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Helpers look for items to recover among the debris of the modular home of the Matthew family on Dayton Mountain from a spree of tornadoes that hit a 16-state area April 27, 2011. The family rebuilt their home and moved in about a year later.
It's still hard to believe that it happened to us, but when you look at what all happened for us to survive, we lost pretty much everything we owned by an act of God, but it was also an act of God that we're all still here together, and that's really all that matters.

A month from now Hannah Matthew will join the rest of this year's Rhea County High School graduating class as they close one chapter of their life and begin preparing for the future. In the meantime there are still a few memories to be made, and for Hannah those will come on the track, where she anchors every sprint relay and also competes in the 400-meter dash, hoping to return to the state championship meet.

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One of numerous survivors of the tornado outbreak from five years ago, Rhea County senior Hannah Matthew said she's thankful her family came through the horror of the storm stronger.

Regardless of how she closes out her athletic career, however, Hannah and her family are simply grateful that after their nightmare of April 27, 2011, they still have the chance to make new memories together.

Five years ago today, the spree of tornadoes that swept through 16 states claimed 317 lives, including 81 in the Tennessee Valley. Pockets of Chattanooga's tri-state area were battered, including Dayton Mountain, where the Matthew family's home rested and where a 200-mph EF4 tornado tore a swath through Bledsoe and Rhea counties.

"We lost everything," Hannah said, before pausing to correct her thought. "It's still hard to believe that it happened to us, but when you look at what all happened for us to survive, we lost pretty much everything we owned by an act of God, but it was also an act of God that we're all still here together, and that's really all that matters."

Once David Matthew came to and realized where he was, panic began to set in. As heavy rain continued to fall and lightning turned the night sky into a flickering strobe, David picked himself up and surveyed the debris scattered across an open field where less than a minute earlier had sat his family's home.

The tornado had touched down so quickly the family had no time to take cover. Moments before it hit, around 9:30 p.m., the Matthews were going through their nightly routine before getting ready for bed. Now, somewhere among the downed power lines, twisted metal and two-by-fours were his wife Scarlett and three daughters: Hannah (13 years old at the time), Ariel (8) and Alia (6 months).

"It sounded like a jet engine was taking off in our back yard, and I knew it was a tornado coming," David said. "I saw my wife reach down and pick the baby up out of her crib, and I yelled for Hannah and Ariel to run for the bathtub as fast as they could. The wind and the sound of our windows exploding and things outside being blown against the house was all so loud that we had to yell just to communicate.

"I just prayed, 'Lord take care of my family.'"

Tossed and scattered

Before the Matthews could make it from the hallway to the bathroom, the tornado lifted their modular home from its foundation and into the air, tossing the family and furniture across the room, crashing into walls like laundry inside a giant dryer.

The house flew over a 4-foot-tall barbed-wire fence, down a steep hill and into a nearby pasture, nearly 500 feet from where it had stood just a minute before, disintegrating from the impact and the violent winds and scattering the Matthew family like confetti across the field.

And now, in a haze of confusion and fear, David picked himself up and began to scan the muddy field for his family. About 50 feet to his left he saw Scarlett, miraculously still clutching the crying baby in her arms, still praying out loud. To his right he saw Ariel on her hands and knees trying to stand.

There was no sign of Hannah.

Barefoot, David began to rush through the broken glass and boards with nails until he reached Ariel.

"I love you, Daddy," she said crying, as he helped her to her feet and inspected the severe cuts on her head and right arm.

"I told her everything would be OK, but I was really worried because she was bleeding pretty bad and I still didn't know where Hannah was," David remembers. "Then I looked over and a few feet away I could see one leg sticking out from under part of our roof.

"I ran over, but when I got there I knew Hannah was gone. It's your worst nightmare. One of my babies was dead under that roof."

Frantically throwing debris aside until he was able to reach Hannah's leg, David tugged, and to his surprise and relief his daughter responded.

"I got her up and asked why she hadn't tried to get up before I got there, and she said she thought she was having a nightmare and was hoping if she just laid there she would wake up and it would all be over.

"All of us were bloody and looked like we had been beaten with ball bats, and between the storm and all the flying debris, our pajamas had pretty much been ripped off our bodies. But we were still alive and together. I knew I had to get my family to the hospital so we could make sure everybody was OK, but that's when I realized it was going to be nearly impossible to make it."

Treacherous trip

The first obstacle was getting his battered family back up the hill to where their house had stood and where their vehicles were still parked. A jagged cut running along Hannah's right leg looked like she had been attacked by a shark. Ariel had a severe cut across her head, another deep cut on her right arm and a splintered piece of wood lodged in her back and was vomiting blood. Baby Alia had knots on her head, and David and Scarlett had scattered cuts and bruises as well.

After getting everyone safely into his truck, David noticed that the road leading toward town was completely blocked by downed trees and power lines. As he walked to his barn to get a chainsaw David realized there was no way he could clear the massive amouts of trees and debris by himself.

"There was no way we were going to make it in time," David said. "Just to explain how bad the scene was, days after the storm it took more than 50 guys with chainsaws and three 4-wheel-drive trucks working all day to clear the debris off the road.

"I didn't know what to do, so I just prayed for the Lord to help us and give me guidance. I knew I couldn't let my kids die."

Instructing his wife and daughters to hold on tight, David turned his 4-wheel-drive pickup off the gravel driveway and began slowly driving down the mountain through the woods and across farmland, stopping several times to reverse and go around trees, thick brush or farm equipment that had been overturned by the tornado.

What would normally be a 15-minute drive to Rhea Medical Center became an ordeal that took more than an hour. As the truck slowly crept through the woods, Hannah began praying aloud, asking God that if he had to take anyone that night, let it be her and not her sisters.

"She was more worried about her sisters and the rest of her family making it to the hospital," David said. "The storm had gone down the exact route we needed to take to get to the hospital and we were all cut up, wet and shivering from being so cold and in shock. And there was no way of knowing just how bad some of the injuries were to the girls, which made it a lot more scary.

"It was such a relief just to get there and feel like things were going to be OK. The next morning I went out to the parking lot and the truck had four flat tires. One of the tires had more than 20 holes in it from where we had run over stuff in the woods. I don't know how in the world we made it off the mountain like that."

'Amazing' discoveries

When the bandaged and bruised family returned home to survey the damage, they found the baby's crib wrapped around the trunk of a nearby Bradford pear tree and Hannah's mattress stuck in the branches of another tree. The only sign that a house had been where theirs once did was the above-ground swimming pool that had been in the back yard. The plastic pool was still intact, with no punctures or damage, but the water inside had been completely sucked out by the tornado.

There was a small cooler with sodas that had sat at one end of the house and remained untouched by the storm. The family found their Great Dane, Goliath, wandering near where the house had stood. He had been sleeping in a large crate when the storm hit.

"The crate was crushed but he was fine," said Hannah, who needed 48 stitches to close the wound in her leg. "There are all kinds of things like that that when you look back on it are amazing. We couldn't find much of our stuff, but my mom did find her wedding band in the driveway.

"We built a house on the same spot and moved in about a year after the tornado. The new house has a basement, and whenever I'm home and there's a storm or the wind blows hard, sometimes I run to the basement because I still remember flying through the air and landing and having part of the roof fall on top of me and laying there wondering if the rest of my family was OK.

"It was a night none of us will ever forget, but coming through it made us closer as a family, and I think we all appreciate just getting to be together more now."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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