrong at any given time.”
Although recollections of the afternoon continue to haunt, recovery has started. Smallwood’s parents have begun to rebuild their house. Henryville-Otisco Road looks a little more like its former self each day. But Lovins doesn’t think the area will ever look the same, at least, he said, not in his lifetime.
Dana Smallwood, when asked about her lasting memory of the storms, summarized the group’s experience of seeing their devastated community.
“Every day is a lasting memory,” she said.
— Amanda Beam is a freelance writer who lives in Floyd County.