Prattville, Ala. -- A "monster" approached, and nobody could stop it.
On Feb. 17, just after 3 p.m., a tornado with winds of more than 150 mph smacked the small town of Prattville, Ala., damaging some 900 homes and businesses, injuring 50 people and leaving a trail of destruction that would make the impact of a runaway freight train look like bumper cars in comparison. Nestled in the heart of the Deep South, Prattville sits 20 minutes from the state capitol in Montgomery and 15 miles northeast of Maxwell Air Force Base.
Maxwell employs many of the residents in this New England-style village of just over 30,000 people. Unfortunately, two of those employees were among those most severely affected by the twister, which rated EF-3 in strength on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. Ilah Glover, a secretary for a two-star general, lost her home. Navy Commander Carl Forkner, an Air War College instructor, nearly lost his life.
It Huffed, and It Puffed
Ilah, who has served the past three years as the secretary to the commander of Air Force Officer Accession and Training Schools (currently Maj. Gen. Alfred K. Flowers), spent that fateful Sunday at home with Wayne, her husband of 29 years.
Wayne and Ilah had built their one-story brick home 12 years earlier, when they decided to make the charming, cozy town of Prattville their permanent residence. Five years ago they added a 200 square-foot sunroom to the dwelling. That seemed to put the finishing touches on their 2,200 square-foot dream home. The couple kept their large yard landscaped immaculately with crape-myrtle, sago palm and banana trees, as well as oleander shrubs. The tropical foliage provided the perfect backdrop for the backyard swimming pool.
They had worked hard all their lives and were enjoying the fruits of their labors, including some expensive "toys," also housed on their property. Wayne, a retired chief master sergeant and former civil service worker at Maxwell, had a Harley Davidson motorcycle and a boat. They also had three vehicles, including a Buick Park Avenue, a four-wheel drive Chevy Silverado Z-71, and a full-size custom van. All were kept in pristine condition.
Just a couple of months earlier in December, they had replaced all of their living room furniture and added a big flat screen TV as an anniversary/Christmas present to each other.
With their three adult daughters moved out, the couple now counted two dogs and a cat as their "kids." Bailey, the tiny male toy poodle, was the oldest at 10 years, while Izzie, a 7-month-old Yorkshire terrier, was the youngest. Their tabby cat, Silly, had been a stray that adopted them.
They had been under tornado warnings all day long with sirens going off constantly. The couple tracked the storm on TV, and Wayne commented that the direction it was traveling seemed unusual.
Living in southern Alabama since 1991, the Glovers had experienced more than a few tornado warnings with zero incidents. They weren't exactly immune to them, but they didn't sit around and fret about them either.
Nevertheless, something about this storm bugged Wayne.
Suddenly, he turned to his wife and said, "If we have to take shelter today, don't go to the closet. Go all the way back to the master bedroom bathroom."
"Why?" Ilah asked.
"I don't know; please just do it," he said.
"OK, fine; just let me know when you want to go," Ilah responded, slightly annoyed. The closet had always been their tornado shelter. She liked the big walk-in closet because it left plenty of room for the couple and their three pets. But it wasn't worth arguing over.
Less than 30 minutes later, it started to rain. But this was no normal downpour. The storm pounded their home like a drum, as if producing giant-sized raindrops.
"Let's go," Wayne said.
Ilah picked up the dogs, while Wayne grabbed the cat.
As Wayne retrieved some pillows and blankets, Ilah started to set up a bed for the dogs in the Jacuzzi.
Wayne said, "No, we have to go further back."
Ilah was irritated. She had never been one of those people who panic over the weather, and the Jacuzzi was a great place to keep her dogs. Nevertheless, she picked up the pooches and followed Wayne to the back of the bathroom.
Meanwhile, the storm's intensity had picked up considerably. Wayne told Ilah it sounded like the jet engine of an SR-71 Blackbird revving up.
Wayne closed the door at the back of the bathroom, and then ...
It sounded as if a bomb had just exploded. The house shook violently for mere seconds, then silence.
Wayne reached for the door and started to open it.
"What are you doing?!!!" Ilah asked with more than a bit of alarm in her voice.
"It's all over with, Babe," Wayne responded with an eerie calmness.
"It can't be all over with; we've only been in here 15 seconds," Ilah said.
But Wayne already had stepped through the doorway. Reluctantly, Ilah followed.
