The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 26, 2011

Six months later: 'God Saved 6' dad recounts afternoon of April 27 twister

By Kelly Kazek
kelly@athensnews-courier.com

Editor’s Note: Two days after the April 27 tornado outbreak, News Courier Managing Editor Kelly Kazek and photographer Kim Rynders drove along the path of the storm, recording stories and taking photos. They crossed into Madison County and came across a striking image: Framed by a brilliant blue sky, a demolished home bore a plywood sign: “God Saved 6 Here Behind These Walls.” The photo Rynders snapped with clouds radiating behind the home was published in numerous places, including on The Associated Press wire, and on the cover of a publication by the Alabama Press Association. This is the story behind the photo.

It was an almost evil-sounding hiss that told Brian Reeves his family was in imminent danger.

He had stepped from the relative safety of the bathroom into the hallway of his Harvest home to look for the family dog, Roscoe, when he heard it — the sound of high-pressure winds forcing entry through the home’s otherwise undetectable nooks and crannies.

“I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “I jumped back into the bathroom and shut the door.”

Inside the tiny space, Brian joined his wife Rhonda, his children — Meagan, 23, Halee, 19, and Hunter, 17 — and a neighbor Chaylin Ortiz, 16.    

“I told them to get down and put their heads between their knees,” he said. “I told them, ‘Guys, this is real.’”

When the winds finally stopped that April day almost six months ago, the family faced a new reality — their home on Old Eli Road was destroyed by the EF5 tornado that swept through Limestone and Madison counties. It killed four people in Limestone County and nine in Madison County; 247 died statewide.

The tornado was one of seven that struck in Limestone on April 27. Sixty-two twisters touched down statewide, and 214 around the country.

The home of the Reeves, who now live in Limestone County, was one of as many as 300 destroyed in Madison County. Another 700 homes were damaged or destroyed in Limestone County.

The tornado strikes

The day began with sirens. Brian had just arrived at his job at QinetiQ in Huntsville’s Research Park when Rhonda called to tell him to come home. The weather would be bad that day. Rhonda kept Halee and Hunter home form Sparkman High School and Meagan skipped classes at Calhoun Community College.

Brian emailed his out-of-town boss for permission to work from home but, when he finally got the OK at about 11:30 a.m., a passing twister forced him back into his office.

He finally arrived home at about 2:30 p.m. to discover the power was out. Without television, radio or warning sirens, the family had no way of knowing if more bad weather approached.

The Reeves and others in the subdivision stood outside, searching the skies. Meagan, a film enthusiast, was recording the weather and the people.

“Suddenly, we started noticing pieces of debris falling from the sky,” Brian said.

Still, no one ran for cover. No tornado was visible.

Two things alerted Brian to the danger: the continued warnings from his Blackberry, with which he subscribed to weather alerts from a local TV station, and a sudden lightning strike about five houses away.

“I said, ‘That’s it. Everybody get in the house.’ We all ran inside but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking. ‘This is a drill.’”

Inside, Brian was urging his family to move away from the window when he looked out himself.

“Suddenly, it was dark,” he said. “It was as if the clouds had descended to roof level. They came from nowhere. It was enough to make me say, ‘Something’s not right. Get in the bathroom.’”

Roscoe, a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix known as a chi-weenie, was in his crate in the living room, where he was put when his family went outside.

Inside the bathroom, Hunter reminded his father about the dog. At about 4:30 p.m., Brian stepped out to try to get to the dog when the twister struck.

Brian was sure of only one thing: He needed to keep his family alive for the next two minutes.

“We all grabbed each other football huddle,” he said. Family members ducked down to below the level of the bathroom vanity. “No sooner did we get into position than something flew through the bathroom door and shattered the vanity window into about four huge pieces. We were all just praying.”

Brian could smell rain-soaked insulation and hear horrific rumbling. “It sounded like the west side of the house was being fed through a wood chipper,” he said.

Everyone kept their eyes shut tight to keep flying debris from injuring them. Brian recalls opening his eyes for a split second, only to see the long hair of his wife, daughters and neighbor “standing straight up” in the wind.

Suddenly, the ceiling above the bathroom lifted momentarily. A sliver of light shown through, then the roof came back down.

Brian had time to realize the roof was about to be torn off when it suddenly blew away.

One outside wall was blown to a 45-degree angle but all the walls remained.

“All I could think was that these things usually didn’t last long,” Brian said. “I told everyone, ‘Just hold on. If we can just survive a couple of minutes, we’ll be OK.’ I was just trying to make them stay calm.”

After the storm

After about 90 seconds, the storm had passed and the Reeves family was standing in the bathroom in about 6 inches of water with electrical lines lying all around. There was no roof and the bathroom door was blocked by a 15-foot pile of debris.

Brian used Meagan’s iPhone to call 911 but emergency crews were inundated with calls for help.

Meagan was able to get a text to members of The Brook, the family’s church, and some of them texted they were on the way to help get the family out of the home.

Then, it began to hail and the Reeves and Chaylin covered their heads with pieces of sheetrock that had blown from the house.

Finally, after dark, a Madison County Sheriff’s deputy called out to ask if anyone were inside the home. He helped clear the blocked door and make a path from the bathroom  but one other problem remained: Only Hunter was wearing shoes. The deputy was able to get to Meagan’s closet and tossed a hodge-podge of shoes to the family to protect them from protruding nails and other objects. Brain recalls emerging in a pair of strawberry-pink pumps.

“We made it to Meagan’s room and climbed out her bedroom window,” Brian said. “When I looked back toward the house, I saw my car on top of my son’s bedroom. My daughter’s car was still in the garage but the garage and the door were wrapped around it. There was a trampoline in my living room and a kiddie slide. We don’t own a trampoline or kiddie slide. There were numerous things in our living room I’d never seen before in my life.”

Brian began to search for Roscoe, calling his name, knowing the dog would answer if he could.

“I just knew the storm had blown him away,” Brian said. 

Then he heard a whimper. He kept calling. Roscoe kept whimpering.

The deputy was able to crawl beneath a massive pile of debris — that somehow had landed in just the right way to form a protective tent over Roscoe’s crate — and pull Roscoe to safety.

“He’s scared of storms now,” Brian said.

When the family moved to a rental home off East Limestone Road near the high school, they adopted a shelter pet, a Chihuahua, to keep the traumatized Roscoe company.

They also purchased an aboveground storm shelter from Tornado Masters. After all, the home is just two miles from the path the EF5 took on April 27, and near the path of another fatal twister that struck on April 3, 1974.

The Reeves aren’t taking chances.

As they were clearing debris from their home after the storms, they erected a wooden cross and a spray painted sign: “God Saved 6 Here Behind These Walls” — six and a thankful little dog named Roscoe.

Brian said the family is doing well but they are dealing with some post-traumatic stress. Still, he is grateful.

“I will never forget the man who gave me the coat off his back when I was cold and had no jacket. I will not forget the family that took us in and provided shelter when we had no place to go,” he said. “Our church, family, friends and even my employer have given us unbelievable support and blessings that enabled us to rebuild our lives in a very short time. We are forever thankful to the Lord for saving us that day and continue to serve him and take nothing for granted. I believe that in the worst of times you see the best come out in people. The people of Madison and Limestone County are our angels.”