When they heard the sound of a train coming, Philip and Patricia Bruce started to run.
They’d been in their bedroom, about to turn in for the night, when the rumbling grew into a roar. They got up and scrambled toward the basement but made it just a few feet down the hall when shards of glass and debris began pelting them in the back. Taking cover in the next bedroom, they waited, hoping they’d make it through.
“It was awful,” Philip, who is 69, said. “I got glass in my back, in my legs. But we’re safe. The Lord’s good.”
Before their lives were upended by last week’s violent, long-track tornado, the Bruces lived in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. The home Philip had worked all his life for — where he and Patricia had lived for nearly two decades — was obliterated. Their humble neighborhood was reduced to rubble, along with three-quarters of this small city about 70 miles northeast of Mayfield, which also got slammed in the eight-state tornado outbreak.
Worst of all, Philip’s sister-in-law Jennifer Bruce, who was recently widowed and lived alone on the other side of Dawson Springs, was killed, he said. She was one of 14 people killed by the tornado in Hopkins County, the coroner said Wednesday. Thirty-six people were still unaccounted for Wednesday in the county, most in the Dawson Springs area of about 2,500 residents, its emergency management spokesperson said.
The Bruces know they’re lucky to be alive. But as they sort through the heap of rubble that is their home, some big questions loom: Do they stay and rebuild in this place that is now a shell of what it once was? Or do they pack up and leave behind the only home they’ve ever known?
Such matters weigh, too, on emergency response teams still working to restore basic services and federal officials considering plans for long-term recovery: What will become of these small towns effectively wiped off the map?
With their lives reduced to shreds in a matter of moments by the deadliest December tornado ever recorded in the United States, reality hasn’t fully set in for the Bruces.
Their son, nephew and a family friend were at the house with them this Monday morning to help them salvage anything still left — a refrigerator, some clothes, a black-and-white photo of Philip as an infant with his mother. A few walls still stood and the Christmas trees look untouched, but the roof had been peeled away almost completely, while crumbled Sheetrock, bits of insulation and pieces of lumber were strewn across the property.
“It’s hit me some, but it probably still hasn’t hit me like it will,” Philip said.
As he recounts the past 72 hours or so, his voice starts to quaver.
Corralling neighbors and searching in vain for others
Just after the tornado passed and Philip and Patricia emerged from their home, they heard the cries.
People all around them appeared trapped in the maze of debris that had become their houses. The couple rushed into the night to try to free who they could, bringing them over to shelter from the cold in their kitchen — one of the few sections of the Bruces’ house where the roof hadn’t entirely blown off or caved in.
“All of this neighborhood come in here and got in the kitchen,” Philip says. “We’ve got a little bit of a roof back there. You could hear the Sheetrock everywhere else falling. They was cold, wet, scared to death.”
They got to Gary Ashlock, who lived in a blue house across the street. They got to a household of three with one member in a wheelchair. They got to a family of five trapped in the basement. They looked in vain for a woman on their block.
When they had rescued everyone they could, the Bruces headed out of their neighborhood to check on family members. Their oldest son, just a couple minutes down the road, had just one room left standing in his house. They made their way toward their sister-in-law’s house and found one of her neighbors parked at the edge of a road nearby.
Jennifer, the neighbor said, was gone.
Soon, they learned of the woman from their block: Her body had been found some distance away.
Grateful — and worried — as the long recovery begins
Three days later, as Philip, Patricia and their relatives sifted through the remnants of their house and loaded belongings into pickup trucks and vans, Gary’s son and daughter-in-law came by with an update.
They’d taken Gary to the hospital the night prior, and though much of the skin on his legs was gone, he was doing OK. His wife, who was working the evening shift alone at a local health clinic when the tornado hit, was thankfully all right, too.
Gary’s daughter-in-law Jenna Ashlock turned to Philip and Patricia: “God bless you,” she said.
A few minutes later, Gary’s son — also named Gary — came up and wrapped Patricia in a tight embrace. She choked back tears. They’d known each other for decades; Patricia, now 70, used to work in the school system where the younger Gary was once a student.
Seeing their town transformed into a pile of tree limbs, downed power lines, insulation and remnants of their neighbors’ possessions had them in disbelief.
“I’m just thankful,” Patricia told him. “There just aren’t words to humble you enough to say it.”
Soon, a black SUV pulled up in front of the house, and the windows rolled down. Did the family need anything, the women inside asked: flashlights, water, gloves? Philip politely declined. These volunteer check-ins had become frequent, he said later — just one example of the tremendous support his community had seen in recent days.
As heartwarming as the offers for food, water and supplies were, Philip isn’t concerned for himself, he said. He considered himself among the lucky of Dawson Springs, where the mayor said close to a third of residents live below the poverty line. The tornado demolished much of the town’s public housing developments, he added, and many don’t have renters’ insurance. It’s those people Philip is thinking about.
“We’re fortunate,” Philip said. “But there’s a whole lot of people in this town that’s not fortunate enough. I worry about them.
“I’m fine. We’re fine.”
