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Rock Hill daughter who survived tornado: My father died for me

The phone rang at the Courtney home at 5:34 p.m. Wednesday.

Sharon Courtney called from church to tell her husband, Steve, and 25-year-old daughter, Rachel, that there was a tornado warning for the area where the family lives on Williamson Road south of Rock Hill.

Then, Jeremy Courtney, Rachel's brother, called, saying the same thing.

Through the dining room window, Rachel Courtney Winker and her father looked south, and they saw this was no warning anymore.

"We saw the tornado coming right for us," Rachel said.

Rachel grabbed her 2-year-old daughter, Ashlyn - a little girl her grandfather called "Rascal" - in terror.

The tornado moved at incredible speed - just like the movies except this was no movie - right toward them.

Steve pushed Rachel and Ashlyn into a reinforced hallway on the northern side of the house as the wind began to tear the home apart.

"He yelled to me to cover up Ashlyn and he dove next to the couch, behind it, I guess thinking that he was going to pull the couch on top of him for safety," Rachel said. "The tornado was right on us then, the place was just falling apart and it was so loud, the loudest freight train sound you ever heard in your life, a roar.

"I keep hearing that sound over and over in my head. Oh Lord, I hope I never hear it again. It was so awful.

"And in that sound, the last words my Daddy ever said was, 'God, please spare my family - spare us.'"

Then, with Rachel on top of a screaming Ashlyn, the house blew apart and the brick chimney fell on top of Steve as he lay on the floor.

In just a couple of seconds, the tornado was past the house, now a ruin, and Rachel, covered in ceiling and roof and debris, screamed and screamed for her father.

"I was screaming out, 'Daddy! Daddy! Please answer me Daddy!'"

Her brother skidded to a stop in the family's rural driveway and came running up to what was left of the house as he yelled out for his sister and niece and father.

"I found Rachel there underneath, and she yelled out that Ashlyn was OK, but they were trapped," Jeremy said. "I was able to get around the side, and she slid Ashlyn out to me."

Rachel, hit on the head and bleeding, cut on her leg, crawled out of the wreckage as Jeremy called out for his father.

"Daddy! Daddy!" rang out in the silence following all those roars.

Jeremy climbed into the house, with wood everywhere and bricks all scattered, and when there was no response from his father, he found out why.

Steve was crushed, with the family dog, a Boston Terrier named Melody, dead in his arms.

"I found my daddy," Jeremy said. "I felt like a part of me was gone right then. I felt all hollow inside."

Other family members started to arrive to find the worst scene anybody could imagine. A house gone. A father and husband dead.

"My father, what he did was die for me, for his 'Rascal,' " Rachel said. "Did he try and save the dog? Nobody will ever know.

"But I know that he cared more about getting the two of us to safety in that split-second than he cared about his own life."

Since that awful Wednesday dusk, when the tornado hit, the family has had the terrible task of grieving, while at the same time, figuring out what is next. The house is nothing but rubble.

The family has found so many broken and lost items that blew away - some papers landed more than 20 miles away in North Carolina. But most of what they have found has been in the yard, around the home.

Pictures and a nativity scene, old photos. Steve's favorite Redskins hat and a turkey statue he bought for a dollar or two.

"Every thing I find reminds me of the man I love," said Sharon Courtney, Steve's wife and Rachel's mother. "He was such a good man. The way he died is just how he lived - family first."

That is how this family would hope that people remember Steve Courtney - a deeply religious man who died saving his daughter and granddaughter.

"My father is in heaven right now, because he believed and he earned it," said Jeremy.

Rachel, the daughter who survived as her father died, said she already is feeling terrible guilt.

"They call it survivor's guilt, I'm told," she said. "Why did my daddy die and I lived and Ashlyn lived? I don't know. What I do know is that he lived as a father who put his kids first, and he died a father who put me first. He died for me. I love my daddy!"

And then Rachel Courtney Winker stood next to the house that is nothing more than broken dreams.

She buried her face in the shoulder of her brother, before they and the family, and friends and neighbors, could start another day of trying to rebuild a shattered life - all hollow inside.

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