Enquirer Herald

Hundreds of volunteers help York County tornado victims

Three days after a tornado tore through a rural community southwest of Rock Hill, decimating homes and killing three people, a community of volunteers has arisen to rebuild.

Cars lined the roadside for at least a mile on Saturday as hundreds gathered along Williamson and Skyline roads.

Smoke billowed from smoldering piles of uprooted trees. Volunteer construction workers, driving bulldozers and backhoes, cleared debris from fields.

Some mended fences.

Some searched through woods and rubble for remnants of people's lives - a handful of photos, a Christmas card, a checkbook.

Others prepared and delivered food and drinks for everyone.

"It's just been awesome," volunteer Rhonda Devinney said. "We have strangers show up with gloves and shovels. Even strangers from other communities have come."

The storms hit at 5:41 p.m. Wednesday, 36 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for York County.

It was as wide as two football fields and cut a path of destruction nearly three miles long, according to the National Weather Service, which rated the 135 miles-per-hour twister a high EF2 tornado.

It damaged at least 20 homes. Eight were leveled.

Those killed were Charles Hafner, 60, and his wife, Barbara, 62; and Steve Courtney, 60, a well-known Rock Hill electrician.

What started in the storm's aftermath as a search-and-rescue mission has become an effort to move forward. For some, that means clearing the rubble, collecting what remains of their lives and starting anew.

Oakdale Baptist Church members, some of whom arrived shortly after the storm, have spearheaded the effort.

Elevation Church and the Red Cross joined. The group set up three base camps across the area where volunteer workers can go for food, rest and medical attention.

Devinney, whose husband, Jerry, is pastor at Oakdale, said there are about 30 victims who need help.

"I can't imagine losing all of the possessions that you can't get back," she said.

The effort has drawn help from far and wide.

Timothy Dickerson, who lives seven miles away and runs a clearing-and-grading business, brought a tractor and other equipment.

Mary Horn brought her young son to help clean up. As members of this community, she said, it could easily have been them who need help.

Twelve-year-old Ryley Sprouse and her friend Davis Owens, 13, brought water and supplies.

Residents from Chester and Lowry came to donate money.

George Philpott, a Red Cross volunteer who has responded to disasters including forest fires in California and the tornado that ripped through Springfield, Mass., in June, said he's impressed with how close this community is.

"People just jump right in the middle, put their heads down and just do the work," he said.

Donations continue to pour in with volunteers.

"They ask for it on the Internet, Facebook, and it just appears," Devinney said.

Thanks to a donor, one displaced family now has a camper to live in until insurance claims are finalized.

Ed Devatt, who owns Family Auto Sales along with his wife, Denise, and friend Bruce Larry, is donating a gold, 2002 Saturn to Jerry Neely's family, who lost everything, including their home.

"We're just trying to help them out," Devatt said.

Remarkable progress has been made since the storm hit, Devinney said.

But rebuilding has barely begun.

All that remained of a home off Skyline Road on Saturday was a concrete slab. Several twisted metal beams lay nearby. Pieces of the former owners' lives were spread amid rubble - a cracked chunk of a snowman figurine, a half-empty bottle of hand soap, a felt rose.

Down Williamson Road the tree line is covered with insulation, blown off a home ripped from its foundation.

A blue tarp covers another home's roof.

Oakdale Baptist is collecting donations to repair it, Devinney said, because the woman who owns it has Alzheimer's and no insurance.

Even amid the devastation and with a long road ahead, the mood Saturday was anything but somber. There were cheerful hellos, long hugs and determined faces. There was a sense that no one whose life was ripped from them will come to terms alone.

It was a new community bound by hope.

Want to help?

Donations: Drinks, non-perishable food, hygiene items, clothing and more can be taken to Oakdale Baptist Church, 1249 Oakdale Road, Rock Hill. For more information, call 803-327-7972.

To donate to the American Red Cross, which is assisting the families affected, call 803-329-6575 or go to redcross.org.

Found items: The tornado was so powerful that personal items from destroyed homes have been found throughout York County and as far away as Mecklenburg County. To return items to families, go to Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, 1705 S.C. 324, or call 803-328-0779.