Lisa Pack was among the nine people killed in Bradley County that day when her mobile home was wrapped around a tree. Her two daughters, Sarah and Heather Wilcox, who was three months pregnant at the time, were both severely injured. Heather’s husband, Blake, was also in the house when the storm struck, but he sustained only minor injuries.
Heather was sent to a Knoxville hospital and Sarah was transported to T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga. During their recovery, their father Tommy Ballinger stayed with Heather on one side of the state and Gina Ballinger stayed with her stepdaughter on the other.
Blake and Heather’s son, Canaan Heath, was born Oct. 13, 2011. He was a healthy 8 pounds and was 21 inches long. He now weighs 17 pounds and is 23 inches long.
“He’s just a little bit bigger than he should be. He eats a lot,” Gina, the proud grandparent, said with a laugh. “He’s our miracle baby. He’s the youngest survivor of an F-4 tornado — and that’s what we tell him.”
Heather’s back was broken in two places and she suffered a compound fracture of her left arm. Doctors inserted two steel rods in her back and a steel plate in her arm. Sarah suffered a cracked right hip, crushed pelvis, cracked tailbone, cuts on her right arm and left foot, and two crushed vertebrae that were not discovered until two weeks after she was released from the hospital because results from MRIs taken during all of the chaos at SkyRidge Medical Center did not immediately arrive in Chattanooga.
“They were both in the hospital four days. They let them out to attend the funeral,” she said. “Heather didn’t receive any special care (for her pregnancy). They kind of just let us know that if she carried the baby, she would carry him and if not, she wouldn’t. They didn’t take any special precautions, but that was just the Lord that done that.”
Sarah was fitted with a special brace she wore for 12 weeks and received physical therapy.
“She’s still healing. They said it would take a good year to completely heal. She still has aches and pains all the time,” Gina said.
It has also taken the quiet girl who holds onto her emotions almost a year to begin healing emotionally.
“It took her awhile, but she’s getting better,” Gina said. “She’s not looking forward to April 27.”
Tommy said the entire family takes life day-by-day. Heather visits her mother’s grave as much as possible. It has been a hard year for the girls and it has been equally hard for the parents to watch.
“Heather was a little more open, but it took Sarah a little longer. She just kind of dealt with it her way — but she’s getting better,” Gina said.
The Ballingers lived in Polk County when the storm struck and for a time afterward, Heather and Blake lived with them. Since then, everyone has relocated to Cleveland so Sarah can attend Bradley Central High School, where she is a sophomore.
“Sarah had never lived anyplace except Leadmine Valley Road. She lived there 15 years. She had to move and lost everything she had. It has been a big adjustment,” Gina said. “I think it has made her realize material things are not that important because all of that stuff can be taken away in a matter of seconds — and it was. Every material thing she owned was gone.”
Immediately after the storm, Sarah’s only possession was a monkey given her by her mother. Since then, someone recovered a piece of her mother’s jewelry and gave it to her. Others have sent the sisters pictures of their mother.
“That’s about it. There are no pictures. People have sent her pictures of Lisa they might have had, but there was nothing left and both of them walked away without anything,” Gina said. “When you talk to Sarah, she’ll tell you life is more precious to her and she wishes she’d done some things before her mom left. It has built her faith and it has been hard on her.”
Blake and Heather have moved into their own apartment and are putting their lives back together. He is supporting his family with his job at Amazon.
Volunteering at the Salvation Army to help others has become an important part of their lives in the past year. They went to Polk County after the March 2 tornado to help the people over there. The family leads praise and worship services on Sunday and Gina has charge of the Diaper Bag of Hope program and she is the women’s coordinator.
Cleveland Salvation Army Corps Administrator Sgt. Ruthie Forgey said Diaper Bag of Hope sponsored the “One Night with the King” prom for teen mothers. The event gave the young ladies the opportunity to experience the high school prom they missed.
Forgey and Gina have known each other since they were 2 years old, but in the course of living, the two friends became separated and lost touch with one another. When Forgey was assigned to Cleveland, the two women reconnected and during the course of talking, they came up with the program for teen moms.
“I was a teen mom, so I’ve always wanted to do something, and we came up with Diaper Bags of Hope.”
She said the Ballingers began attending church in February 2011 and had just joined when the tornadoes struck.
It might be in spite of, or it could be because of all the trials and tribulations the family has suffered during the past year, but Gina said the entire family’s faith in God is stronger now than before the storm.
“It has actually built my faith,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to go through it again but it has built my faith and it has built my walk with God and I know he has a purpose for everything we went through in 2011.”
“Even though we’ve had the trials, God has been good to us this year,” Tommy said. “We have a grandbaby.”
In fact, they have two new grandchildren.
Gina’s daughter, Tiffany Dobson, had a son who almost died at birth from Hirschsprung’s disease during the midst of everything else. So far, Logan has had four operations to repair his undeveloped intestines that will not relax, preventing bowel movements and causing bacterial infection.
“The tornado happened in April and my daughter’s baby was born in June. He spent the first eight weeks of his life in intensive care. He almost died twice,” Gina said. “He’s had operations I couldn’t stand, yet he smiles every day.”
@:When the March 2 tornado struck Bradley and Polk counties, Tommy said they all prayed and gathered at Salvation Army headquarters on Inman Street.
“On March 2, we were all here,” Gina said.
@:“We had about 45 people in the hallway,” Forgey said. “People just wandered in here seeking shelter. We had already been out and about after that first storm came through Freewill to assess damage and see where we could help. When we got back here, they said the next line of storms were coming through and people started coming in so we ordered pizza and started feeding people and got everybody in the hall. We’re not a certified safe shelter, but people came here seeking shelter.”
“Blake was here,” Tommy said. “He still has a hard time. When he sees clouds and lightning, he has a fit. He has to go somewhere.”
But in March when the clouds looked really threatening, Heather went outside to watch the weather against Blake’s urgings to come back inside the building.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face,” Gina said. “She turned around and said to him, ‘I’m going to face this storm.’ She just cried and looked up to heaven and said, ‘I’m going to face this storm.”