Twice stolen: On April 27, 2011, one mother lost all reminders of a daughter lost to cancer years before
by Brooke Carbo
bcarbo@annistonstar.com
Apr 28, 2013 | 7198 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Donna and Mike Farrell and Harley stand on the porch of their Webster's Chapel home, rebuilt on the site of the home that was destroyed in the April 27 tornado. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star.
Donna and Mike Farrell and Harley stand on the porch of their Webster's Chapel home, rebuilt on the site of the home that was destroyed in the April 27 tornado. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star.
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The little red bird clawing frantically outside Donna Farrell’s kitchen window should have been a warning.

Farrell’s son, Michael Snow, had stayed home from school that day on the advice of weathermen who were so far proving to be mistaken. When she returned from work in the afternoon, four hours earlier than usual thanks to the same faulty predictions, the high school senior told her about the cardinal’s assaults on the now smudged pane of glass.

“At first I thought he was pulling my leg,” Farrell said. “But around 4 p.m. the bird started back up again.”

The power at their Webster’s Chapel home had been out all day due to an unusually strong windstorm that morning, so Farrell put the odd bird out of her mind and ran up to McDonalds to grab dinner. When she returned, she noticed the setting sun cutting through the overcast sky just in time to bathe Calhoun County in a brilliant amber glow.

“It was getting brighter,” Farrell recalled. “I remember thinking I didn’t need to take a half day at work.”

Then the wind picked up.

The April sky that had struggled to conjure a rain shower all day now rolled and twisted in darkening shades of gray.

Farrell and her son took refuge in a coat closet moments before a tornado touched down on Dove Welch Road. The last thing Farrell said she remembered was clinging to Michael as the winds scooped up their house flinging it down in a nearby ditch.

Seven hours later, the pair was still holding tight as rescuers pulled them out from under more than 12 feet of rubble.

“They found us still holding on to one another,” Farrell said. “They dug us out that way.”

Farrell’s husband Mike, a military policeman stationed in Afghanistan, raced home from his tour to find remnants of his family’s home littering the neighborhood like driftwood, his wife hospitalized with a broken neck, back, ribs and shoulder blade. She also suffered a punctured lung and a small stroke due to the amount of debris piled on her neck.

Michael suffered a concussion and a broken nose. To this day he has no memory of the day, or the week leading up to it.

The family’s beloved German Sheppard, Woogie, did not survive the storm. Neither did the couple living in the only brick home on the street.

The tornado outbreak that swept through Alabama on April 27 took with it life and limb, livelihoods and luxuries. But when the dust settled on Dove Welch Road that day, Farrell was missing much more than her home and health.

The largest tornado outbreak ever recorded in the United States had taken from her every precious reminder of a daughter lost long before.

'A new normal'

In Webster’s Chapel, evidence of the terror of April 27 has made a slow, steady retreat. Homes have been rebuilt — though perhaps sturdier than before. Injuries have healed — at least as best they can.

Two years later, the Farrells still bear scars of their ordeal but life is moving forward.

Aside from the memory loss, which his mother considers a blessing, Michael has fully recovered from his injuries. Not long after graduating high school, he joined the Navy. He has since completed basic training and is now in Great Lakes, Ill., training to be an operations specialist.

After multiple back surgeries and countless hours in physical therapy, Farrell estimates she is about 40 percent recovered. There are still things she’s unable to do, pitch hay for the families four horses or lift much of anything. These are tasks she realizes she might never do again.

“But for everything I’ve gone though, (my doctors) say I’m doing really, really well,” she said.

Mike was allowed to forgo redeployment in the wake of the storm, and he has since been permanently reassigned to an MP Unit at Fort McClellan. In addition to caring for his broken family, Mike has worked day and night for two years to rebuild their home, this time with a basement storm shelter complete with steel door.

“I wonder sometimes if it’s not a bomb shelter,” Farrell joked.

The family moved in the first week of December 2011, just in time for Christmas. Around Webster’s Chapel, a few lingering debris sites and the ragged tree line are the only reminders that remain. The community seems just about back to normal.

But Farrell knows that things don’t always go back to the way they were. It’s a lesson she learned more than a decade ago after suffering a loss more devastating than April’s storms could level — the death of her daughter, Stephanie Snow.

