Steven Leger shares his testimony after the Kentucky tornado disaster on December 10, 2021.
Saturday morning, the news reached Wings4Humanity (W4H) headquarters: Tornadoes touched down in Kentucky with more than 240 miles of reported damage and countless lives affected. Since 1995, Wings4Humanity has responded to disasters around the world, providing air support, transportation, and medical evacuations.
Sunday morning, Douglas (Doug) Pagliolo and I received the call to respond. Grabbing our go-bags, we met at the Johnston Regional Airport in North Carolina (KJNX), where our humanitarian organization is based. Pulling the Mooney M20C out of our hanger, we did our pre-flight checks and took off. We landed at Nashville International Airport (KBNA) in Tennessee, refueled, and were joined by a crane operator with Gideon Rescue Company (GRC). They provide search and rescue teams, rescue dogs, and equipment for disaster relief.
Douglas, the crane operator, and I took off toward Kentucky. Forty-five minutes into our flight, we came across the tornado’s path. Circling the most devastated areas, we used Google Maps to pin the locations most affected. Landing at Mayfield Graves County Airport (KM25) and seeing the destruction up close filled me with a sense of urgency. As the sun set, we met with the rest of the teams. The thought of someone trapped kept Doug up all night. He wasn’t alone.
Early the next morning we laid out plans. W4H coordinated with GRC’s president, Brock Mayer, and Heritage Academy’s response team on a plan of action. I was placed in charge of a box truck to deliver essential supplies from the distribution centers to the communities in need, while Douglas picked up more rescuers from Nashville, Tennessee, and flew them to Mayfield, Kentucky.
I headed towards the airport where supplies were being stored, and discovered that the fairgrounds and airport, the two major distribution centers for food, water, and other essentials, were full to the brim. Not enough people from the communities were getting to the distribution centers to pick up the supplies they needed. I stopped by the fairgrounds to meet with Brock and the academy students. They were praying with people leaving the fairground, and handing out pamphlets about hope and how to deal with devastating circumstances. Many individuals broke down crying and were so grateful for our prayers and encouragement.
Meanwhile, Doug had landed at the airport with Doane Tarin from Texas. I gave an update on what was happening, and Doug replied, “Well, if the distribution centers aren’t getting enough supplies out, we will do it ourselves!” With that, we went to the supply hanger; loaded our box truck with food, clothes, and other essential supplies; and drove towards a community we had identified. We had no idea if we would find a place to drop our supplies, but with a little faith and a lot of determination we set off. It was getting dark and our hopes of finding a community in need of our supplies was setting with the sun. Finally, we arrived somewhere called the Moors in Kentucky.
There we found a resort and restaurant that was feeding all the community members for free; anyone who needed a hot cooked meal could come and eat. We connected with some of the resort staff and, seeing our box truck full of supplies, they were elated!
We unloaded winter clothes, food, blankets, baby food, diapers, etc. They were so happy to see us. The communities in the area were coming here to eat, and now they could also come to have much needed supplies. We had found a community in need, and we would be back to continue serving them.
The next day, Doug and I, along with Brock and a few other teammates, headed to Gilbertsville, Kentucky. When we got to the peninsula along the lake, the destruction was everywhere. As far as the eye could see, the tornado had ripped apart everything. A sea of boards, nails, broken furniture, kids’ toys, and houses was laid to waste. The rescue dogs searched the debris for signs of survivors. Signs commemorating the lives that the tornado had taken were placed where the houses once stood. Names and “Rest In Peace” were spray painted on plywood.
Doug, a former Marine who deployed overseas on different occasions, told me this damage and destruction was worse than any war zone he had ever witnessed. As we pulled up to where our team was working, I heard cries of excitement as a small red camera was found. Pictures and videos of the last precious moments of a family member who had passed away from the tornado were on the camera. The lady gripped the device tightly to her chest, crying in disbelief that a group like us would take the time to search through the rubble, on a seemingly impossible task of finding a small red camera in an ocean of debris.
I found picture albums, a torn Bible, toys, and memorabilia scattered across hundreds of feet. Doug found a box of toys and some Christmas presents still intact. He was able to connect with the owner of these presents and send them to the resort with the name of the two girls it belonged too. They got to have their Christmas. These two girls hid in a bathtub along with their dad when the tornado came and ripped them from their home and threw them across the street. One suffered a collapsed lung, the other lost a few fingers.
As I stood watching the chaos around me, an older couple stopped besides us in their car, and asked if the supplies in the box truck were for the community? We immediately started giving them whatever they needed. The gentleman broke down crying, and then his wife. Doug and I hugged them, praying with them.
We followed a woman from the community, Melanie, up to a little community club house where we could unload the rest of the supplied. All the windows had been blown out; leaves and glass littered the floor. We swept the building and moved all the supplies inside. Brock showed up, started talking to Melanie, and asked her if she would like a shower. She began to weep. So much was happening, and she hadn’t even realized that all she wanted was to take a shower. Brock coordinated an RV to come up, and she was able to shower.
Everywhere we went, we prayed and sometimes even sang songs in a group. I remember finding an American flag on the ground and running to lift it up, but I was beaten to it by two young girls from Heritage Academy, I watched as they struggled to fold it, determined to get it right, and Doug taught them how. I took the flag to the owner of the house, and he took it with tears in his eyes.
When we had reached the end of the road, there was a house with smoke coming from the chimney. Some of the group had gone to see if everyone inside was alright. They found an army veteran, Reid, who was drinking and wanting to take his life. He was devastated by all he had lost and the destruction around him. As a team we cleared his driveway so he could get to his truck. Doug sat and talked with him for a long while as we worked. Eventually, he was talked him down from his suicidal thoughts. We all gathered around him, W4H, GRC, and Heritage, singing songs and praying with him. Encouraging him, we thanked him for his service. The next day he messaged Doug, saying, “Thank you all for saving my life.”
On our flight home, Doug and I meditated on the experience, exhausted from work but proud of the good we had done. The need is still not filled, though. We intend to return soon to follow up and help those we reached out to.
This is a small part of what we did, and words cannot describe what we witnessed, but I know that I’ll never forget it. I once heard that we are not defined by what we say, but by what we do. Our actions speak louder than words. As I look at the faces of the people we helped, their faces etched in my mind forever, I am filled with a longing to do more. Every disaster, every car stuck on the side of the road, the person at the grocery store who can’t pay for their food, the souls who cry out from the dark pits of depression and PTSD: We are here for you.
Carolina | May 2022