After a tornado nearly ripped the roof off his Apison home, David Schilling didn’t even take time to put on shoes before sprinting out of his basement into his pitch-black neighborhood.
The 20-year-old Southern Adventist University student had just finished unpacking belongings from his dorm room into his parents’ home on Apison Pike when the tornado forced his family to take shelter. Less than a minute later, the storm had passed and he sprang into action.
“I was all right, my family was all right and there was nothing I could do about my house,” he said. “It was this urgency to get outside, and when I did a sweep of the neighborhood, I knew there were people out there and I just took off. It was an instinct; you don’t plan on helping, you just see a need and you go.”
His first stop was the house of his closest neighbors and family friends, the Lakes. When he had driven home earlier that night, he had seen Bonnie Lake working at an office computer in front of a window, so he knew she was home.
“He won’t brag on himself, but he came to my house immediately. I still can hardly fathom that he was there that fast,” Lake said. “I hadn’t even tried to get out of the debris when I heard him holler for me — he was at my house that fast.”
Lake had tried to get from her office to the bathroom but didn’t make it before the tornado hit, so she waited out the storm crouched in her hallway. After wriggling out from under a fallen door frame, Lake was able to walk over debris and outside her house with the help of Schilling and his flashlight.
“The minute he knew I was OK, he was going from house to house, and he did not stop; he was relentless,” she said. “David, he’s just an awesome kid. I love him.”
When Schilling got to the next house, he noticed the building had been picked up, turned 20 or 30 degrees, and dropped back down on its foundation. After getting that family safely out, he borrowed a pair of shoes and kept going.
In the six hours Schilling spent racing around his neighborhood, he estimates he stopped at about 15 houses and helped about 15 people out from under the rubble of their homes and cars.
He remembers a particularly haunting scene on Clonts Road, which along with Apison Pike was among the most severely damaged in the area.
Searching for survivors in the yard of a family who, Schilling later learned had all died, he encountered a man desperately yelling another man’s name at a pile of debris.
“He came over and asked if we’d seen this guy,” said Schilling. “The few of us that weren’t in complete shock, we were 90 percent sure that he was dead, but what do you tell him? What do you say to someone who might be their relative, knowing that someone was probably dead? You could hear the grief in his voice.”
Schilling, whose interdisciplinary degree from Southern includes classes in being an emergency first responder, said the trauma of the events hits him every time he retells his story. But he just did what anybody should have done, he said.
When he talks about his experience, he makes sure to mention that two men — someone who introduced himself to Schilling as Ira Farley, and another neighbor, Mr. Greek, whose first name Schilling doesn’t know — were both by his side, helping him rescue people.
“You’re not out there for a ‘thank you;’ you’re out there because you’re doing what you need to do,” he said.
“People were just really dazed; they may not say anything to you. They may just accept your help and then you move on, and that’s OK,” he said.
“No one who was out there was there for their own gain. You just want to get people out and make sure they’re safe.”
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...