Mandi Choate, LPN, and Adrian Moran, LPN, were heading home to Cleveland on Wednesday night after their shifts ended at the St. Barnabas skilled nursing facility.
On the way, they swung by Choate’s parents’ home near Lead Mine Valley Road in Bradley County to pick up her 5-year-old son.
“We’d just got to Mom’s house when the storm broke,” Choate said. “I looked out the front door and saw this massive tornado not 50 yards away. And it was coming straight for us.”
They took refuge in the bathtub, where Choate’s father had assembled pillows and a mattress for just such an emergency. The five of them huddled together under the mattress, praying as the tornado shrieked above.
“We could hear the rafters and joists creaking as the fierce winds tried to suck the roof off,” Choate said.
“The whole house was vibrating. It sounded like a locomotive — the noise was terrible.”
Suddenly, everything was perfectly silent, and the family realized the storm had passed. Their house was intact, but insulation, roofing, siding, and other debris littered the yard outside — all of it from nearby mobile homes.
“My husband, a detective with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department, called to check on me,” Choate said.
“He mentioned they were receiving a lot of calls from addresses just down the road from us. We decided to go see if we could help.”
Moran and Choate, together with an EMT they met on the way, headed out in the pitch-black darkness, not knowing if the storm would resume. The devastation that shortly met their gaze was horrific.
“It was a family complex of trailers, and the only way we knew homes had once been there was the random toilet and Christmas lights lying on the ground,” Moran said. “We could hear people screaming and crying in the dark.”
Picking their way in the driving rain, through downed power lines, fallen trees, and debris, the women found 10 injured people, some of them with serious injuries. With bedroom doors used for backboards, the injured were moved nearer the road for ambulance pickup.
“It was triage in a field — the worst thing we’d ever seen,” Moran said.
Shivering in the cold wind and rain, having wrapped patients in their lab coats, the women were glad to accept the help offered by neighbors who materialized out of the dark.
“One man, a mechanic, took off both the shirts he was wearing to wrap the injured in,” Choate said.
“He stayed to hold up IV bags. These people had never seen this kind of devastation except on television, and here they were, cutting paths with chainsaws, doing anything they could to help. They were the heroes.”
Under the direction of paramedics, the women assisted about 20 people.
At around 3:30 a.m. they finished helping everyone who needed it, but couldn’t drive home because of the curfew set by Bradley County officials. It wasn’t until 6 a.m. they finally arrived home and prepared to go to work.
“These girls could have called in sick,” said St. Barnabas Assistant Director of Nursing Tanya Morrow, RN.
“But they came in for their regular shift today, apologizing for their appearance. We’re just so proud of them.”
But for Moran and Choate, the harrowing night served to deepen their appreciation of and gratitude for life.
“These kinds of experiences keep you humble,” Moran said. “It keeps your priorities in place.”