Sunday, April 11, 1999

Hoosiers pitch in to help neighbors

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From town to town Saturday, in the tornado's path across southeastern Indiana, the scene played out over and over again:

        “I don't know how to thank you. There's just no way I could have done it myself,” a grateful and weary homeowner said to an exhausted but satisfied volunteer.

        “If you ever need any help with anything at all, you just let me know,” he went on.

        With a quiet smile and a firm handshake, the volunteer said, “I know if we had that kind of trouble, you'd come up and help with it.”

        “We sure would,” the homeowner said.

        The exchange between 51- year-old Leigh Steele, whose garage was destroyed and home damaged, and neighbor Robert Vestal took place late in the afternoon in the small Ripley County community of Benham.

        Mr. Vestal and a group of volunteers from Batesville Church of Christ, about a 45-minute drive away, appeared early in the morning to pull twisted metal and splintered wood from Mr. Steele's lawn and a stand of trees. They burned what they could and piled the rest. And they did the same for Shirley and Sherill Borders, who live just across Benham Road.

        Other volunteers in other parts of the county, as well as in Dillsboro just over the Dearborn County line, did the same.

        “Our neighbors were great. They started pouring in at 4 yesterday morning and never stopped,” said Charlotte Vickroy, 69, who lives on a farm just outside Dillsboro in Clay Township, Dearborn County. A cinder-block pump house took the brunt of the tornado, protecting her home. But windows were shattered, grain bins and a 100-year-old barn were lost.

        At Benham United Methodist Church, more than 200 hungry workers and victims gathered for dinner Friday night. Most skipped the free breakfast Saturday, preferring to get straight to work, but 120 stopped in for lunch.

        “Everybody's working hard and trying to get back to where they were,” said church volunteer Mary Sue Thompson. “The second day, you do see reality and have to face it. ... And you see how lucky you were, all the bad things that could have happened, too.”

        Benham residents Chuck Wickstrom and his wife, Barbette, helped make some of the worst moments better for a neighbor who lay bruised and trapped inside her collapsed mobile home Friday morning.

        Checking the area with flashlights before dawn broke, Mr. Wickstrom realized that the mobile home was no longer standing. He crawled inside, oblivious to electric lines and a leaking hot-water tank, and called out until 34-year-old Dawn Fox answered. She grabbed his outstretched hand and he held tight for nearly two hours.

        “I just told her, "I'm here until they get you out.' It was a nightmare,” Mr. Wickstrom said.

        Ms. Fox was hospitalized overnight for observation and released Saturday morning. But she could not return to the scene.

        Friend and landlord Mike Whitaker, 39, and co-worker Bill Mulroy picked through the wreckage of her home Saturday afternoon. They found her car keys and purse, photo albums and knickknacks. Mrs. Wickstrom unearthed a tiny jewelry box containing heirloom wedding rings.

        “There were eggs that weren't broken and stuff right next to them was totally crushed. It was just weird,” Mr. Whitaker said.

        Although emergency shelter was available at the Benham church, everyone found a place to stay with relatives and neighbors. Sandy Becker and C.T. Castner each stopped by Saturday morning to offer their empty homes, rent free, to anyone in need.

        “Everyone has just been so wonderful,” Mr. Steele said. “I thought it was amazing that someone, even a stranger, would come out here and help someone like us, who need so much help.”



Pinpointing the damage in the Tristate
Homeowners sort out emotions, scattered memories
Where to donate, where to get help
Orphaned dog has broken pelvis, heart
Devoted pair died together
'When God calls, we must go'
Sirens not designed to penetrate buildings
Did you hear the sirens?
New home, owners spared
Utility crews, municipal workers out in force
Volunteers offer goods, hands, time
Mother Nature's worst brings out the best in human nature
Church members shed tears, give thanks
- Hoosiers pitch in to help neighbors
Insurance adjusters bring checks, reassuring words
Warren County took blow, too
One year later, Alabama tornado victims still rebuilding
Coping with the storm
Coping with the storm: Returning to your home