A year later, survivor of Rock Hill tornado thinks of those who died, is thankful to be alive

adys@heraldonline.comNovember 15, 2012 

— It sounded like steel wheels rolling on the track. Closer, louder, heading right toward her.

Real-life railroad tracks - tracks that carry pig iron and steel and coal and so much cargo - run just a few hundred yards west of Janet Neely’s house. She knows the sound of the train. The sound she heard a year ago today was the same, but different, too.

Louder. More rumbling. A mean sound. The sound of death.

“I had just sat down, turned the TV on, and I noticed something was different,” Janet Neely remembered. “I looked outside and there it was. The sound is what gets you. People say a tornado sounds like a freight train because it really does. The tornado was heading right at me.”

Neely remembers because there is no way she could ever forget what happened Nov. 16, 2011. At about 4:45 in the afternoon, as daylight was turning to night, the last lighted edge of the sky turned black as Neely watched in terror from the house she had lived in for 29 years.

Janet Neely was home alone in the house on S.C. 324 near the intersection of Skyline Drive, about eight miles south of Rock Hill. Janet’s husband, Jerry, was not yet home from work in the parts department at a Fort Mill car dealership.

Across the street and about 100 yards east, Neely’s daughter, Amanda; two young grandsons, Landon and Braden; and son-in-law, Kevin Sinclair, were inside their home on property that has been in the family for generations. Sinclair saw that sky; heard the train, too.

The tornado came right at his face, across a cotton field. He pushed his family together to huddle in safety as the door started to shake.

There was no time to get to his mother-in-law across the street.

So Janet Neely, alone, had to try to save herself.

“I rushed into the bathroom, and then the house just came apart,” Neely said. “In just an instant, trees were crashed all over. I was underneath the bathtub, with a tree on top of me.”

The tornado - Sinclair said he saw at least two funnel clouds that joined up - passed in just seconds. Incredibly, the path was so narrow that the Sinclairs’ mobile home, just yards from his in-laws, was not destroyed. But the mobile home that Ken and Barbara Hafner lived in next to Janet and Jerry Neely was destroyed.

More than destroyed - gone.

The Ferrell home two doors down was destroyed.

Amanda and Kevin Sinclair called by cellphone to her mother’s cellphone. In that ruined house, somehow, Janet Neely was able to hit the button that connected the call.

“All we heard was her screaming for help,” Sinclair said.

Nobody knew yet that the tornado had hit several homes to the south, and that Steve Courtney, a father and grandfather, had died when a falling chimney crushed him after he pushed his daughter and granddaughter to safety. The Hafners would both be found soon afterward, in the field across the street, dead.

The tornado cut a 200-yard wide path of devastation over more than two miles. Winds reached at least 135 mph, and weather officials a couple days later confirmed that a tornado caused the damage.

As Sinclair he looked across the street at hell a year ago, he knew he had to help. Sinclair rushed to his mother-in-law’s house, beating passersby who saw the tornado and rushed toward the damage, beating the first responders from the Rock Hill Rescue Squad and the Oakdale Volunteer Fire department.

Sinclair heard his mother-in-law and found her. The tree weighed tons. The old bathtub was cast iron and heavy. Underneath was Janet Neely, cut and bleeding, her legs slashed by iron and debris.

“I didn’t know if I was going to live,” Janet Neely recalled.

A chain saw arrived with the volunteers, and all these people in the dark and the mud and the glass and twisted metal worked to free Neely. With strength that came from adrenaline, and love, somehow Kevin Sinclair helped to lift that bathtub off his mother-in-law. The group that had arrived by then, so many more volunteer firefighters and rescue people and others, passed Neely over the rubble to an ambulance; an assembly line of caring in the darkness.

“You can’t explain where you get that strength,” Sinclair said. “It was the moment. You had to do it.”

Neely would live through the tornado. She would go to the hospital and be sewn up, although she will have scars on her legs and ankles and feet for the rest of her life.

And she would always think about Barbara and Charles Hafners, her next door neighbors.

“They were not just neighbors, they were friends, people who had kids and grandkids, and I think all the time how is it that I lived through that awful night and they didn’t,” Neely said. “It haunts me sometimes.”

All that Jerry and Janet Neely had was gone. The house was gone.

“Then all the great people started to help,” Janet Neely said. “Those people started to help as soon as the tornado happened. They are all great.”

Hundreds of volunteers from fire departments and rescue squads and more, plus police and others, worked that horrible night to find the living, and the three dead.

But when the sun rose the next day, Nov. 17, a Thursday, the Neely’s saw nothing was left. The storm was so powerful, a wedding picture of the Neelys was found a dozen miles away.

In he tornado’s aftermath came an outpouring of support for the storm’s victims that is likely unparalleled in York County history. Hundreds of volunteers removed rubble and trees, brought food and money and furniture and love. Churches and people, businesses and families, just helped and helped.

The employers of many in the family, and family members not affected by the storm, helped often and with great generosity. A car dealer gave the Neelys a car because Janet’s was crushed. Donations came in - even from other victims such as the Ferrells across the street, who gave the Neelys money collected for them. Somehow, through generosity, the Neelys were able to pay off the mortgage on the house that a bank still expected to be paid.

But the Neelys had nothing left to start over with. There is no money to rebuild.

Janet and Jerry lived in a camper for about four months outside their daughter’s home. Janet, not one to feel sorry for herself, took care of her grandchildren as she always did. Finally the couple moved into a home another couple hundreds yards west on S.C. 324, a house similar to what was destroyed but that somehow had escaped the tornado without even lost shingles.

Almost everything in the house the Neelys’ new house was donated. Furniture, plates, appliances, you name it.

“It is impossible to thank everyone by name, because I would never want to leave anyone out and every person who helped us was great and a servant of the Lord,” said Janet Neely, who grew up the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher.

Janet and Jerry Neely now rent, month-to-month, a house that’s so close to where their home of 29 years was destroyed that the stumps from the destroyed majestic oaks can be seen through the living room window.

“Right there,” says Janet Neely, 59 years old. “I look at it every day.”

Sinclair, the son-in-law, and others cleaned up the property and saved what could be salvaged. A wedding album was found, and a few other things to remind people of a life.

That bathtub was salvaged. The heavy iron, which may have saved Neely’s life by shielding her from that ancient and tons-heavy old oak tree that fell onto and through the house, was hauled to the Sinclair home down the road. Amanda Sinclair, Janet Neely’s daughter, filled it with good potting soil. Lilies from the old property were dug up and transplanted into the tub, and around it. Other flowers were put in the tub that is now the most beautiful bathtub flowerpot in York County, or maybe anywhere.

The dent from the falling tree that separated Janet Neely from a crushed body remains on that tub.

The tornado damaged at least 22 buildings and caused millions in damage. The winds killed three people and injured several others. It was terrible, and yet, afterward, the storm brought out the very best in the human hearts of York County people who would not let wind break their spirit.

“I had my life, I still have it,” Neely said. “I lived through it. Others did not. I think about it every day. I hurt for them.”

Especially on the anniversary.

None of the Neelys are comfortable now when bad weather approaches. But tough, and loving, this family fights on. Janet Neely’s smile is an incredible testament to the ability of someone to persevere.

“It doesn’t seem like it has been a year,” Neely said. “The tornado that hit Rock Hill. It was right here.”

She meant the tornado was “right here,” but she also meant her home, her dreams, and her life that had been lived.

All Janet Neely had was “right here.” All, except herself and her husband, is gone.

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