This story is by Will Crist and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Now that the tornado has blown past the exploded houses, we are facing each other in a post-traumatic daze. We have been here before, John, Mark, and Susan and me. We were younger the last time, much younger, but not so young that we can’t remember. Then our parents were there to reassure us that we would be OK in the morning.
Now, John’s father died three years ago in a head-on collision on East 107. Mark’s parents are in a nursing home in Erie, Susan’s mother is in the dark pit of Alzheimer’s, and my mom died after a brutal fight with cancer last summer.
After the tornado warning siren stopped and the wind died down to a sultry breeze, the three of us came back to the same corner in Rustin — 12th and Owlet — where we faced each other so many years ago. Now we are alone with each other.
When the three of us finished Rustin High School, Mark and John first, and then a year later, Susan and me, we stayed close because we knew we weren’t going to college. We were facing lives in Rustin. We hung out as we watched most of the graduating seniors each year leave for the military, for the cities of Harrisburg and Philadelphia, or for college.
We recognized we wouldn’t be leaving Rustin. It wasn’t a decision to stayr, and it wasn’t a decision not to go; it was a decision to do nothing.
With that in mind, we took whatever jobs were available. MacDonalds, the laundromat, delivering cars after service at the Ford dealership, Whataburger, and working with the local janitorial company – we did whatever it took to pay our rent and keep food on our tables.
Another tornado was more than we could handle. It started with the warning, then the watch, and finally the siren and the scream of a thunderous freight-train. We knew it from thirteen years ago. We were experiencing it again.
Susan took charge and told us this time was our time. She wanted us to go to the most damaged section of Rustin to help anyone who needed it. She came prepared with a backpack and a tool belt. Mark argued, saying he would have to find tools before he could go. We agreed we would meet at the bank in 20 minutes with all the tools we could find.
When we got to the bank, we, and the rest of the town – the volunteer fire department, the three AMD ambulances, the six police cars – stared at the row after row of devastation. Buildings, houses, cars – everything was a tangled mess. Susan led the way for the three of us. We started down MacKenzie street to the trailer park to see if anyone was trapped in the upended trailers.
All the animals were coming back home after they ran for safety. Emmanuel Diaz and his wife Suzy were standing behind the flattened trailer they had lived in for four years until early this morning. They were both holding each other tightly.
“Are you OK?” Mark asked.
“Yes,” Suzy said. “We crawled into the bathtub when we heard the siren. It saved us both.”
We went on down the street to the Sanders’ overturned trailer. One of the ambulances was in the front yard. The two EMTs were kneeling over Jon Sanders while his wife, Marsha, was leaning against the ambulance driver, crying, “No, no, don’t let him die. Please God, don’t let him die.”
But the EMTs were shaking their heads at us, and then they moved Jon’s body to the gurney next to them and covered his face with the folded blanket lying on the ground.
One of the other ambulances passed us speeding to the hospital 35 miles away in Conway. We moved quickly down the street to a large tree covering a collapsed old double-wide. We had to pull branches out of the way to get to the smashed door.
“Are you in there?” John shouted. “Do you need help?”
Susan shushed us, “Listen! There’s someone there!”
We listened, and we heard it again. It was a soft moan.
“Come on!” Susan yelled as she pulled her hammer from her tool belt. She pulled the branches away from the bent and broken door and began to pound away to break the door open. When it fell apart, we made our way into the crushed space. It was dark, and we smelled propane.
John pulled two flashlights from his backpack and shared one with me, saying, “Take this and help me find whoever is in here quickly.”
The hallway was dark and narrow. The ceiling was bent in where the falling tree crushed the roof on the double-wide. We heard someone calling for help. When we got to the back of the trailer, we found two people trapped under a large closet that had fallen over, trapping them in their bed.
John shouted to Susan, “Here’s Marge and Jackie. They are under a big closet that fell on them. “We can move the closet to get them out. Call the ambulance. They will need medical help.”
John and I knelt on the floor to get under the edge of the closet, put our shoulders to lift the chifferobe off Marge and Jackie. When we lifted it off the bed, the blood-soaked blanket covered two women.
“Don’t move us,” Jackie whispered. So we waited, holding the closet up until waiting for the EMTs to arrive. Jackie and Marge must have been sleeping when the tree fell on their bedroom, knocking the closet down and onto the bed.
It was only 15 minutes before the EMTs arrived. John and I had to hold the closet of the bed until they came. When they did, we discovered that both the women’s legs had been fractured, and Marge had bled to death before we got to the trailer. We helped the EMTs move the women out one at a time through the narrow hallway into the ambulance.
While we were waiting for the EMTs, Susan and Mark left. We had to find them.
We saw smoke billowing over the trees two blocks away, so we ran to see how we could help. When we got there, we found one of the four town fire trucks with six volunteer fire people. We asked how we could help. One of the volunteers said, “Get the second hose from the truck, connect it to the hydrant near the curb, use the wrench to turn the water on and help us put the fire out.”
We worked alongside the six volunteers until we doused the burning house fire. It took two hours to finish putting the fire out. When we finished, we helped the team empty the hoses and put them back onto the truck. They asked us if we wanted to ride back to the firehouse with them, but we said we had to find Susan and Mark.
Little did we know that Susan and Mark had rescued four people from two overturned trailers three blocks away. After they rescued them, they left in the ambulances and went to the hospital. It was three hours before we found them returning in one of the ambulances. Work for the EMTs wasn’t over. They were ferrying people from the center of destruction to the hospital. They returned as soon as they delivered people or bodies to the hospital for the next trip.
John and I found Susan and Mark when they were back on MacKenzie Street near the trailer where Jon died on the ground.
Morning came as the four of us were walking back to 12th and Owlet. Yesterday morning we were sad because the tornado had devastated Rustin. We realized we had experienced that devastation twelve years before without parents to protect us. After 14 hours of witnessing death and destruction, helping save Marge and Jackie, putting out fires, and ferrying people and bodies to the hospital in Conway, we looked at each other. We realized we were now on our way back to the jobs we had cobbled together. Back to the daily struggle to do enough to pay our rents and put food on our tables. It was our fate because of the decisions we had been making every day since we graduated. It was our lives. We witnessed and participated in the pain and death the tornado brought to Rustin. We were now returning to our simple, repetitive lives. Were the lives we were returning to worse than the pain and the deaths we witnessed over the past 14 hours? Is there a fate worse than death?