PARON — A day after a tornado killed her father and two of her sisters, Emily Tittle, 17, knew she had to be brave.
Sunday’s tornado ripped the family’s home from its concrete slab. Huge piles of debris and fallen trees littered the yard Monday. Emily could still see her dad’s bloodstains on several pieces of rubble.
But Emily was determined. She held back her tears and, with the help of a family friend and a neighbor, spent hours digging through piles of soggy wreckage with the hope that she could salvage the things that couldn’t be replaced — like her mom’s stuffed tiger, the one she’d saved from childhood, or mud-coated pictures of herself and her eight siblings.
The tornado stole her home and three family members. But it didn’t take everything. It didn’t take Emily’s faith in God or her parents’ wedding photo or the family Bible.
The twister seemed to pop up out of nowhere Sunday night. Panicked, the older children pulled things out from under the stairwell so that everyone could fit. But just as Emily tried frantically to cramone of her little brothers into the cubbyhole, an exterior wall caved in, knocking the teenager over the head.
Emily closed her eyes tightly as the tornado rolled her out of the house and dumped her at the foot of the concrete foundation.
When Emily opened her eyes, she saw only a gray cloud. She felt a tug on her leg. It was one of her sisters. Emily forced herself up into a sitting position. Around her, other family members pulled themselves out of the ruin.
Two of her sisters, Tori, 20, and Rebekah, 14, were dead. When Emily saw her dad, she knew immediately that he was gone, too.
Minutes later, she smelled gas. “Mom,” she said, “we’ve gotta get out of here.”
LARGE, LOVING FAMILY
“This is just the best family. You couldn’t ask for better friends,” Paron volunteer firefighter Shelly Linn said Monday as she helped Emily search through the debris.
“They made you feel loved. I’d walk in, and there are all of these little hands reaching out, and the kids shouting, ‘Ms. Shelly! Ms. Shelly!’”
Linn used to be the “mail lady” on Deer Drive, the rural road on which the Tittles’ two-story home once stood.
Kerry Tittle, 44, homeschooled her eight children, so at least a few of them were usually around when Linn stopped at the mailbox.
The younger ones left pictures for her in the mailbox. One of them once made a puppet for Linn. It, along with the other artwork, remains on her refrigerator.
Robert Tittle worked at FamilyLife, a nonprofit Christian organization that focuses on marriage and child-raising. He had just celebrated his 48th birthday — which he shares with Emily — 11 days before his death.
Kerry Tittle spent her days educating the children. Her teaching materials — books, DVDs and schoolwork — lay scattered and sodden in the yard on Monday.
The couple also runs a book-sales business called Reformation Kidz. According to their Facebook page, Reformation Kidz sells character-building books about historical figures, significant historical events and theology.
On Monday, Emily scoured the rubble for books. The shop had been run from the house, she explained, gesturing toward the broken shelves that once held hundreds of books.
Linn described the Tittle home as a busy one, filled with the chatter of young children in possession of active imaginations. Tori, one of the tornado’s victims, was the oldest. Rebekah, the second victim, was sandwiched firmly in the middle. The survivors, along with Emily and her mom, are: Whitney, 19; Isabella, 12; Noah, 9; Mollye Rose, 6; Asa, 4; and Joshua, 8 months.
“There was harmony and there was love,” Linn recalled. “You could feel God’s hands when you came here.”
Monday morning found the Tittle family separated. Kerry Tittle spent the first part of the day at hospital with Joshua, and several of the other children had injuries that needed medical attention. By afternoon, all had been treated and released, said neighbor Jon Zieske, who spent the day helping Emily sort through debris.
“I found the Bible,” Emily called out at one point, her voice tinged with victory. Clad in hot-pink tennis shoes, gray pants and a gray shirt featuring Woodstock of the cartoon Peanuts gang, she picked her way carefully across boards laced with protruding nails and climbed over and under the limbs of large, toppled trees.
With her blond hair fashioned into two braids, Emily looked much younger than her 17 years. But she remained poised and confident throughout the search, crying only when she talked about her dad and sisters. A small pink abrasion marked the left side of her face, just underneath the eye.
“And this is the other one,” Emily said, lifting her shirt to reveal a large laceration on her left side.
After the tornado, Emily and her surviving family members made their way to the Zieske home, where Zeieske’s wife, a nurse, tended to their wounds. But come early Monday, Emily headed back to the jagged and scattered remains of her home.
As morning stretched into an increasingly muggy afternoon, Emily continued the hunt for family treasures, trying to ignore the physical pain that lingered from the night before.
Finally, at Zieske’s urging, she agreed to take a break. Emily walked with him to a pickup, beaten, sore and grieving.
But not broken.