Ilah saw Wayne eyeing the ceiling and followed his gaze. Only there was no ceiling. Dumbfounded, they both stood in their master bedroom and stared at open sky.
Their dream home had been reduced to a pile of rubble. The only room totally intact was the back bathroom where they'd sought shelter. The walk-in closet that had routinely served as their refuge during storms had totally collapsed.
Chills ran up Ilah's spine.
After getting over the initial shock, the couple navigated their way over and through the debris and went to check on neighbors. Everyone was OK, so they returned to survey the ruins where only moments before their home had stood.
As Ilah clutched Wayne's arm, she said solemnly, "We lost everything."
Fries, Coke and a Twister to Go
Shortly after taking out the Glover's house, the twister continued its assault on the Prattville business district.
Commander Forkner, who teaches international security studies and is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Warfighting at Air War College, ran errands that afternoon. First, the single dad dropped off his 16-year-old son Brendan at Steak-Out, a local restaurant where the teen works. He then made a quick trip to Lowe's to purchase some Crock-Pot parts.
Forkner had finished up at Lowe's and was heading home when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the tornado looming from his left.
He stared in awe as the storm tore through the local Kmart as if it were made of straw.
But he had bigger worries.
He sat directly in the tornado's path!
At its base the tornado stretched a quarter of a mile, and as Forkner watched in disbelief, it appeared to span the entire length of the Kmart shopping plaza.
He figured there was no way he was going to outrun it on his current path. So he turned into a nearby Sonic restaurant thinking he might be able to drop his Ford Expedition into four-wheel drive and go out the back of the parking lot and away from the approaching "Armageddon."
But when he reached the back of the parking lot, it was blocked. He turned around and headed back to the exit. By that time, debris was already being blown across the street.
There was no way out.
He decided to park his vehicle under the awning at Sonic. He figured at least that way he wouldn't resemble a tumbleweed being blown down the road.
Like a hulking giant, the storm cast an ominous shadow that blotted out most of the sunlight, and it grew increasingly dark. As the 49-year-old instructor talked to a friend on his cell phone and described the scene, it became harder and harder to hear as the noise from the roaring wind reached a level that he could only describe as a speeding train bearing down on him. His SUV began to shake from the turbulence.
Forkner's next memory is waking up in agony with rescue crews working to save his life.
He has no recollection of the tornado hitting his vehicle and instantly shattering all of the windows. Nor does he remember what sliced through the back of his head, neck and shoulder. At this point, he only knew pain.
Shortly after the twister had pummeled Forkner and his SUV and moved on to new "targets" of destruction, Sonic employees stepped out of the freezer where they had holed up during the storm. The freezer's 4-inch-thick steel walls had kept them safe. When they searched the parking lot and found Forkner, they called 911. A rescue crew showed up only five minutes later.
Among the rescue crew were firefighters Sgt. Andrew Ellison and Cory Russell. They arrived to total devastation. Buildings were battered; power lines and debris lay everywhere.
Ellison and the rest of the crew made their way to Forkner's vehicle and managed to get the door open. They found Forkner sitting upright with glass and debris all about him. He was conscious but in agony.
He also was covered in blood.
Gaping holes on the back of Forkner's head, neck and back bled profusely, and Ellison knew they'd have to get him to a hospital as quickly as possible.
They started an IV, and Russell used bandages to apply direct pressure to the traumatic wounds. Once they had slowed the bleeding, they concentrated on getting Forkner onto a backboard to protect his neck and spine.
Ellison marveled at Forkner's toughness, because even though the commander endured tortuous pain the whole time, he kept his composure.
Forkner, somewhat out of it and going into shock, kept saying, "I trust you guys with my life."
Unaware of his dad's fight for survival, Brendan, who had avoided the tornado's wrath at his workplace, desperately tried to call his father's cell phone to talk about the twister. On the third try, a paramedic answered. He told Brendan that his dad had been injured, and they were taking him to the hospital.
But Brendan didn't know how serious his father's plight really was. Of the 50 incidents the Engine 2 crew would respond to on this chaotic day and into the night, none would be so life threatening as this.
As the crew stabilized Forkner and carefully removed him from the vehicle, Ellison felt that if they didn't get him to the hospital within an hour, the Navy officer would be a goner for sure.
