published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Boy who lost 4 in family reaches Lake Winnie goal


by Chris Carroll
Andrew Ellis, 9, hugs his mother, Wendy, in the front yard of their new house in Rossville. They are happy with their new living conditions after the tornadoes of April 2011, killed four of their family members.
Andrew Ellis, 9, hugs his mother, Wendy, in the front yard of their new house in Rossville. They are happy with their new living conditions after the tornadoes of April 2011, killed four of their family members.
Photo by Tim Barber.
The storms, rebuilding and recollections

What 9-year-old North Georgia boy isn't ready for fun at Lake Winnepesaukah?

Maybe a 9-year-old whose recent past includes surviving a 190-mph tornado, a brain injury, a broken leg, a mutilated right arm and four family funerals he was too injured to attend.

Perhaps a 9-year-old whose bite-sized goals from not so long ago -- bending his elbow, walking more, regaining memory -- actually meant learning to live again.

Or a 9-year-old whose mother said, "Maybe" and really meant it when asked if her son, born in 2003, would make it through April 28, 2011.

Andrew Ellis is that 9-year-old North Georgia boy. He's still ready for Lake Winnie, but first came the holidays.

An EF4 tornado mangled the Apison trailer where Andrew was staying on April 27, killing his half brother, cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother. Everyone but him, in other words.

A summer in rehab and a semester of third grade later, Christmas carols hit the airwaves.

Andrew and his mother, Wendy Ellis, who was in Georgia as the EF4 blew through Apison, decided they couldn't bring themselves to put up a Christmas tree at their small apartment in Rossville. After all, Adam "Tex" Carroll, Wendy's son and Andrew's half brother, had a vast "man cave" there and "he wasn't coming home again," Ellis said.

Besides that, there was wind. Any gust against the apartment would get Andrew thinking again, thinking of how his grandmother shoved him in the double-wide's bathtub and shielded him with her body before she flew away.

Ellis dreaded Dec. 25. Before it came, she moved herself and her boy into a red brick house in Rossville.

"We wanted a new beginning," said the 35-year-old Ellis, "and it had to have a solid foundation."

In the red brick house, there's a new man cave with a pool table. Andrew's elbow, once marred with tubes, tape and yellowish-red, now helps him maneuver Tex's old pool cue -- another storm survivor.

"It was in its case," Andrew said. "I use it because it's the smallest one."

Other keepsakes, including most of the family's photographs, didn't survive the storm.

"All that's probably from here to Kentucky," Ellis said.

To remind themselves of who's lost, the Ellises picked flowers from the graves of Tex and Joshua Poe, a cousin who died in the trailer along with Wendy Ellis' mother, Brenda Prescott, 56, and Ellis' grandmother, JoAnn Darnell, 77. They brought the flowers back to the house and hung them over the pool table.

"You don't get over it," said Ellis. "You just get through it."

• • •

Don't ask Andrew too much about tornadoes or memories.

When all that comes up, he tends to find something else to show you, something else to wonder about, something else to do. To keep him around, ask about his days at Cloud Springs Elementary School, ask if he's got a girlfriend, ask about his Airsoft gun.

And definitely ask about that other thing.

He loves to discuss the Lake Winnie rides that are just a notch below the Cannonball, the park's famous wooden roller coaster. Such rides are the staples of a 9-year-old's trip to the local amusement park, where his mother took him on April 6 -- Opening Day -- after setting a goal in rehab to do just that.

"We did the Orbiter, the Scrambler and the Boat Chute," he recalled. "That was fun. I put my hands in the air coming down."

Ellis gives her son a tender look when she remembers how many steps he climbed to ride a giant slide. Or how her boyfriend forgot to give them a ride home, forcing the pair to walk a mile back to the brick house.

His eyes roll all the way back. There goes Mom again ...

"He just thinks he's an average boy," Ellis says. "He had to learn to walk again. He doesn't understand climbing stairs, riding rides, things like that -- seeing it as a milestone. He's unstoppable."

Even the scabs he shows off are fading away. Less than a year removed from 14 weeks in a Children's Healthcare of Atlanta hospital bed, he now goes to occupational therapy once a week.

Andrew said he hasn't made many friends in the new neighborhood, so he passes the time with his 10-week-old pit bull, Molly. He studies his spelling words. He watches ESPN's "SportsCenter" and eats Cheetos as he stares at the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs memorabilia on the walls.

Stuff a 9-year-old does.

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