In the ruins of Mayfield, a quest for hope in what is saved | national news


By CLAIRE GALOFARO – National Editor AP

WINGO, Ky. (AP) – She arrived at the shelter sobbing. Her house was gone, along with everything in it. Over the phone, Victoria Byerly-Zuck begged her neighbors to search the wreckage for the one thing she couldn’t bear to lose.

It was a plexiglass box, the size of a medicine cabinet, and inside was all that was left of her baby who died four years ago: her cremated ashes, her photos, the first and only outfit he has ever worn.

The 35-year-old was surrounded in this makeshift shelter by others who lost everything when deadly tornado ripped apart their small town of Mayfield. Their downtown has been demolished. Hundreds of the houses have been reduced to rubble. They lost cars, wallets, clothes, Christmas gifts, all of their priceless furniture, photos and heirlooms.

More than 100 survivors are here at a church in the nearby town of Wingo, 600 residents, which opened within hours of the tornado starting and no one now knows how long it will have to stay open. An 82-year-old widow with no home to go asked volunteers how long she could stay, and they told her for as long as she needed.

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Byerly-Zuck’s 3-year-old son spent a day trying to get into any car that came and went from this shelter.

“He wants to go home,” she said. He is autistic and non-verbal. She doesn’t know how to make him understand that they don’t have any more.

They were alone in their rented home in downtown Mayfield when the storm hit. She stacked pillows in the tub and put them on them. As the windows smashed, she grabbed the essentials for her son: a bag of diapers, wipes, a few extra clothes, a liter of milk. It didn’t occur to him that these hastily picked items would be all they would have left.

She returned to the bathroom and closed the door just as a tree uprooted and fell into the house, a few paces from where they curled up. She climbed onto the edge of the tub, trying to balance her body to protect her son without crushing him under her.

She prayed to God to save him, “Please let us go through this. I don’t know how to care about anything else. Everything else is replaceable, but it is not replaceable.

She had buried a baby before, and all she could think of was that she couldn’t do it again. In 2017, she was pregnant, found out she was carrying a boy, and chose a name. The very next day, his waters broke and the doctors could not save him. He was born prematurely at 22 weeks and his lungs were not developed. He gasped once and died moments later. She lives this moment every day in her head.

“I can’t relive this anymore. I really can not. I just had my only son now, ”she said.

As he lay in the tub as the storm passed, she realized they were trapped. The fallen tree and debris had blocked the bathroom door. Crying and choking, she couldn’t cry out for help. She drilled a hole in the drywall and turned the flashlight on and off to signal someone was inside. The National Guard came to dig them up.

That same morning, she had wrapped her son’s last Christmas present – $ 300 worth of gifts she had bought for him. As they fled from their crumbling house, the only things standing were the bathroom they had been in and another room – all of those presents were under the rubble.

A neighbor called her later that night to tell her the rest of the house had collapsed and she begged them to look for the box with her baby’s ashes.

Now they are surrounded by rows of cots and people who were strangers. They play together on the pool table in the corner the church has made for the now homeless children. There are people here in their 80s and 90s, babies, dogs, including a little one named Jingles.

On Monday afternoon, volunteers rushed to set up more cots because they expected to absorb an additional 40 people from other shelters that popped up in the hours following the storm, never having the ‘intent or equipment for people to stay but not wanting to turn anyone away.

A healthcare company pulled a trailer across the field. They are trying to find an outdoor shower and a laundry truck, as they fear this may be the only long-term solution for many displaced. The volunteers jostle each other. “I have two who need underwear,” one said. “Do we have socks? “

Byerly-Zuck’s son used to have a routine: going to bed at 8 p.m., taking an afternoon nap. But he has trouble sleeping. She can’t get him downstairs for a nap, and she couldn’t get him to sleep on the bed they share until after midnight Sunday. She worries what all this uncertainty is doing to her.

He is close to his grandfather, who is in a Nashville hospital recovering after his house collapsed on top of him. Their neighbor is dead. Other people they know in neighboring apartments are missing.

“I’ll need therapy after this; we’re all going to need therapy, ”she said, as here they exchange stories about the horrors they survived and the people they know who didn’t.

She answers many questions about their future in the same way: “I don’t know. She is desperate and sad – she doesn’t even have a driver’s license anymore – but she tries to pretend that she is not afraid so that her son is not afraid too.

“He’s all I’ve got,” she said. “We have lost everything.

She guesses that they will be spending Christmas at the shelter.

She only thinks of praying.

There was a blessing, she said: Sunday night a neighbor called and said they found the box with her baby’s ashes, intact, among the rubble.

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