When Bob Colby and his family were trapped in their collapsed house, he could only describe the sound of incoming chain saws as “sweetness.”
After tornadoes tore through Apison on April 27, 2011, the Colbys — Bob, Joy, and their children Steven and Lauren — were among the 1,500 families whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the string of powerful twisters that ripped through the tri-state region.
More than two years later, the family is healthy, happy and housed once again.
The “tight-knit, God-based” group recently moved into their rebuilt McGhee Road home and on Sunday they thanked the first responders of Hamilton County who came to their aid that awful day.
“Do y’all know how important you are?” Joy Colby asked the group of Hamilton County emergency responders. “Wherever you were, whoever you were helping, thank you.”
Apison was merely one of the towns afflicted from April 25 to 28. The record-setting storm front caused 358 confirmed tornadoes, the most for a single outbreak ever in the United States.
That day, Steven Colby heard a violent storm cell was coming his way but was not sure of its severity. As he and his fellow high school students were sent home from class early, he thought the front was merely another spring storm.
Winds from the EMF-4 tornado would reach 190 mph and spread 800 yards wide, and stick on the ground for at least 35 miles through the tri-state region.
“I’m one of the ‘have-to-see-it to believe it’ types,” said Steven Colby, now 20. “To my surprise, I saw a large, dark funnel.”
Steven sprinted down the stairs from his bedroom, too nervous to say anything, and slammed the door of the master bedroom closet shut. The winds grew louder, booming and roaring.
The last thing he saw before he blacked out was the bedroom doorway tilting forward at a 45-degree angle. To this day, he’s unsure what happened immediately after, but he suspects something struck him on the head.
The Colbys were buried in a pile of their house’s rubble that day. Trapped under door frames and furniture, it was all they could do to shout and hope for help as a second storm cell was on the way.
Michael Chaigne, a Hamilton County EMT, was among the first responders. Ambulances were useless at first — fallen trees blocked McGhee Road from both directions, and rescuers could only navigate to houses on four-wheelers.
“It was a lot of destruction,” he said. “It was so frustrating to know we were needed somewhere, but we just couldn’t get there.”
Volunteers started to clear up the devastation of nature with chain saws. As neighbors and emergency crews split open wood barricades, the Colbys knew help was on the way.
“The sound of those chainsaws … was sweetness,” Bob Colby said.
“Those little flashlights coming across the field — there were no other lights — were incredible,” Joy Colby added.
Even as the rescuers got to the trapped family, the destruction continued. A gun safe fell over and crushed Joy’s chest. She suffered nine broken ribs, two fractured vertebrae and collapsed lungs.
And if not for the destructive tornado, Bob Colby might not have survived cancer. He suffered no external injuries, but an voluntary X-ray scan at the hospital that evening revealed an active tumor in his bladder. Before then, he exhibited no symptoms or indications of cancer.
“That’s why it took us so long to build back,” Joy said of the two-year-path to their new home. “We just took it as a blessing in disguise.”
But now that the Colby family has returned to McGhee Road, with cancer gone and broken bones healed, they offered their new home to truckloads of their rescuers for an afternoon of picture-sharing and storytelling. The family served food with puns of gratitude.
“Thanks for being there when we ‘kneaded’ you ‘rising’ to the occasion,” a sign next to a plate of bread dips read.
The mood was pleasant as the Colby family shared their thankfulness with hugs, and responders saw the fruits of their service that fateful April day.
“You can see still remaining broken trees in the area,” Chaigne said. “But it’s nice to see that houses have gone back up and people have started with their lives again.”
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.