News and Tribune

March 3, 2013

‘We should be gone’ — Former Henryville residents talk about being sucked up in March 2 twister

By CHRIS MORRIS
chris.morris@newsandtribune.com

JEFFERSONVILLE — Freda and Michael Montgomery can be called survivors on many levels. The two have faced emotional and physical challenges in the past that would weaken the heartiest of souls.

Freda survived a serious ATV accident that severely injured her leg. Michael’s stepchildren from a previous marriage were killed in an automobile accident, and his son was in a coma for 20 days after his vehicle slammed into a truck head-on a few years ago. He eventually recovered from the accident.

However, maybe that past helped them deal with the challenges that came their way March 2, 2012. Maybe it was that mental toughness that helped them survive being sucked up into a funnel cloud and thrown 350 feet into a muddy field, and while seriously injured, overcome the pain of being pelted with softball-size hail and heavy rain while waiting to be taken to the hospital.

“You go through things in life that you don’t always know why,” Freda said, holding back tears. “You don’t always understand why you go through it. But He has a plan.”

 

MARCH 2, 2013

Michael, 52, said he loves watching storms and that day a year ago was no different. Standing outside of the couple’s mobile home at 7404 Henryville-Otisco Road in Henryville, he had his eye, and camera, on a dark cloud heading his way.

“I was on the front porch looking at the hillside and saw the debris cloud,” Michael said. “[The tornado] was about a half mile away from us and it looked like it was going to miss us. Then all of a sudden, it made a 45-degree turn and headed straight for us.”

That is when Freda heard WLKY-TV Meteorologist Jay Cardosi say a tornado was spotted near Henryville-Otisco Road, right before the electricity went out in their residence. She ran to the porch and told Michael what Cardosi had said and the two sprinted to a hallway inside the mobile home. There was no time to go anyplace else.

“I opened the back door and saw a bunch of debris,” Freda said. “I remember it came over the bedroom and under the floor. When it did, I let out a scream. But it was so quiet. I didn’t hear the train sound that you read about.”

Michael said he was looking toward the front of the trailer, where they had lived since 2004, and could see the funnel cloud grinding through the landscape, heading toward them. Later, the two were told there were two funnel clouds that joined together near their home.

“I remember going up toward the ceiling and something hit me in the head and knocked me out. I woke up in mud with a door on top of me,” Michael said. “It took the trailer off its foundation and just destroyed it.”

The two were thrown some 350 feet. While Michael was knocked out, Freda said she never lost consciousness despite losing a lot of blood.

“I could see her ... she was about 14 feet from me, but I had a broken back and couldn’t get to her,” Michael said of the moments following the tornado.  

Freda, 50, said she was sucked up inside the funnel and remembers dodging debris.

“I compare it to being in a washing machine going 170 mph on spin cycle,” she said. “I remember being slammed to the ground about five times and finally saying I can’t do this anymore, and asked the Lord if it was His will to just take me home. But I heard a voice say no.”

As the two were lying severely injured in the muddy field, all they could do was wait. The twister had stripped Michael of his clothing, except for his underwear, while Freda was surrounded by debris and a broken electrical line. She was eventually airlifted nearly two hours after the tornado to University of Louisville Hospital. Michael was taken to U of L by ambulance.

“I just remember being cold and wet,” Freda said.

The door on top of Michael helped protect him from the hail.

“The hail was unlike any hail I had ever seen before,” Freda said.

 

THE INJURIES

Michael was home from work that day recovering from recent rotator cuff surgery. In fact, he and Freda were preparing to drive to Clarksville for a friend’s birthday party when the twister hit.

Besides a broken back, he also broke his arm, leg, dislocated his shoulder and suffered nerve damage in his back.

“I was pretty much all broken bones,” he said.

Freda suffered a severe leg injury, broke her arm in three places and her pelvis. She also had a large open wound in her back and only had one-eighth of her body’s blood left when she arrived at the hospital. She immediately received a blood transfusion and despite being conscious during the aftermath and helicopter ride to the hospital, was told later she was near death.

The two were in the hospital for 11 days, and were then transported to rehabilitation. They began walking again with some normalcy in June, but are still reminded daily of their injuries.

Freda is no stranger to pain. She had 23 surgeries before the tornado and this marked the third time she had to learn how to walk again.

Michael is recovering from a second shoulder surgery and remains on painkillers. He also suffered a heart attack while in the hospital after receiving morphine, to which he is allergic. He has trouble sitting for a period of time.

 Freda takes eight pills per day and will be on antibiotics for the next nine months due to the infection in her back from the large wound. She also wears a brace on her arm and said there are still medical challenges ahead.

“There is only one reason we survived this ... He is the reason,” Michael said. “We should be gone.”

From looking at the area where the mobile home once stood, it’s amazing that anyone survived. All that was left were pieces of debris scattered throughout the landscape. One of Michael’s shirts is still in a nearby tree. Some of his tools were salvaged, but that is about it.

For several hours following the storm, the word going around Henryville was that Michael had been killed. That is what friends and family members believed when they converged on the Montgomery property.

One of Freda’s pill bottles was found in Madison while her business cards were scattered as far as Burlington, Ky. Michael’s workman’s compensation check was located in Versailles, Ind., and mailed back to him weeks later.

 

THE AFTERMATH

Up until a few weeks ago, Freda shied away from talking about the tornado. Even though her story would rival any best-selling novel or movie, she didn’t want to speak about the experience. Freda and Michael lived across the street from Stephanie Decker, the mother who lost part of both legs while shielding her children from the twister.

While many know her neighbor’s story, Freda has remained quiet until now.

“It was just too fresh. I couldn’t talk about it,” she said. “March is a traumatic month for me. My father died in March [2011] and then the tornado was in March. It was too much.”

She said therapy has helped her cope with the dreams and fear. After a tornado warning was issued for the area this winter, she barricaded herself in the bathtub and admits being a bit freaked out.

“The exact moment I wake up from a bad dream, my therapist has told me to get up, write it down on a piece of paper and throw it away. Through that process I have been able to cope,” she said.

She has since moved to Jeffersonville and Michael is living with a friend in Louisville. The two are going through a divorce. Freda is already on permanent disability and Michael fears he may never be able to return to work as a master technician for a Nissan dealership in Louisville.

The two didn’t have insurance but have survived through the help of friends, church and the federal government.

“We got sunk,” she said. “Without FEMA, I would not be here.”  

Freda plans on going back to Henryville today [March 2] to participate in activities to mark the one-year anniversary of the tornado which claimed 13 lives in Southern Indiana. She said she will never forget that day, or the months that have since passed. She still has the scars, both inside and out. But she is ready to move on.

“I have pushed myself,” she said. “I am able now to talk about it. I have to move forward.”