CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Latonya Stevens heard thunder and lightning in the distance, she knew the drill. Every time a storm drew near, her children would run to her room seeking comfort.
So Stevens turned on a hall light for the young kids as high winds began buffeting the house. Then she blacked out and awoke to find only one of the four children in sight and the house ripped apart.
She quickly assumed the worst: that a twister had carried off the other three kids.
"I was screaming for them," Stevens said Monday. "I was panicking. For a moment, I didn't know where they were."
No one knows precisely what happened, but this much is clear. The three children were in their rooms when the tornado approached. As the winds rose, most of the home's second floor was swept away. After the storm passed, the kids were found outside on the ground, one of them 100 feet away along a major highway.
All three emerged with only cuts and bruises — and a story to tell for the rest of their lives.
"It's a miracle they survived," said their grandfather, Clarence Gray Jr. "God was looking out for them."
Most of the family's possessions were lost. But by Monday, the children were playing in their grandparents' house if nothing had happened.
They picked up family photos scattered on a coffee table. "This was our house," Jamal said, pointing to a picture.
The children — 3-year-old Amber, 4-year-old Ayanna and 7-year-old Jamal — said they don't recall anything.
"They're like me. They don't remember what happened," Stevens said. "We don't know. Maybe it will come back to us eventually. I mean, I've sat down and tried to figure out what happened. I don't know," she said softly.
When storms moved into the Charlotte area late Friday, the four children were upstairs in their bedrooms. Their grandmother, Patricia Stevens, was watching TV downstairs on a couch. Their father, Tyrone Stevens, was out with friends who were in town for a basketball tournament.
The noise awoke the children, who initially went to their mother's room where they watched a Disney movie. When the storm died down, they returned to their beds.
But a half-hour later, Stevens heard a new storm approaching and got up to take care of the children. As she turned on the hall light, the house began to shake and the wind started to howl.
Then she lost consciousness.
Stevens awoke in the dark holding the other 3-year-old twin, Ashley, and shouting for her children. The roof was gone. Only then did she realize that her house had been struck by a tornado.
She hurried downstairs in the dark, screaming "Where's my babies," and spotted her mother who also was frantic.
"I didn't know where the children were," Patricia Stevens said. "The house was shaking, and then we heard the noise. And all of the sudden you heard the house go whap, whap, whap, whap. Just like that. Then the walls were gone. Then I said to myself, 'Is this how you're supposed to die? Are we going to die in here or what?'"
Stevens handed Ashley to the girl's grandmother while she started searching outside for her children. Neighbors began searching, too.
Sheena Redfearn and her husband, Chris, heard Stevens shouting from four doors down the street.
After the couple was sure their own children were safe, Chris Redfearn bolted outside with a flashlight and began following Jamal's voice, leaping over fences in the search for the boy.
Amber was found in the family yard under some debris. Ayanna landed in a neighbor's yard. Jamal had been tossed more than 100 feet.
The children were rushed to the hospital. Tyrone Stevens, who was contacted by family, headed to the hospital, too.
When he returned to his house the next day, he couldn't believe what had happened.
"Just looking at it, it just shook me to my core," he said. "I was devastated. Thank God everyone is OK."
The stories bring to mind a Tennessee boy who was thrown into a muddy field northeast of Nashville during a Feb. 5, 2008, tornado that killed his mother. Then just a year old, Kyson Stowell-Noble, was found face-down in a rural field strewn with splintered lumber, couches and toys. He was about 100 yards from his mother, who was one of 59 people killed when a string of tornadoes slammed five Southern states.
Kyson needed just two days of hospital treatment for scrapes and a collapsed lung.
Now when bad weather approaches, Kyson likes to go outside. He even did so during the epic storms Friday that killed 40 people across the Midwest and South.
"He put on his clothes and went outside to see what was going on," his grandmother, Kay Stowell, said by telephone Monday.
Meanwhile, the Stevens family said they would love to rebuild in the same neighborhood.
"My neighbors were there for me, and those are the kind of people I want to be around," Latonya Stevens said. "It's a big family."
But first the family must confront the trauma of the storm.
"Every time I close my eyes, I still see it," she said. "I haven't had time to deal with it. I sleep on and off. I'm more worried about the kids and how they're feeling."
Associated Press Writer Joe Edwards in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.