- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Lauren Swann pulled out her iPhone and posed for a selfie. Her boyfriend, John Servati, a swimmer for Alabama, leaned over her left shoulder. The only light in the basement allowed the camera to frame their smiles.

For that split second, everything was perfect.

The image captures the beginning of young love. Swann and Servati had been dating for exactly a month when the picture was snapped last April. It also captured the final moments of Servati’s life.

The two huddled together in Swann’s basement and sought shelter from the tornadoes that ripped through Mississippi and Alabama.

The photo was taken at 10:14 p.m. It’s the moment that began a story the world soon would know: Servati saved Swann’s life. In the process, he lost his.

Five months later, Swann is ready to tell the story of what happened after the smiles.

“It’s such a crazy story that it’s just like, it still kind of shocks you every single time,” Swann said. “You’re like, ‘What? That really happened to me? How did this even happen?’ “

Servati sat in Alston Hall taking a Management 300 test as an EF-3 tornado devastated his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. Swann saw the destruction on TV. She immediately called Servati’s family. Everyone was safe, but the storm cells were moving east, toward Tuscaloosa.

When Servati finished his exam, Swann drove the couple back to her house. They would wait out the storm from her basement.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a basement. That’s where you go when there’s a tornado,’ ” Swann said. “And my mom kept asking, ‘I just want you to come home. I don’t like this. My baby’s away.’ “

Swann, a native of Tuscaloosa, and Servati had dealt with tornadoes in the past. They decided against the five-minute drive to Swann’s parents’ house, which had a storm shelter. Instead, they stayed at her house.

They listened to the sirens from her front porch. They watched the lightning brighten the dark clouds.

The front door was left open, which allowed the sound from the TV to reach the patio. Servati heard the broadcast instruct anyone around Alabama’s campus to take shelter immediately.

Swann avoided the basement. Despite the safety it was supposed to ensure, her instincts told her otherwise.

“His thought was basement,” Swann said. “And I don’t know why, but I was like ‘No. No. No.’ I was procrastinating like no other. I just didn’t want to go. And I didn’t know why.”

The storms outside her green, three-bedroom house were getting stronger. Down in the basement, Servati grabbed Swan from behind, pulled her up and screamed, “Get up!”

She stood up only to have a concrete wall pin her against another.

“If he wouldn’t have been paying attention,” Swann said, “I would have just been crushed.”

Water seeped into the basement. The cause is still unknown, but at the time it created a mini-mudslide. One of the concrete walls in Swann’s basement gave way as the bottom flushed out first, pinning their legs as they stood. The top followed.

They were alive but couldn’t move, pinned in a 4-foot hallway in Swann’s basement. Servati’s 6-foot frame allowed his head to extend beyond the walls. The weight of the collapsed wall pressed against Swann’s head.

“It got to the point here I stopped breathing,” Swann said. “That’s when he looked at me and he said, ‘I’m going to make sure you’re OK whether I am OK or not.’ “

Swann tried to respond but only gasped for air.

“I was like ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m about to die,’ ” Swann said. “I honestly thought I was going to die.”

Servati used his back for leverage. In one motion, he separated the collapsed walls by extending his legs perpendicular to his body, grabbed Swann and threw her out of the hallway. The wall then fell back on his chest.

“I guess adrenaline rush and the fact that God wanted me alive - I don’t know,” Swann said.

Swann found her phone and called 911. Then she called again as more water poured into the basement. She called again when the floor became quicksand and again when she began to sink. She was trapped again. Swann called 911 nine times. No one came.

“Who has to watch, sit there and watch somebody die and 911 doesn’t respond to your phone call because you’re freaking out?” Swann said. “The lady literally told me, I’m not sending anyone to your house until you calm down.”

Throughout the chaos, one thought calmed Swann - if only for a second - a mission trip Servati planned in Lake Tahoe.

“When I was in the basement and everything was happening, I literally stopped. I stopped crying; I stopped everything,” Swann said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to Lake Tahoe.’ “

Swann realized even then how odd the thoughts were.

“Then I thought to myself, ‘No, I’m not. What?’ ” Swann said. “And then it just kept hitting me. At random times it would just hit me. And then I would snap back into it and be all upset again. I just felt like it was God pulling me towards it.”

Prior to the storms, Swann didn’t plan to join Servati on the trip. On June 12 she began the 36-hour drive to Lake Tahoe without him. She returned to Tuscaloosa at the beginning of August. She worked at a boutique, a profession far from the finance major’s comfort zone.

The point of the mission trip was to help the participants conduct spiritual conversations regarding their journeys through life.

Swann shared her story more than 60 times.

“It’s hard. There are times that you just want to handle everything on your own,” Swann said. “And then you realize, ‘Whoa, I can’t do this.’ You have to step back and surrender your thoughts to God - just realizing that it’s OK to do that; that it’s OK to admit you can’t do it on your own.”

Swann slept through the night for the first time in Lake Tahoe. Prior to the trip, she couldn’t sleep longer than 30 minutes.

“Every time I would go to sleep I would have a dream,” Swann said. “I would relive it, so I wouldn’t go to sleep.”

Swann wanted to share that moment in the basement. She snapped the selfie to send to her friends. But the Snap Chat never sent. She didn’t save it. As the phone flew through the air, fate time stamped the image and saved it in her phone.

She took the picture at 10:14 p.m. She dialed 911 for the first time at 10:16. There is fire station is across the street from her home, but no one arrived until 11 p.m.

“I can’t do a pullup. Somehow, I did a pullup on this vent and wiggled my way out,” Swann said.

She spent 45 minutes trapped in her basement, watching her boyfriend die. When rescue crews arrived, six firefighters couldn’t remove the wall Servati elevated to save his girlfriend.

They cut a hole in the dining room floor to pull him out and rushed him to the hospital. Swann didn’t see him again until his funeral.

“I’ve literally had to sit there and tell myself, ‘Lauren, there’s a reason this happened,’ ” Swann said. ” ‘There’s a plan for you. It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.’ “

Five months later, Swann tries to block out that night in April. Instead, she remembers the smiles. How Servati overheard talk of the Swanns’ deer hunting house. How he forced the lifeguard at Indian Hills Country Club to introduce him to the Swann family. How he messaged Swann on Facebook two years later after sharing finance classes, which led to their relationship. She remembered being the one he leaned on after he had shoulder surgery, which ended his swimming career.

“He was one of those people you walk into a room with and you just smile,” Swann said. “You can’t help but smile. If he’s laughing, you’re laughing.”

The smiles continue today for Swann. Some days are easier than others. In the difficult moments, Servati’s not there for support. Instead she leans on God, a relationship he helped her strengthen.

“Why be mad? As hard as it is to think about, this really is all part of God’s grand plan,” Swann said. “He has a purpose for my life just like he had a purpose for John’s.”


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