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Rock Hill tornado victims: Neighbors' help shows community spirit

Homeowners who lost everything in Wednesday's tornado that left three people dead and damaged at least 20 homes south of Rock Hill continued to dig through the debris of their lives Friday.

Of the damaged houses, eight were destroyed.

For Jerry Neely, there was no house left to dig through. All that was left of the Neely home on S.C. 324 near the intersection of Skyline Road and Williamson Road was splintered wood.

Inside the piles, pictures and pieces of decades.

Neely's wife, Janet, survived the storm while home alone, but she had to be rescued from under a bathtub and other rubble by rescue workers wielding a chainsaw.

"She's out of the hospital - but anybody can see now, there's nothing else left," Jerry Neely said. "We believe she is going to be all right. But my house is gone.

"The whole thing, gone."

Neely and other homeowners had help from friends, family and scores of volunteers Friday - going through the wreckage, while dealing with insurance claims and other paperwork.

At least 17 other buildings were damaged, said Cotton Howell, York County Emergency Management director.

About a dozen injuries were reported, in addition to the three people killed - Oran Steve Courtney, 60, of Williamson Road; and Barbara and Charles Kenneth Hafner of S.C. 324.

The path of the storm that packed 135 mph winds for a two-mile stretch was only about 200 yards wide - so narrow that the Hafner mobile home and Neely home, side by side, were destroyed, but a house almost directly across S.C. 324 was unscathed.

The "Welcome" sign was not even knocked from its post.

The Hafners' mobile home was lifted off its moorings and flew in pieces over 100 yards.

Patty Cox, one of the Hafners' five children, said Friday as she went through what little was left that she had called her mother around 5:30 p.m. to tell her about the tornado warning.

"My mother was sitting on the couch, watching her taped stories after work," Cox said. "She said, 'Let me go baby, I will talk to you later.' My stepfather had just come in from walking the dog."

Cox never spoke to her mother again, as both Barbara Hafner and her husband died when the mobile home was demolished.

"They lived together, they loved each other, and they died together," Cox said. "There is nothing for us to go through - their whole house was destroyed and blew away."

Ethan Cox, age 4, said simply on Friday: "My mawmaw is in heaven."

Roads that had been blocked by debris were re-opened late Thursday night.

Directly across the street and a field from the Hafner home, a crowd of family, friends and volunteers picked through the debris of the home of Albert "Jabo" Ferrell and his wife, Judy.

Many were from the state Baptist Association disaster response team.

"In times like this, people need help," said the Rev. Mike O'Dell, director of missions for the York Baptist Association.

Many people with no affiliation just showed up to help.

"I wanted to help any way I could," said Nathan Rodgers, who didn't know any of the victims but was off work Friday - so he showed up with a chain saw.

Donations for victims continue to come in to the American Red Cross and nearby Oakdale Baptist Church - including donors from as far away as the Midwest and Northeast

"One lady from Joplin, Missouri - where they know what happens in tornados - sent us a check for $1,000," said the Rev. Jerry Devinney, Oakdale's senior pastor. "And locally, people are just being extremely generous.

"These people need everything. All they had, in some cases, is gone."

Cleanup efforts are expected to continue through the weekend.

Jerry Neely, whose whole life was destroyed, thanked the neighbors and strangers for the help.

"These people are just wonderful," Neely said.

"Rock Hill people take care of each other. They are helping to take care of us, that's for sure."

Video: Tornado clean up