- Associated Press - Friday, April 11, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Two years ago, the world and the weather caved in on Darrell Heichelbech. A pre-dawn tornado took his daughter in the family’s Clay home.

Now, when the wind blows as it so often does in Alabama, he thinks of 16-year-old Christina. He thinks about things he didn’t think about then, about helmets and weather alarms, places of safety and grim reality.

“There are a lot of people who are like we were and ‘Oh, it’ll never happen to me,’” Heichelbech said. “It can happen to anybody. I’m here to say that.”

The Heichelbechs are now spreading the message about being prepared for severe weather, including having a weather radio.

NOAA weather alert radios broadcast detailed information as soon as a watch, warning, or advisory is issued by the National Weather Service. Heichelbech now believes every home should have one. “Had we had the radio, our daughter might still be here,” he said. “If we’d had 10 minute’s notice, we could have been down in the basement and been safe. It’s the difference between life and death.”

The Jan. 23, 2012 storm blew through Clay at 4:10 a.m. that morning. Heichelbech and his wife, Carol, were awakened by debris hitting their bedroom windows. “I told Carol we better get downstairs,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll go get the kids. You go on down.”

Heichelbech went to the top of the stairs and yelled to Josh and Christina to get up. Just as Josh came out of his room, the roof lifted off the home and knocked Heichelbech and Josh to the floor. “I grabbed hold of his legs and within three to five seconds, it was over and Josh and I were in the back yard in the swimming pool about 40 feet away from where we had been standing,” he said. “It moved the entire upper floor of the house. And then it was over.”

They climbed out of the water. “It was pitch black. You couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know where we were. I thought we were still laying the upper part of the house until I took a step back and fell in the pool again,” he said.

They found a reading light, the kind that attaches to a book, that was on and they picked it up and began searching for his wife and Christina. “I could hear Carol, she was covered up pretty bad,” he said in an interview on the day of the tornado. “A neighbor came and we lifted the debris and got her out.”

Neighbors showed up with flashlights and they continued to search for Christina. “To me it seemed like 15 minutes looking for her, but I think it was more like a half hour, or hour,” he said. He said he got back in the pool several more times to make sure she wasn’t in there. “The weird part was I’m walking around in there with my pajama bottoms on and no shoes. I never stepped on anything. I don’t know how.”

Eventually they found Christina beyond the pool. She was still on the mattress from her bedroom. “She just looked like she was sleeping like a baby,” Heichelbech told AL.com that day. “But she wasn’t sleeping. She was gone.”

A couple of nurses did CPR for 15 to 20 minutes, but there was no response. Heichelbech and his wife were forced to leave Christina as they were loaded into an ambulance to get medical treatment. They were released by noon, and picked up by friends who offered to take them to their own home.

“I said, ‘No, I want to go to our church.’ I didn’t think about it, that’s just what I said,” he said. The church quickly became their home away from home, and support poured in from all over - clothes, food, prayer and more.

He said he thinks about tragedy often but tries not to dwell. “I don’t think about what we could have done differently because obviously the biggest thing we could have done differently was been awake, had an alert system. What I think about is the response we had from neighbors, friends, family, co-workers, our church,” he said. “The loss is there, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. But what we can do is make sure they know it’s appreciated and we can return that.”

Heichelbech said he believes the second year has been harder than the first, which was consumed with replacing and rebuilding all the material things lost in the storm. “Believe me, that’s not to say that we never thought about it, but there was more time to dwell on it,” he said. “And with our son Josh, we’ve got a reason to keep going.”

He said they bought a weather radio as soon as they moved into a rental home. They have since rebuilt in Clay. The first time the alert went off, Heichelbech said, “you could have probably peeled me off the ceiling.” He watches the weather more now, and said he has a new respect for it and the havoc it can wreak. “I wasn’t about to have this happen to my family again,” he said.

He said faith got the family through. “I don’t know how people who don’t have faith get through something like this. You have a choice.”

Christina was a junior at Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, and had scored a 30 on her ACT. She already had earned a full scholarship to Auburn University, where she planned to study to become a veterinarian. She volunteered for a Clay veterinarian, sang in the school choir and was involved in the youth group at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

She loved music and driving her car. Following her death, there were memorial scholarships and funds set up in her name.

Now her family wants to do its part to honor her legacy. Heichelbech said he started last year to plan a motorcycle rally to raise awareness but it never got going. “Since then I’ve come to realize I wasn’t ready to get it going,” he said. “Now that this has come about, we are. Our feeling is if we can get a weather radio in somebody’s home and it saves a life, then her life wasn’t wasted. I hope we can turn it into something magnificent.”


Information from: The Birmingham News, https://www.al.com/birminghamnews

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