Published November 20, 2014
A year ago, an EF-5 tornado ripped Amanda Johns' husband and mother from her arms. Her mother was killed. Her husband was critically injured. And a stick punctured Johns' placenta, threatening to end her pregnancy.
Today, Johns and her husband are still recovering from their injuries suffered when 62 tornadoes killed 253 Alabama residents. The state was the hardest hit by an outbreak of tornadoes that raked the South, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.
With help from a $4.6 million disaster fund, the couple is preparing to move into a new house with a healthy 7-month-old son. Strangers donated money, labor and furniture to a fund that helped put the family in a new three-bedroom, one-bath house.
"There are still people out there who care enough to come together and give us a wonderful gift," Johns said.
"It's been a miracle," added her husband, Mitchell Johns.
Their house was built with labor from Mennonite Disaster Services and other groups and with money donated to the Governor's Emergency Relief Fund.
On the afternoon of April 27, 2011, Amanda Johns' mother, Renee Berry, 52, of Double Springs, was visiting their rented home in Phil Campbell when they got word a tornado was ripping across northwest Alabama with 210 mph winds.
The three huddled in the bathroom, holding on to each other.
"We each put a pillow over our heads. Right before it hit, she put her pillow over my belly. Then she started praying."
They could hear debris hitting their rental house and then the vinyl siding ripping off. Johns heard her mother say, "I love you" as the house disintegrated. "That was my mother's last three words before she was blown away."
Johns' mother became one of 26 fatalities in Phil Campbell.
Rescue workers found Mitchell Johns unconscious under the debris with two bones sticking out of his right arm, a pine limb stuck in his left cheek, and a bad puncture wound in his left knee.
Amanda Johns was 15 feet from the house, her right foot mangled and a pea-size puncture in her placenta, causing her to leak amniotic fluid.
Doctors rushed her into surgery to try to save her baby, but before they began, a test showed the hole had closed.
Then she started dilating even though she was only five months pregnant. Doctors put her to bed with her head down and feet in the air. They warned her she was at risk of losing the baby.
While in the hospital, Amanda Johns learned that her mother had died.
"It was unbelievable for people to tell me she didn't make it," she said. "I felt like she was right there beside me holding my hand with Jesus and God. It gave me a peace and ease that everything was going to be OK."
It was. Her cervix started closing, and her baby was saved.
"The doctor said you never hear about that happening," she recalled.
Amanda Johns, 25, and Mitchell Johns, 30, were treated in different hospitals and kept up with each other through relatives. When they were discharged, neither was well enough to care for the other. He went to live with his mother, and she stayed with her sister.
For Mitchell Johns, his biggest worry was not whether his right arm would ever get its strength and movement back or whether painful physical therapy sessions would get him walking again. He worried that he wouldn't be reunited with his wife by the time the baby arrived.
But Kaden Eli Johns arrived on Sept 1, 2011, with dad on hand. The couple was reunited about a month before the delivery and moved into a donated apartment.
These days, baby toys cover the living room floor, but soon they will be packed up and moved to their new home.
Mitchell Johns held a maintenance job and his wife worked in a poultry plant before the tornado hit. Their injuries make it unlikely that either will be able to hold a manual labor job again. Despite that, Mitchell Johns said he was suspicious when he got a phone call inquiring if the couple would like a house.
"At first I thought it was a scam, but then I got to checking into it," he said.
And the Johns said they don't want anyone to feel sorry for them. After all, they have a new house and a healthy baby.
"It doesn't matter if it's a good day or a bad day, he always has a good day," the young mother said of her son. "People who meet him always smile."