"We found a dog, we found a dog," someone yells from the pile, and word moves rapidly through the rescue workers and traumatized residents of Henryville, Indiana until Elaine Dietrich Thoms, stepping carefully over debris and ducking under downed lines, comes from the house two doors down, which has been fortunate through the tornado it is only half gone.
Thoms' house is completely gone. But she wasn't scolding the black chow mix called Ben as she nuzzled his face, incredulous that he was alive after 21 hours buried under the rubble of their former home. It had been leveled by the F4 tornado that cut an unholy swath through this tiny Indiana town on Friday afternoon.
Ben's rescuer walks him to flat ground and sits him down. The dog shambles like a newborn foal, then steadies and shakes as if flinging water. Chalky white dust flies from his fur. "You're so smart," Elaine says. "So smart. You hid."
It is one happy story amid a devastating narrative. Almost 30 million people were put at risk by the early spawning tornado season. The storm "moved like a lawnmower through some of the most beautiful countryside... that we have," Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said on Sunday morning. Authorities aren't sure how many tornadoes were involved in Friday's destruction. Reports had two supercells passing over the same area before breaking up. At least 36 deaths have been reported in five states, mostly in Indiana and Kentucky.
As the sun came up like a surreal violet-and-orange ball on Saturday morning, I left my home in Clarksville, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, and drove up I-65 north toward Henryville 19 miles away. Until Friday, the town of nearly 2,000 was better known as the birthplace of Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now it is the latest name of tornado devastation. There, Indiana State Trooper Ed Schroeder briefs a group of law enforcement officers in front of the Monroe Township Volunteer Fire Department. Cops don't usually show their uncertainty, but F4 twisters don't usually visit Indiana.
At the firehouse I happen upon my cousin, Bill Maloney, a volunteer firefighter who's lived in Henryville for 25 years. The house he shares with wife Beth Brown Maloney and 17-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, on a bluff above town, was in the middle of the storm; he'd high-tailed it home from work Friday and got in the door just in time to rush them to their basement, where they covered up with beanbag chairs and prayed.
Somehow their roof stayed intact. The houses across the street and on either side had gaping holes in theirs, and other houses on Pine Drive were reduced to shards. Beth tells me how lucky she feels to be alive and to have a house that is actually inhabitable, and that she's worried about her neighbors. They're close-knit; they have keys to each others' homes so they can let pets out and whatnot. Kaitlyn's in the Henryville High marching band. That's a family, too, and one of the band dads has brought them a generator.
We walk across the street to see Jason Thies, who spent the night with the Maloneys because his roof is gone. Seeing his neighbors, his lip quivers and he fights tears. Like many people in the Louisville area, he'd gotten off work early on Friday. He rode out the storm in his stairwell with his two dogs because his walkout basement has big windows. He prayed, and the dogs were OK for a while but went crazy after the twister passed because hail was pounding the inside of the house. Jason says it was louder than the tornado and sounded like softballs in a dryer. The massive hailstones have shattered windshields all over town, as if teenagers took an insane vandalism spree.
I catch the end of a briefing with Indiana Gov. Daniels, outside Bud Roe's, a house-turned-restaurant across a two-lane highway from the schools. A West Clark Community School Corp. bus rests on its side, hurled all the way across the street and impaling one end of the restaurant.