Jeff Wilhelm hopped into his truck so soon after the tornado passed his house, the Ford dodged flying debris as it raced toward Briarwood Elementary.
Wilhelm even floored the F-150 so he could drive right through a wayward metal building blocking Vicki Drive.
But when Wilhelm reached the intersection at SW 149, time stopped. It was the day the Earth stood still.
He saw no school and he saw no one.
“I just yelled, ‘Oh my God!'” Wilhelm said. And horror swept his spirit as he wondered how anyone could walk out of the Briarwood rubble alive.
Four days later, Jeff Wilhelm again approached SW 149 from Vicki Drive, but this time at a much more leisurely pace. He and his family walked the six blocks from their house, which was not terribly damaged in the tornado.
Wilhelm strolled slowly, one arm in a compression sleeve, the other in a sling. Radial fractures in both elbows.
Wilhelm doesn't know how the arms were broken. He just knows when the adrenaline stopped, when the last Briarwood kid crawled out safely, divinely and miraculously, Wilhelm couldn't move his arms.
But a few days of his wife having to feed him and brush his teeth were a worthy trade-off.
Wilhelm, an IT specialist at Seagate Technology, looks down at 9-year-old Lauryn and kisses her forehead. His son, Trent, 14, stands alongside.
“I can't imagine a world without either one of them,” Wilhelm said.
Oh yes, he could. Four days earlier, at that very intersection on the edge of despair, Wilhelm imagined exactly that.
Said Wilhelm, “I expected to see kids crushed in that rubble.”
Wilhelm sped the truck to the school, got out and ran toward the rubble. The tornado's roar had moved on to terrorize other parts of town, and the sounds left behind remain in Wilhelm's head.
Wood scraping. Natural gas spewing. The sounds not only of devastation, but desolation. Wilhelm called it the loneliest feeling he's ever had.
He started yelling for Lauryn.
As soon as Wilhelm went past the playground and rounded the cafeteria area, he saw a boy emerge from the mess. Then another two or three.
They were trapped not in the rubble, but atop it. So Wilhelm helped clear a small path for the kids to descend. As many as 15 or 20 escaped, along with four teachers.
The Earth had started moving again.
“I looked each one in the eye, let 'em know it was going to be OK,” Wilhelm said.
Then Wilhelm noticed Kevin Hixson, Briarwood's gym teacher, working to remove rubble. Directly under Hixson's head, Wilhelm saw a teacher's head.
“Help me,” she said. “I've got kids underneath me.”
Wilhelm and Hixson struggled to move a big metal door frame. When they finally got it shifted, a kid popped right up, not a scratch on him, and ran out. They moved some cinder blocks, and a few more kids scrambled to safety.
Wilhelm and Hixson reached another teacher, who had her arms spread. Under each arm were three more kids. Just a little more debris removed, and all six kids, scratched up a little, walked away.
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