March 1st, 2012
12:11 PM ET

Storm survivors recount horror: 'Half the roof was coming off the house'

Editor's note: The death toll from the enormous storm system that plowed through parts of the Midwest and South stands at 13, authorities said Thursday. Hardest hit was Harrisburg, Illinois, a town thrashed by a pre-dawn EF4 killer tornado that packed 180-mph winds. Six people were killed in the southern Illinois city. Below are some of the harrowing and unbelievable stories from storm survivors:

Son: 'I saw nothing literally. Her house is literally gone'

When the tornado ripped through Harrisburg, Darrell Osman ran toward his mother's house.

"There were red and blue lights everywhere," he said. "Other than that there was nobody else here."

He wanted to check in on his elderly mother. But when he got there, he said he was shocked by what he saw or didn't see.

"I saw nothing literally. Her house is literally gone, nothing there but the car that was sitting in the garage."

Luckily, he came upon a police officer while he was looking at the destruction.  The officer told him his mother was in a nearby ambulance, and Osman was able to speak to her for a few minutes, but it would be the last time he would talk to his mother. His wife, Carolyn, a nurse, rode in the ambulance with her mother-in-law to a hospital badly damaged in the storm.

"She had a laceration on her head and she was in quite a bit of pain," Carolyn Osman said. "Every time the ambulance bounced, she cried out in pain."

At the hospital, Darrell Osman learned his mother might not make it. He called his sister, who rushed to drive over from Indiana. But Mary Osman did not survive, becoming one of six people from this town to die from the storm.

Later, Darrell's sister, Dena McDonald, said the destruction overwhelmed her as she made her way through Harrisburg.

"There really aren't any words to describe when I drove through town and saw this," McDonald said. "I thought, how terrifying. I knew by that time that more people than just my mom had perished. And so I wasn't just heartbroken for my mom, I was praying for everyone who had lost a loved one."

Darrell Osman grew emotional as he stood amid the rubble that remained of his mother's house.

"The only thing getting me through this is knowing she's in heaven," he said as tears rolled down his face.

Part of Illinois development like 'a slate wiped clean' after tornado

Photos:  Tornadoes take deadly toll

Survivor: 'We had about two minutes to get in the bathtub'

Pat Anslinger heard the warning sirens just after 4 a.m. and rushed into action. Her first concern was protecting her mother, Thelma Wiley. The twister hit her house in Harrisburg two minutes later.

"I heard the sirens and could hear a locomotive sound coming straight at us, and I went ahead and put her in the bathtub and made her squat down, and I laid on top of her and we held on to each other in that tub," Anslinger said.

Anslinger pulled towels over her and her mother, she explained from her mother's home, which was wrecked by the tornado. Windows were shattered, and her mother's belongings were strewn through the house and frontyard.

"I had to hold onto her. I could feel all the forces pulling on my body, trying to take us out of here," Anslinger said.

Survivor: 'I noticed the walls separating from the house'

Justin Hicks and his family had little time to escape when the storm came barreling toward his Harrisburg home early Wednesday.

"When we woke up, half the roof was coming off the house," Hicks said. "We managed to get the small children in the closet, and about the time the small children were in the closet, my wife and I noticed the walls separating from the house."

Hicks' home was destroyed, but he said it could have been much worse.

"We're very lucky to be alive," he said. "It happened so fast. I woke up to a chaos, and I'm sure a lot of people woke up to chaos. I wasn't expecting it to be that bad."

Man who was tossed downhill in trailer:  'I don't know how I'm here'

Steven Vaught of Greenville, Kentucky, said he is lucky to be alive to tell how he survived the storm.

"Why? I don't know," he said. "But I did."

He teared up while recounting the moment the storm came rolling through in an interview with CNN affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tennessee.

"I was laying on the couch and all the sudden I start hearing a train," he said. "I got up and took two steps off the couch and then me and the two dogs I have and the trailer started rolling down the hill."

Five times. That's how many times he and his trailer flipped continuously down the road as the storm tore through, he recalled.

"Once it hit the ground on the fifth time, I saw daylight and I was sitting up against the stove like I was sitting in a chair," he said.

Vaught had to get stitches in his bloodied chin and staples in his head from some of the injuries he sustained. But those were nothing, he said, compared with what he went through.

He shook his head as he took stock of the destruction around him.

"I don't know how I'm here," he said as his eyes welled up with tears.

Find out how to help storm victims with Impact Your World.

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