published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Pair lift gun safe to rescue neighbors

In the pitch-black darkness, after the storm had left McGhee Road in Apison, there was little hope for those trapped and screaming under the wreckage.

Winds fast and strong enough to snap thick steel utility poles took out cellphone towers, phone lines and power. But at Mark Kapperman’s home, a telephone rang.

“Mark, how are you?” a neighbor’s shaky voice asked.

“I’m fine,” Kapperman said. Downed trees littered his property, but their home was still standing.

“Well, we’re not,” the neighbor said. “We need help.”

The neighbors, all four members of the Colby family, were piled onto one another, lying trapped under a 1,200-pound gun safe. They had hidden in their closet to survive the tornado, and the safe had fallen on them as their house was completely shredded.

Kapperman told his son, 16-year-old Conner, to come with him for the rescue.

Together, with a single flashlight, they climbed over and under dozens of trees to make it a quarter-mile to the neighbors’ house. They screamed the Colbys’ names until they found the patch of rubble where the safe was crushing the family.

Neither was strong enough to move the safe under normal conditions. In fact, the next day when they came back to the house they couldn’t budge it. But that night they pulled it off their neighbors without effort, they said.

Afterward, the father and son ran from house to house on the road. They found people with broken ribs, broken hips and back injuries. Conner stayed with one family to care for their dog, while his father went to get a chain saw to cut people out.

It was 30 minutes before they saw a policeman and some firefighters walking over the ridge toward them. Cars couldn’t get into the area, so the Kappermans helped construct a makeshift stretcher for the people saved — a mattress tied to the end of a sport utility vehicle.

Kapperman, an optometrist in East Brainerd, is back to work, and Conner is back to school at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

Neither considers himself heroic. It felt instinctual to search for their neighbors and protect them. And they’ll never know if moving the safe that night was a God-granted miracle or the science of adrenaline.

“It’s something I never want to do again,” Conner said. “That night was hard to sleep. You felt kind of guilty because your house is still standing.”

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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