Stephanie died in July 2000 at the age of 11 from lymblastic lymphoma — bone marrow cancer. After that, “whatever normal we had was gone,” Farrell said. “We had to try and find a new normal.”

The tornado, Farrell said, happened so fast she didn’t have time to think about it. The death of her child was another story.

“I spent three years watching her deteriorate and there was nothing I could do,” she explained. “You get angry. You get upset and just want to cry, then a numb feeling. Sometimes you do all of them in one day.”

In the weeks following the storm, a quilt made for Stephanie by her fifth-grade classmates and a flannel teddy bear, a gift from the girl’s aunt, were the only memories of her daughter that were recovered.

“The tornado just took everything. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that,” Farrell said.

Among the stolen memories was a gift from Stephanie’s grandfather, a 1930s viola she used to play her way to first place at a state competition in North Dakota. The blue ribbon was swept away as well.

“All her pictures, different awards she won, they’re all gone,” her mother said.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking loss was a collection of short stories written and illustrated by Stephanie during her many hospital visits. Farrell’s favorite tale, “The Runaway Angel,” she describes as a child’s innocent but poignant look at a fate she was too young to face.

“The runaway angel was a just a regular little girl who didn’t want to be an angel yet,” Farrell explained. “So she ran away.”

In the end, the story’s young heroine made a very grown-up decision.

“She decided it was more fun to be an angel than to be sick all the time.”

Positioned a few feet from the Farrells’ front porch is a small sanctuary with a child’s headstone surrounded by angel statues — a memorial to Stephanie. It is one of the few places on the property the storm left undisturbed, Farrell said. Even the delicate ornaments hanging from narrow tree branches were left in place.

Among the wreckage

In the days and weeks following the storm, as Farrell lay in a hospital bed with Mike at her side, volunteers scoured the land where the house had stood gathering up anything that looked like it might have once belonged to someone.

Among the objects recovered was Stephanie’s quilt and bear. The rest — rain-soaked clothes and photo albums, broken toys, refrigerator magnets and antique jewelry — all were stored in stacks of cardboard boxes until the day the family could sort out what was theirs, and what was salvageable.

It was eight months, Farrell said, before the couple was able to sit down together in their newly erected garage and begin the process. Sifting through what remained from their life before the storm was not always easy for Farrell, who was still in pain from her considerable injuries.

“We’d go through one box and I’d cry,” she said. “We’d go through another box and I’d cry.”

The majority of the contents were ruined beyond repair by mold or storm damage or an unyielding layer of insulation, Mike said.

“Most of it had to be thrown away,” he said. “There was some stuff, pictures — but not much.”

Down inside one of those boxes, however, was an 8x10 portrait of a little girl in a light pink zip-up sweater smiling in front of a bright, spring landscape — Stephanie’s fourth-grade school picture. The photo is torn along the bottom and the cheery backdrop is scraped off in places, but Stephanie’s smiling face is unmistakable.

Farrell said she’s had someone offer to digitally repair the damage to the picture and transfer it to canvas. Then Stephanie will go right back where she belongs, “hanging in the hallway with the rest of the kids.”

It wasn’t her most recent school photo, there was one from fifth grade, Farrell said. Both were snatched from the same spot when the winds tore through the house that day, as were all her school photos that came before. Farrell kept them all in the same frame, stacked one year on top of the other, hanging among a collage of family photos in the home’s hallway. Fourth grade was the only one recovered.

It’s another reminder of the chance nature of the disaster, leaving a garden of angels and ornaments undisturbed while devastating a mother and son’s hiding spot a few feet away. The memories it swept away are uncountable — 11 years of Barbies, school clothes, board games, artwork, snapshots. Farrell kept it all, everything that belonged to her daughter, in a bedroom dresser. What has been recovered — a quilt, a memory bear, a hospital ID bracelet, a shiny purple headband, a school photo and a small piece of viola, nearly unrecognizable lying amid the rubble — now fits on top of Farrell’s dresser.

And she is grateful for each and every memory it left behind.

“I just couldn’t let go of any of her stuff, and then to find this,” Farrell said, trailing off. “I’m overjoyed to have just something of hers.”
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