They rushed him to the emergency room at Prattville Baptist Hospital to stabilize him before transferring him to Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery, where he underwent immediate surgery to repair his wounds.
Brendan, accompanied by his boss, met the ambulance in Prattville during the transfer. While outwardly he tried to remain calm, seeing his dad's injuries rattled the teen. He tried to dismiss the terrifying thought that crept into his mind. ...
His dad might not make it.
Rebuilding Their Lives
The Glovers lost a lot. Their home was demolished. Their three vehicles, motorcycle and boat were basically totaled. The trees and bushes that they'd so meticulously manicured? ... Plucked from their lawn like dandelions. Their new furniture and big screen TV? ... Possibly in Oz. To this day they keep adding to the list of items they lost to the tornado, because it's tough to remember 30-some years of "stuff" they'd accumulated together.
"But we still have each other," Ilah said. "And we have our children, grandchildren, and our dogs and cat. We can replace most material goods, but we can't replace each other."
Ilah credits their survival to Wayne's decision to take shelter in the bathroom instead of the closet. When asked why he suddenly made that choice after years of taking refuge in the closet during tornado threats, Wayne shakes his head and declines to answer. Ilah calls it divine guidance.
While thankful to be alive, the couple admits that there were, in fact, some items that proved tougher to part with than others.
Wayne still gets choked up when he talks about losing most of the mementos from a 30-year Air Force career.
"With all the plaques, coins and other memorabilia, each held fond memories of the places I'd been and the people I'd worked with," he said. "I will never be able to replace them."
Ilah hated losing the things their children had made or bought for them growing up.
"When my girls were young, they purchased this little cup for me at a garage sale," she said. "I used it to hold my rings, which I'd take off each night. I hate that I lost that cup; it was special to me."
A diamond and emerald ring that had been stored in that cup also was especially important to her. Wayne had purchased it for her on Mother's Day more than 25 years ago and now it seemed lost forever.
As they sifted through the debris of their house, Wayne asked his wife if she had any tissue.
Ilah said, "Tissue? Why do you need tissue?"
He responded, "Well, I don't, but you're going to." Then he pulled out the ring that had been buried under shingles, brick, insulation and other rubble, and "I bawled like a baby," Ilah said.
The Glovers, who are currently living with their daughter and son-in-law, said they will rebuild their home in the same location.
"After all, you never hear about a tornado hitting the same house twice," Wayne said.
While the Glovers rebuild their home, Forkner will be rebuilding his body. Among the 50 people injured in the storm, he was one of only two seriously wounded. Amazingly, nobody was killed. For his part, Forkner only remembered two brief agonizing moments when the rescue crew removed him from the vehicle. His next memory? Waking up in intensive care after surgery.
He remained in the hospital for 13 days. While his dad recovered, Brendan stayed with his boss, who also happened to be the stepfather of the teen's best friend.
Forkner suffered fractured vertebrae, broken ribs and a broken right shoulder blade. He endured 18 inches of lacerations from just above and behind his left ear all the way down his neck and shoulder area of his back. It took 150 staples to put him back together. The deep cuts left him with nerve damage in his neck and shoulder that affects his mobility and could be permanent.
"He's lucky," said Dr. MaryLuz Fuentes, as she worked on Forkner's injuries at the Wound Care Center in the Institute for Advanced Wound Care, Baptist Medical Center South. "If whatever hit him struck 1-inch forward, it would have sliced his carotid artery, and he would have bled to death. An inch the other way and it would have severed his spine and paralyzed him for life."
The Navy commander has to undergo months of physical and occupational therapy. And a neurosurgeon will hopefully repair and regenerate the nerve tissue that was damaged.
"The big issue is regaining feeling in my neck and shoulder, which lack range of motion right now," he said. "I have to turn my whole body if I want to look left or right. The hardest part is trying to tie my shoes. The doctors can't say if I'll fully recover. When you're talking about nervous system tissue, it's such a crap shoot. It's just one of those mysteries of the human body. It'll do what it's gonna do."
Both the Glovers and Forkner pointed to one piece of advice for those who find themselves in severe weather warnings: No matter what you've seen in the past, weather is always unpredictable. It can move and change very quickly. So heed warnings and think about and prepare for things before they happen. Just because it's never happened to you, doesn't mean it won't.
"And if it's you against nature," Forkner said, "there's a pretty good probability that nature's gonna win."