published Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

David Cook: A love story from Moore

Last Friday, her heart beating as if it was bursting out of a stable, Stacie Sparks Hand loaded up her gray Nissan, hugged and kissed her parents bye, and drove away from her Red Bank home.

She was headed west.

Toward Oklahoma.

After months of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, her husband -- First Lt. Justin Hand -- was finally returning home after his tour of duty in the Middle East. As Stacie drove west, Justin boarded a faraway plane bound for American soil.

While he was overseas, she had moved back to Red Bank near her parents. Now, she and Justin were going to reunite in the place they got married.

Oklahoma City.

They had signed a lease on a house in nearby Moore, Okla.

Stacie arrived on Saturday and began unpacking. On Monday morning, Justin had reached the Atlanta airport. In Moore, Stacie ran some errands and finished up a "Welcome Home" sign.

Out past the horizon, a storm was developing.

Stacie hadn't hooked up their TV yet; she had no radio either. So when the sirens began to sound, she knew a storm was coming, but had no idea where, or how close. As the storm spawned the wicked milewide tornado that would kill at least two dozen, Stacie clutched her cellphone and called the two people who mattered most.

Her mom in Red Bank.

And Justin in the Atlanta airport.

Both of them were watching Weather Channel reporters describe the path of the tornado, barreling down Interstate 35.

Straight toward Moore.

In Atlanta, Justin stared helplessly at the airport TV. Over the phone, as he watched the tornado on TV, he tried to stay calm with his wife. Put on tennis shoes. Grab a mattress or cushions. Get the dogs if you can.

Grabbing couch cushions and her two dogs, she climbed into the bathtub, clutched the faucet with one hand, her cell with the other, and prayed: Jesus, please let me see him again.

The storm sounded like baseballs falling on the roof. Back and forth, Stacie called Justin and her mom, who was watching the Weather Channel from Red Bank, as the tornado barreled down on Moore and her daughter.

"She was very brave,'' said Linda Sparks, a longtime English teacher at Soddy-Daisy High. "She didn't want me to hear her fear, and I didn't want her to hear mine.

"But I was thinking any minute this may be the last time I talk to her.''

Three years ago, Stacie had made another phone call to her mom. On vacation in Florida with friends, she had met a man. He introduced himself as Justin. Later that night, she called her mom: I just met the man I'm going to marry.

Justin and Stacie fell in love, got married last July, and then said goodbye in November as he deployed overseas.

Now, with her husband closer than he'd been in months, Stacie was praying for her life, huddled in the bathtub, wondering if she would ever see Justin again.

I may die here, she thought.

The electricity went out. Her cellphone dropped the calls. She could only text her mom.

Linda: get low. Hang onto pipes.

Stacie: glad for sirens. I have no tv or radio.

Linda: Tornado on ground near Moore. Hunker down.

One minute later, Linda: it is a huge tornado.

(Linda texts Stacie where the tornado is headed).

Stacie: Half mile away. Very close.

Then, moments before the tornado would strike her daughter's home, Linda heard the Weather Channel report words she will never forget: The tornado is rising. It's above the ground.

Somehow, for some reason, the tornado lifted off the ground, right over Stacie's neighborhood.

"A miracle,'' Linda said.

Minutes passed. Stacie, shakily, walked outside. She stared at the sky.

More tornados had been forecast.

Back in Atlanta, after seeing flight after flight canceled, Justin tried renting a car. Then, finally, came the announcement: His plane was boarding.

Despite warnings from her neighbors, and rumors that the roads were closed, Stacie got in her car, and under the dark Oklahoma sky, listening again and again and again to Sara Evans sing "No Place That Far,'' Stacie drove toward the Oklahoma City airport.

Just after midnight, her husband's plane landed.

There in the empty terminal, for the first time since November, Stacie, with a big red, white and blue Welcome Home sign, and Justin, in his camouflage fatigues, saw each other.

Amidst the wreckage and loss, tears pouring down their cheeks, Stacie and Justin embraced.

"He kept telling me he loved me,'' Stacie said.

Finally, something good and wonderful and safe had touched down from the sky.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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