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Storm survivor hopes to share her story in OK

Tory Merritt knows exactly how a tornado can tear a home and a family apart. When a tornado struck Pike County in February 1993, it ripped her home to pieces, killed her mother and paralyzed her from the waist down – just days before she turned 17 years old. The family took shelter in the hallway, but they were thrown from the mobile home and debris from the building landed on top of them. She hopes to be able to share her story of rebuilding after the tragedy with survivors of the recent devastating Oklahoma tornado. ’I remember mama yelling for me to get into the hallway and I remember pictures from the walls falling down and every time there was a pop of lighting, we could see clothes flying in the air and then the back door flew off,’ Tory said. ‘We put our hands over our heads and I heard my mom’s last words. She said, ‘˜Oh God, it’s all over.’ I was in and out of consciousness after that. There was no way for me to stand up and push everything off of me. So I started tapping and singing Amazing Grace. Finally I remember hearing people talking and yelling.’ Twenty years after that tragic tornado, Tory wants to help the victims of the EF-5 tornado that hit Oklahoma in the only way she knows how. She is a single mother who works full time. Her two daughters are Baylynn Merritt, 16, and Jerilynn Gradic, 11, and they attend Pike County schools. Both of her daughters named after her mother, the late Donna Lynn Sutton. ’I want to help as much as I can. Financially I can’t do anything, but I can support people emotionally who’ve gone through the same thing as me,’ she said. ‘I can’t pull myself away from the news footage. I feel like I need to know more about these families and know that they are alright. I would do anything to be able to go to the benefit concert just to meet with these families. I have been where those families are. I have been where those kids were at, under that school – buried under debris. I wish there was some way I could go out and talk to those families and those kids and their parents and let them know that it’s going to be okay.’ Tory’s spine was broken in two pieces – either by the impact or being removed from under the debris with the jaws of life. Emergency workers searched for her for four hours before they found her. She was transported to Upson Regional Medical Hospital, then to a hospital in Columbus and finally to an Atlanta hospital. ’They lifted the house off me and I remember seeing through the pops of lightning the relief on their faces,’ she said. ‘I lived in the hospital for three months. After that, I moved in with my sister Whitney Childs in Molena so I could finish high school. While I was in the hospital, my friends from high school and my family came to visit and sent cards and letters. Without the support of the community and Pike County, there was no way I would have made it. Pike County pulls together when needed. That’s why I’m still here. It’s home.’ Tory says even for families who have lost everything in the storm’s 17-mile-long path of devastation, having each other is what is most important.’ ’It would be nice to have photos of myself when I was younger. I don’t even have my yearbooks from high school to show my girls,’ she said. ‘Everything was completely gone. Even the shirt I was wearing that night had to be cut off me in the ambulance so they could work on me. But when you have your family, you don’t need any of that. As long as they have each other, they can pull through and work through anything else.’ Tory found out in the Columbus hospital that her mother had died. She said time is one of the only things that can help the hundreds of families in Oklahoma who are going through grief from the loss of loved ones in the wake of the tornado’s devastation. ’At first there is nothing anyone is going to be able to say to make their world okay. Because it’s not okay. It hurts. It’s awful. But in time, the heartache will ease,’ she said. ‘Even after 20 years, I still question, ‘˜Why did this happen to me? Why was I the one?’ For a while I resented God and I resented religion but now I am definitely closer to God now than I was before.’ Tory wants to let the families affected in Oklahoma know that getting through each day will be a challenge – but a challenge that gets easier. Although her recovery from the spinal injuries was difficult and learning to live in a wheelchair life changing, she has done more than she ever imagined. She recently went waterskiing, tubing, scuba diving and ziplining at the Shepard Center does Adventure Skills Workshop. The Shepard Center helped train Tory how to dress herself, push her wheelchair, drive a vehicle, take a bath and accomplish other every day skills. ’The day I got out of the hospital, I fell out of my chair and I thought ‘˜what do I do now?’ When you get out of the hospital, reality sets in and that’s when you’re alone and starting thinking, ‘˜Why?’ It’s normal to feel that way but you can do what you set your mind to do,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think I’d ever go water skiing. I didn’t think I’d ever have kids and now I have some amazing girls and a blessed life for sure.’

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