He doesn’t think about what he could have done differently. He doesn’t dwell on the fact that there might have been just a few minutes between the time 13-year-old Angel Stillwell died and the time her body was freed from the rubble.
You have to put that stuff behind you, he said.
But he does often think about the things Angel missed. The prom. The excitement of getting a driver’s license. Perhaps, a first kiss.
“It bothers me that this family will never get to hold their child again,” he said. “If you have children of your own, that’s something that’s hard to imagine.”
The youngest victim
Calhoun County lost nine people in the tornadoes of April 27, 2011. Of all the victims, Angel Stillwell is the hardest for family members and local officials to talk about.
She was the only child among the nine. The other storm victims left behind grown children, a spouse, a fiancée, each with a lifetime of stories to share.
Angel’s story was just beginning.
Teresa Johnson, principal of Pleasant Valley Elementary School, described her as a quiet, gentle girl who preferred to spend her recess in the classroom, helping the teacher, rather than enduring the rough-and-tumble of the playground.
But no one pretends to know the person she could have become had she lived to adulthood. And no one wants to dwell too long on the fact that she died, or the way it happened.
Everything at once
Like everyone who saw it, Haney describes the storm’s wake as a “war zone.” But it’s hard to convey the full meaning of that metaphor to someone who wasn’t there.
Haney remembers chaos. It was dark, and rain was still pouring. Roads were blocked with downed trees, signs were gone, and cell phones didn’t work. Downed power lines lurked in the debris.
“It’s like a scene out of a war movie,” he said. “You’re jumping over branches, dodging power lines. Everything’s happening at once.”
This wasn’t a part of Haney’s normal beat as a sheriff’s deputy. He’s the sergeant of operations for the drug task force in Etowah County, Calhoun County’s neighbor to the north, and spends most of his time hunting down meth labs. But when an EF-4 tornado passed just south of Gadsden, Etowah County’s first responders waded in to help where they could.
They were making it up as they went along. One of the first deputies in the storm zone was passed on the road by a speeding driver, Haney said. That driver, once pulled over, told deputies his father was trapped in a trailer. When deputies, including Haney, arrived at the trailer, another person showed up, shouting for help.
“Somebody comes up and says, there’s somebody trapped under a house,” Haney said.
Deputies fought their way through the debris to a house that had shifted off its foundation. A truck was in the yard, with a tree crashed across it. A man was in the cab of the truck, bloodied by the impact.
In a crawl-way under the house, deputies found a woman, Rita Gammon, and her daughter, Angel Stillwell. There was no time to ask how they got there. Angel, Haney said, was pinned under a support beam for the house.
Haney was among a second group of deputies who arrived shortly after the Stillwells were discovered.
“We knew we were working against the clock,” he said. “People were arriving with saws, screaming. It was chaos.”
Some deputies and other first responders crawled under the house to work. They decided to use jacks – the same kind you find in your car – to lift the house off the mother and daughter. Someone brought a sledgehammer, to break away parts of the house frame.
It was a feeble solution, but Haney said it was all they had.
And it worked. The rescuers got Gammon out, severely injured but still alive.
That left Angel.
“We were holding her hand, saying hang in there, hang in there,” he said.
But by the time they’d lifted the beam off her, Angel wasn’t breathing.
Angel Stillwell’s parents don’t live here anymore. At some point after Rita Gammon’s recovery, she and husband, Daniel Stillwell, moved to Gainesboro, Tenn., 200 miles from the storm zone.
In a telephone interview, Daniel said the family didn’t want to talk to reporters.
“We’re trying to put all this behind us,” he said. He was the bloodied man in the cab of the truck on April 27, according to Haney.
Haney sympathizes with Stillwell’s unwillingness to talk. A 20-year veteran of the police force, Haney said he couldn’t do his job if his mind lingered too long on that scene under the house.
It’s a learned skill. Before he was on the drug task force, Haney spent years investigating child abuse allegations. He broke down once on the witness stand, testifying about a murdered infant. But most of the time, he’s able to let it all go.
“You’ve got to have a good family,” Haney said of his coping skills. “And you’ve got to have faith. You’ve got to believe that God has a plan, even if we don’t understand it.”
Haney said police believe the Stillwells prepared to leave the house as the storm approached, then changed their mind and headed for the crawlspace when it became clear the twister was on top of them.
Haney isn’t second-guessing anyone’s decisions on that night, including his own. You do your best, he said, and leave the rest to God. And you can’t spend time wondering why one person makes it and another one doesn’t, he said.
“It’s not my job to make sense of it,” he said.
Storms come and go
On Friday, principal Teresa Johnson said, Pleasant Valley Elementary will have an assembly to commemorate the storm. There will be music, and a big banner that reads “Storms come and go, but we all need each other.”
There will be a slide show. Pictures of people helping each other after the storm.
“We didn’t want it to be mournful,” she said. “There’s another side to the storm, and that’s the beautiful response that came from this community.”
Johnson said that’s the lesson she wants kids to take away from the past year – the lesson of people helping their neighbors build their houses, when their own houses were damaged or destroyed.
It’s a stark contrast to the mood in early May 2011. In the days after the storm, Pleasant Valley students spent most of their school time working on their grief. Angel’s family held no public funeral, Johnson said. But at the school, kids made posters, painted pictures and wrote stories to express their grief. A memorial to Angel’s memory – a stone of the sort you find at the head of a grave – stands near the playground. The kids planted a dogwood tree nearby in a memorial service.
Johnson said she’s still heartbroken about Angel. But the kids are young. They have to move forward.
“They don’t talk a lot about the storms,” she said. “Kids are resilient. When they’re dealing with things like divorce or death, they just adapt and go on.
“They’re just kids being kids.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @Tlockette_star.