Thunder was drumming in the distance when Reginald Eppes woke up at five in the morning on April 27. He checked the weather forecast on his phone. A cluster of storms was coming, but it sounded like his small town, Coaling, near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, wouldn't be hit too hard. But Eppes, a seasoned firefighter, knew better than to underestimate the power of these huge electrical storms.
"Know where the flashlights are?" he asked his wife, Danielle. By the time he located them, thunder was booming all around them. The instant he switched the flashlight on, the house lights went off. A second later, the kitchen windows blew out.
Eppes and Danielle ran to protect their boys — R.J., eight, James-Peter, six, and Joel, four — still sleeping in their bedroom.
"Get up, get up, R.J.!" Eppes shouted, waving his flashlight. The sleepy boy roused himself and teetered on the edge of the upper bunk of his bed. Eppes held out his arms and called to his son to jump. He was too late.
The roof tore away; the walls of the bedroom dissolved around them. R.J. was sucked up into a roaring swirl of debris.
I've lost him, Eppes thought. In desperation, he threw himself over James-Peter, lying on the lower bunk, to shield him. Glass, wood, and plaster hit them like shrapnel. Eppes heard his wife praying. Then something huge, heavy — he thinks the washing machine — slammed into him. He wound his arms tightly around James-Peter, still grasping the flashlight in one hand.
After an agonizingly long period (Eppes guesses it was anywhere between two and five minutes but says it felt like forever), the wind began to die down. Eppes found himself standing in the ruins of his home. Darkness lay all about him. Then he thought he saw a shape moving over the rubble straight toward him.
It was R.J., guided home by the beam of his father's flashlight.
At the hospital later, R.J. described what had happened to him. "I floated out when the wall started moving. I think I was above the trees. I was scared. My mom and dad were gone. Pieces of glass went across my back, and something hit my neck really hard."
R.J. had been snatched up into the funnel of a fierce tornado that had just as capriciously set him back gently on the ground. Amazingly, R.J. sustained only bumps and gashes. Of all his family, Eppes was hurt most severely. The heavy object that crashed into him as he shielded James-Peter fractured his ribs and deflated his lungs. But he and his family were alive.
Others in the Tuscaloosa area were not so lucky. The F4-force tornado, with winds up to 190 mph, killed 65 people and injured more than 1,000. Reginald and Danielle Eppes are convinced that R.J. survived his ride in the maelstrom only by some miracle. As they build a new house with a storm shelter, they are looking forward to the sweetest Christmas ever. "I really believe," Eppes says, "that God was watching over us."