Ten years ago on June first, I had a brush with death. Here is the hair-raising story…
In the quiet of a library, I first heard news of the tornado watch. A mother and her young daughter gave clues that danger was afoot. Hurriedly, she gathered up an armload of books. “Radar shows that an F-3 tornado has touched down 50 miles away. We are leaving.” Tornadoes were not on my radar. After all, I was a New Englander living in western Massachusetts, not exactly in Tornado Alley. Still, I was a houseparent at MacDuffie School, a college prep school that served a population of international students. I had responsibility for the safety of twelve high school students, so I drove back home, picking up Chinese food for the boys on the way back to campus.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, although it was unusually warm for early June. I did notice that hot winds stirred the tops of sturdy old shade trees. Thinking back, all these signs should have been a warning to me. Instead, I was dismissive. I drove onto campus, past colonial style stone houses, parked, and entered the main school building. All was quiet on the first floor. That was strange. Where was the receptionist? Where were the students? Where were the teachers? I thought nothing of it and went downstairs to the mailroom to check my box. I was delighted to find a sizable tax refund from the IRS. Sweet, my husband will be happy, I thought. Life was good. Students were preparing to leave. Summer was on the way and I had a fat check in my hand.
I walked down a corridor and saw a curious sight. Instead of the usual teenage bantering, I saw worried students clustered tightly in a narrow aisle between lockers. The dean of students stood in the middle of the group, ordering everyone to stay together on the basement level. “Should I bring my students back from the student home?” I asked. “There is not time,” she replied grimly.
In the next few minutes, some people would say I acted bravely. Others would say I acted foolishly. All I knew was that I had to protect those young men still in the student home. I went upstairs, out the front door, and outside just as the tornado slammed into our campus. Meteorologists observed radar characteristics akin to an historic supercell that had devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama a month earlier. The Springfield tornado was rated high-end EF-3 (severe) — on the cusp of EF-4 (violent), packing 160-mile-per-hour winds. Three people died in this cyclone; hundreds were left injured and homeless. Every building in the small town of Monson was destroyed. Nearby Cathedral High School sustained heavy damage and ultimately had to be torn down. Pieces of the school were thrown 43 miles away.
Look now at me: a bespectacled grandmother running into the heart of a killer tornado. One woman saw me disappear behind a building and knew for sure that I was dead, flung somewhere above the treetops of Springfield, like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Yes, I was about to die and I knew it. I sensed extreme danger. I felt hot, swirling winds sucking up dirt and hurling debris at me. Objects hurtled through the air — Frisbees, sticks, rocks — each with the potential to cause serious injury. There was no turning back; I could only keep running. As the cyclone roared through campus, I was swept off my feet, carried away and out of control. Ahead was a brick wall. Ahead was the end of my life.
Now, I know that you are waiting for a different end to this story. After all, I did not die because I am telling you this scary story. How did I survive? As I flew off my feet, some mysterious force pulled me down to the ground. That just does not happen in a tornado. Objects — like the MacDuffie gazebo — are thrown up into the air. It felt like I had been lassoed around the ankles, cowboy-style. I crashed into a lamp post in front of the student home, rolled on my belly, and crawled to safety under bushes. I covered my head as flying debris continued to smack me. Seconds later, all was quiet; danger had passed.
I went into the house, covered in dirt with my eyeglasses askew, and checked on the students. They were all safe and stared at this wild lady who rode a tornado like Pecos Bill. One student looked me over and asked for the Chinese food. I ignored that question, as you can well imagine. However, I did have something in my hand: the fat check. After all, how could I explain to the federal government that I lost my refund check in a tornado? IRS workers would have been put on hold for weeks. It took many months to heal from this experience. My leg was black from bashing into the lamp post. I had nightmares, depression, and nervousness on windy days. I thought hard about that moment when I felt pulled down by invisible hands. Over the years, I have heard stories about guardian angels intervening in dangerous situations. As a child, Mother Angelica also felt invisible hands lift her out of the way of a speeding car. I believe that my guardian angel saved me from certain death.