From his truck, Michael Young could only gasp at the devastation lying before him.
A tornado had ripped a path through Gordon County on Wednesday, leaving in its wake splinters where houses once stood.
“It was stunning,” said Young, a Calhoun City fireman, who was off duty and returning home from running an errand when he discovered the carnage. “The amount of damage, it was just stunning.”
Young lived just a few miles from the worst of the devastation not far from Sonoraville High School. He stopped to see if he could help, preparing himself for what he might find.
“I rolled up to the scene and saw all the devastation and then a gentleman ran by my door. He was saying that he thought people were trapped.”
The man was Clayton Edmonds, who stopped to lend a hand as well. Walking down the road, he said he thought he heard an animal, but when he got closer, he saw an arm sticking out of the debris. He began to remove the rubble and realized there was a woman lying below.
A brave stand
Betty Stewart took her great-grandson Zane McFarland in her arms and wrapped him in blankets. Stewart was babysitting the 2-year-old while his father was at work and his mother was in school. Stewart knew a tornado was on its way, relatives said, and she acted quickly, gathering up Zane and taking shelter in a hallway.
Some time later, the tornado unleashed its force on Gordon County, tossing cars, pulling trees up by the roots and smashing houses to bits, including the McFarlands’. Stewart and Zane were trapped in the rubble.
“All she (Stewart) remembers was insulation flying,” Zane’s mother Carley McFarland said. As for Zane, “he did everything (Stewart) told him to,” she said.
Timely heroes Young and Edmonds ran towards the wreckage where Gordon EMS Director Courtney Taylor joined them.
“When we got to (the McFarland) house, it was totally destroyed,” Young said. “(Stewart and Zane McFarland) were underneath the debris.”
The men cleared a path to the stranded family members, who were severely injured but alive.
“We had to bend over and look around for them,” Young said. Young said it looked like the house had crumbled down upon Stewart and Zane.
“It happened so fast,” Edmonds said. “Other people came to help, and the ambulance showed up and took care of her.”
The pair were taken to the hospital with a multitude of injuries. Zane suffered a broken femur and was taken to T.C. Thompson’s Childrens Hospital in Chattanooga. There, doctors set his broken femur and then put him in a type of body cast, Carley McFarland said.
Stewart, 79, underwent surgery on Thursday following back, leg and head injuries, Carley said. Relatives said both are expected to recover, but Zane could be physically impacted by the break for many years.
A parent’s nightmare
Carley, like many people today, decided to go back to school as an adult. At age 27, she was making a new start. On Wednesday, she sat in class at Georgia Northwestern Technical College when word came in of a tornado making its way towards Gordon County.
“I was trying to call and the phone would not ring,” she said. Once she heard the news, she immediately went to the hospital. Seeing her son in his condition, she said there were “no words” for how she felt.
She’s spent the last two days with her son. She was only able to speak to Stewart briefly.
“She saved (Zane’s) life,” Carley said. Carley’s husband Darren was working in Atlanta when he heard the news, according to relatives. I-75 was closed near Calhoun and it took him several hours to reach his son.
Picking up the pieces
The McFarlands were living in a rental home and Carley said she is not completely sure where they are going to live. If Stewart’s home was not destroyed they may be living there, she said. It was not immediately clear if Stewart’s home was saved. Right now, Carley said she is simply counting her blessings.
“I’m just thankful to God that he spared their lives and they are OK,” she said. Young said he had not spent a lot of time thinking about what might of happened to Stewart and Zane had he and the other men not shown up when they did.
He admits it was quite by chance, or rather carelessness, that led him there. “It was bad judgment to leave my house (Wednesday).” He likes to think that had he and the other men not shown up when they did, someone else would have found the trapped family members. Zane and Stewart’s family is simply glad he and the other men responded like they did.
“They’re heroes,” said Zane’s great-aunt Judy Clark.