Sifting through the rubble with volunteers and cadaver dogs
A few streets over, early recovery efforts were underway. A crew in red T-shirts that read, “Disaster Response Team,” navigated piles of debris several feet high, with a couple cadaver dogs in tow.
The members of the local chapter of Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, a nonprofit made up of veterans and first responders, arrived here Sunday from northern Kentucky and Tennessee to relieve some of the burden on Dawson Springs’ overwhelmed, largely volunteer fire department.
“If we find a body, it’ll be a bad day for us,” Dave Jardon, commander for the organization’s greater Cincinnati chapter, said. “If they find a body, it could be a friend, neighbor or loved one.”
In this section of Dawson Springs, about 35 people were still unaccounted for on Monday, Dave said.
Amid the silence, a dog sniffed around in the rubble behind a home where a giant tree had collapsed. Then, it barked.
Another dog was brought in to inspect the area. It barked, too.
Dave called for some equipment, and soon, an excavator arrived. Response team members stood back as the claw lifted tree limbs and tossed them to the side. One stepped down into the partially cleared area, a space that might once have been a garage. He emerged after a few moments.
“Nothing here,” he declared.
It was at once a relief — this work is grim, and there’s so much ground yet to cover. But Dave knew that in a few days, he and his team would head back home to their own warm houses. Dawson Spring’s firefighters, first responders and police couldn’t all say the same.
“They’ll work 18 hours a day, go home, and this is what their house looks like,” Dave said, gesturing to the destruction around him. “They’re living this.”
It’s a similar story in ravaged Mayfield
In Mayfield, too, residents are worried about what happens next.
Shyanne Wilford and Joseph Tyler lived in their place with their five kids — ranging from a baby to teenagers — and two cats. The couple was renting, but in seven years, Shyanne had put a lot of time and care into making the house feel like a home. Recently, she had repainted the deck, installed new flooring and put in a tiled kitchen backsplash.
During the tornado, the seven of them holed up in a closet in their aboveground basement. When it passed about 10 seconds later, they came out to find that their roof and the top floor were gone. Glass and insulation were everywhere, and many of their possessions were wet, broken or missing.
On Sunday afternoon, the couple, their kids and other relatives were back at the house putting what was left of their things into trash bags. They were able to save most of their clothes, a TV, some living room furniture. The bedroom set Shyanne had just bought for the girls was shredded, though, and their mattresses had vanished. The couple hopes to repair broken dresser drawers and other partially broken furniture; with no renters’ insurance, they can’t afford to buy all new things.
“We’re effectively homeless now,” Joseph said. “The less we have to do in rebuilding a life for ourselves, the better off we’ll be.”
For now, the family is staying with Shyanne’s sister. Others have offered them places to stay as well, but at every turn, their options are temporary. And in this moment, what Shyanne wants most is to be at home.
“Everybody was fine, and I know that’s the most important, but it’s just that feeling of not having somewhere to go,” she said.
In another Mayfield neighborhood, Jason White was coming to grips with a sobering reality: What he lost in the tornado can’t be replaced.
The house where he stood had belonged to his grandparents, likely built sometime in the early 1900s. After they died, they left it to him, and he lived there for more than a decade.
“It was a good sturdy house until the other night,” he said.
As Jason and his partner Michelle sifted through what was left, they found a few of his father’s possessions — a framed award, a desk, a taxidermied fox. Details like the molding and the peeling floral wallpaper hinted at the history it once contained.
Though the house was beyond repair, Jason managed to save his family photos. He brought out the last one that Michelle found: a triptych frame displaying the senior class pictures of his mother, father and himself. Despite the shattered glass, stains and water damage, the faces smiled back at him.
He wants to rebuild. She’s less sure
Back in Dawson Springs, Patricia reflected on her past half-century with Philip. They’d been married more than 51 years and raised two children together. They have three granddaughters and a great-grandchild, with another on the way.
“I’ve lived a charmed life,” she said through tears.
The two have always had each other. But as they consider how to move forward from this period of tragedy and uncertainty, they aren’t seeing eye to eye.
Philip wants to rebuild on the lot he’s called home for decades, even after their sister-in-law died so violently nearby. Patricia is less sure, given how long the recovery could take.
Already by Monday, the American Red Cross had set up eight shelters across Kentucky. And FEMA had delivered dozens of generators, 30,000 meals, 90,000 bottles of water, 4,500 blankets, 2,100 cots and “other critical commodities to Kentucky to help families in need,” the White House press secretary said.
The federal agency has vowed to stay as long as it takes. But for the Bruces — she 70 years old, he nearly so — it might not be worth it to stick around.
He wants to come back stronger. She feels what made this town home is gone.
After bunking with their younger son and his wife in nearby Hopkinsville for a few days, the Bruces got some good news: The son of a man they went to church with offered to put them up indefinitely in a fully furnished place in Saint Charles, Kentucky, about a 15-minute drive away.
So for the near future, that’s where they’ll be. In the long run, though, they can’t say.
“One day at a time,” Patricia said heavily. “That’s all any of us can do anymore that live here.”
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