- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Annie Groves can still see the last girl identified after the 2005 tornado that swept through the area and killed 25 people.

Emily Donner, a redheaded 6year-old, wore pink pajamas that night 10 years ago.

“The little kids, I can just vividly see them to this day,” said Groves, who was Vanderburgh County’s chief deputy coroner at the time.

“I vividly can recall every second of that day, unfortunately.”

Five children and 20 adults died in the tornado that struck in the early hours of Nov. 6.

The coroner’s office often sees death. It’s part of the job. But the sheer number of dead from the tornado was something different.

“They are all someone’s children,” Groves said.

Groves first heard about the tornado about 2:45 a.m., minutes after it hit.

She usually only received calls if there had been a death.

“We came down to the office and started getting everything together,” Groves said.

The tornado ripped through half of Eastbrook Mobile Home Park on the southeast side of Evansville. The trailer park had 300 mobile homes at the time, according to Eastbrook management, with about 750 people living in them.

Groves and the staff had no idea of the damage. She said they had to prepare for at least 100 deaths, if not more.

Communication radios were down at some points on Nov. 6. Groves said she flagged down a passing Vanderburgh County sheriff’s deputy and asked him to stay with the coroner’s office so they could communicate with those at the scene.

The coroner’s office staff waited to travel to Eastbrook shortly before the sun rose.

“The main reason is that you never want recovery to interfere with rescue and there was still a lot of rescue going on out there,” said Groves, who is now the county’s chief coroner. “Also, for the obvious reason, it’s easier to see, easier to conduct things.”

Before they arrived, local TV stations were set up and airing some of the damage.

“We had the TV on here, so we were seeing some of it. You could see devastation. When I first got out of my vehicle, I just stopped because I could not believe what I was literally seeing in front of my eyes,” she said. “TV did not do it justice because the devastation was beyond comprehension.”

The deaths from the tornado were different.

Victims didn’t have IDs near because the tornado happened while they slept.

The coroner’s office struggled to find information needed for death certificates. They took bodies to their office and had friends and family visually identify the dead.

“I think that was tough, watching the families come down here and do that. It was just devastating,” Groves said.

Ten hours after they went into the park, the coroner’s office began releasing names to the public.

Vanderburgh County had gone through disaster training in September and October of that year. She said that training helped the emergency workers and the coroner’s office.

Sheriff deputies and firefighters went through Eastbrook and used spray paint to mark trailers that were searched.

Deputies and firefighters received a list of people who lived in each trailer. They started going through the list to see who had been accounted for. Some people were at work when the storm hit or had stayed somewhere else. The deputies had to call and track down everyone who lived at each home, and it took a long time, Groves said.

Officials didn’t only have to find the people who lived at the trailer park, but also those who had been visiting.

A deputy took record of everyone who came into each hospital.

The coroner’s staff worked 15 hours that day until about 8:30 p.m., at least three hours after sunset.

“Throughout that process, throughout the day, we had one unaccounted for, and we were almost positive that (the body) was in the retention pond” at the mobile home park, Groves said. “We did every search that we could, and we knew we would go out the next day and they were draining the retention pond and that’s where we found it the next day.”

Michael Holbert was the last body removed from the scene. The body of his wife, Amy Michelle Holbert, was found earlier that day.

Not only did Groves have to handle the 19 deaths from Eastbrook, but Warrick County brought five more people over.

Groves keeps in touch with most of the families who lost loved ones in the tornado. But one relationship stood out from the rest.

Kathryn Martin, whose 2-year-old son C.J. died in the storm, is basically family to Groves.

“Her children refer to me as Grandma Annie and my husband as their grandpa. Kathryn and John refer to my husband and I as Mom and Pops - and we’re together all the time,” Groves said.

Looking back, Groves said there were positives that helped the investigation in midst of the tragedy. Lynn Road was the only road that had to be closed, and it helped keep people away from the scene.

“It was a secure location,” she said. “There was only one way in, and there was only one way out.”

The community support was overwhelming at times, Groves said.

“I was afraid to ask for something because we would receive dozens of them,” she said.

Another plus: the state was having its annual police dog training at Lincoln City, Indiana, that weekend, she said, so about 50 rescue dogs came to help Nov. 6.

“We had every type of rescue dog 45 minutes away from us,” she said.

“People used to take for granted the threat of tornadoes, where they don’t anymore. I was one of them,” Groves said. “I don’t take that for granted anymore. I’m in a safe place; I’m in my basement. You never know when it’s going to happen. … Mother Nature is unbelievable. When she rears her silly head, she rears it.”

Redheaded 6-year-old Emily Donner was one of the last to be identified.

“Her dad was dead, her mother and brother were in the hospital and in very serious condition,” Groves said. “So it took a while for everyone to realize that this little one was missing. It took a couple times (to identify her) because the first time the people who came down to identify her, they were in denial and said it wasn’t her.

“But we knew it was.”

___

Source: Evansville Courier & Press, http://bit.ly/1MaFYIJ

___

Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide