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Survivors share losses, blessings

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 8, 2007, at 1:36 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

With hurt etched on his face, Robert McIntosh thrust his jaw out and spat out the words.

Greensburg will be back.

"We're not going to run from this," the salvage yard operator said Monday while recovering at Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus from a heart attack suffered in the hours after Friday's tornado.

"You just don't give up on something like this," he said.

McIntosh and friends were in Pratt on business Friday night when a text message arrived, telling them that Greensburg's tornado sirens were going off.

"I didn't think a lot about it," he said, shaking his head.

When McIntosh got home, the town he left was gone.

"I mean, you leave an hour before, and when you come back everything's gone," he said, his voice cracking.

"My garage is toast. My house is unlivable. We used to have a Pizza Hut. We used to have a Dillons. Now, we have nothing."

His friends needed help.

"You start right in," he said. "You do everything you possibly can to help your neighbors, you know.... That's what we do in Greensburg.

"The looks on their faces, I mean... seeing those looks, so much pain, so much confusion, a lot of uncertainty."

McIntosh, 35, was directing traffic on U.S. 54 when his heart trouble set in. With a family history of heart disease, and with two previous heart attacks, "everything just overwhelmed me," he said.

"I started feeling bad, so I thought I'd better walk over to Dillons where they were gathering all of us," he said. "And I guess I just collapsed on the ground."

That's when his friends -- Shanda Halling, Debbie Hass and Hass' mother -- returned the favor, summoning EMS help that took him to Wichita.

McIntosh was in fair condition Monday. If heart tests look good, he could be released in a couple of days.

There will be a temporary stop with friends in Mullinville, but McIntosh is intent on going home.

"Greensburg is just a great little community," he said. "It's the place where you want to raise your kids.

"People help you here when you need it. And here I am. I can't go help because I've got nothing to help with."

'We all just bawled'

Exhausted, Carrie Hall clutched a black trash bag filled with her grandparents' belongings.

As she sat at a picnic table outside Haviland High School, she talked about what it was like going back to Greensburg on Monday.

"We all just bawled," she said.

She lives in Hesston now but grew up in Greensburg in a house now gone.

Her grandparents, Ray and Marvene Martin, lost most everything. Their home is still standing, but there's roof and water damage.

"My uncle's house is completely gone," Hall said of her uncle, Daniel Martin.

Allowed back in Greensburg for the first time since Friday night, Daniel Martin, Hall said, grabbed his tools, hunting rifles and souvenirs from his Naval service in places such as Guam and the Philippines. China. Beer steins from other countries.

"We were able to save like 10 percent of it," Hall said.

The roof of her grandparents' carport was in a tree in their backyard. A pine tree limb was shoved under the headlights of their car.

It's strange what survived and what didn't, she said. Two china dolls that Hall's grandmother kept pressing her to take home were in perfect condition. They'd been in the china cabinet.

Hall visited her father's grave at the cemetery, eager to see if his headstone survived.

"It's still there," she said.

A four-legged savior

Mable McCormick has a message for the rescue workers in Greensburg: Find the dog that helped save my life.

McCormick, 93, and her daughter Donna Hunter rode out the Greensburg tornado in a homemade fortress of furniture, pillows and blankets at 411 E. Garfield.

And a fluffy gray-and-white Keeshond named Toby, whose impromptu decision to lie over McCormick's head, probably saved her life.

McCormick was listed in good condition Monday at Via Christi-St. Francis with an assortment of bruises and a big laceration to her head, one her daughter thinks might have been fatal had the dog not deflected a flying board.

"I got hit in the head," McCormick said. "I reached up there and that big old dog was there taking care of me. He's kinda fuzzy. I want him back."

Donna Hunter is even more emphatic: Toby saved Mabel's life.

"I didn't even know he was there," she said. "Mom had him right back there on the back of her head, her neck. Don't know when or why. He was just there."

Hunter and her mother made a last-second decision to take cover after police-scanner reports initially indicated the monster tornado would slip west of Greensburg.

"We had a divan, and I decided to pull some pillows up around us and a heavy yellow afghan that Mom had made several years ago," Hunter said.

Seconds later, the double-wide manufactured house was ripped apart -- then struck again seconds later by what Hunter said was a second, smaller tornado.

"Hell on wheels," Hunter said.

The patio doors blew in first, then the north side of the house was ripped away as debris swirled around them.

"I think the afghan helped save us from a lot of debris," Hunter said. "Plus the board that hit Mom saved her, I think, from more debris."

But not more so than Toby the Keeshond.

"We know he's out there somewhere," Hunter said. "He was seen after the storm running around. Our other dog has been found, and people have heard our cats in the basement.

"But we're still trying to find Toby. My daughter's looking everywhere for him."

A surprise rescue

About 1:30 a.m. Saturday, nearly four hours after the tornado struck, Sedgwick County Deputy Fire Chief Rick Brazill and a few of his men were asked to go to the collapsed Greensburg Hospital building.

Rescuers from all over were evacuating patients. They were about three-quarters of the way done when Brazill and his men were asked to make a secondary sweep of the building.

It was on that sweep that they heard hollering from the basement.

Brazill and the three other Sedgwick County fire personnel -- Capt. Dave Pote and firefighters Dave Kilpatric and Chris Roberts -- and Newton Deputy Fire Chief Mark Willis cleared debris hanging near the stairway to the basement and descended.

There they found five people who weren't on the list of hospital patients or staff they'd had to account for.

The stranded victims included a boy and girl 3 or 4 years old, two women and a man.

"They were hollering for assistance," Brazill said. "They evidently knew firefighters and EMS folks were upstairs evacuating patients."

None appeared to have any injuries, but they were shaken.

"They had been down there several hours. The children were afraid. They were uneasy. I think all of them were," Brazill said.

"They were very glad to see us and very glad to get out of that basement."

The rescuers had to help one of the women up the stairs because she had no shoes.

They wrapped the kids in blankets and got them to an ambulance.

For Brazill and his men, the experience was an eye-opener, teaching them to be thorough in their search efforts.

"We had five folks we didn't expect to find and didn't know how many others we'd find that had taken refuge," Brazill said.

Shortly after, more crews from Wichita and Sedgwick County arrived in the town.

Brazill and his men searched until the next afternoon. They found people who weren't as lucky as the five in the hospital basement.

Brazill has been with the county Fire Department for 29 years. He worked previous tornadoes in Haysville and Andover.

"I've seen it, but nothing like this, nothing on this scale," he said.

As for the hospital rescue, no big deal.

"It wasn't a dramatic rescue by any means," Brazill said. "My guys did what they do all the time."

Loaded with gifts

Without thinking twice about it, Steve Dillon and Steve Sigley drove from Wichita to Haviland on Monday to lend help.

They were behind the wheel of a Northridge Friends Church van with a trailer hitched to the back of it.

"The van is loaded to the hilt with clothes, and so is the trailer," Dillon said.

The church's congregation responded quickly to a plea Sunday for clothing and sleeping bags for displaced people.

"We have everything from infant to adult," Dillon said.

As they pulled over in front of the makeshift American Red Cross shelter at Haviland High School, Carol Fast shouted out from her car: "Do you guys got a baby stroller?"

Fast, an employee of the Haviland school district, was trying to find one for a friend staying at the shelter. Her friend has a toddler and a baby.

The church hadn't brought one, but later, someone else found one.

Fast jumped up and down at the news.

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