Just as it did for so many people in Pekin, March 2, 2012, started out as any other Friday morning. Get ready for work or school, hopefully make it on time. For others, maybe run some errands or get some yard work done on the warm, mild day, especially given that the weather was predicted to get a bit stormy later. Surely everything would be fine. Who hadn’t been through a storm or two before?
By the end of the day, of course, people were coming home from work to find they had no home left to come back to. Students at East Washington Schools had been terrified as they huddled down in the halls as word that one tornado and then another were barreling toward their school. Fortunately, both missed them, something Henryville hadn’t been lucky enough to avoid. Parents who couldn’t get to their children prayed as they never had before that their kids were safe. Some students were picked up by their grateful parents after the storm and some were shuttled to Salem for pick-up well after the sun went down. Daycare workers spent harrowing minutes sheltering their charges with their own bodies as they hid from nature’s fury in the safest part of the house or facility. Families at home huddled in basements and bathrooms, sometimes watching through windows as a neighbor’s home or property were destroyed by a funnel of wind and debris.
Five people — a mother, father and two children — wouldn’t live to see the sunset and another would be taken off life support at Kosair Children's Hospital the following Sunday. Many more were injured, including Will Callahan.
‘We were the only things left’
For Will and, at the time, Donna Kaelin (now Callahan, too), the day started out normally. Around 3 p.m., when the storms hit, Donna said she was getting a jump-start on dinner.
“Will was outside and the TV news came on and said a tornado touched down at Palmyra and it was coming this way and everyone needed to take cover,” she said. “My daughter lived on Daisy Hill and she has four boys and I knew they’d be out in the yard watching the storm because they like to watch the sky. She wouldn’t have heard it was a tornado.”
Donna ran outside to get Will. They needed to get to her daughter’s house to warn them, but also because they had a basement and the couple didn’t.
“He shut everything down that he was doing and I turned the stove off and I left my dogs and everything in the house — I don’t know why I did that — but we took off and went up there,” said Donna. “We got there and sure enough, she and the boys and her mother-in-law were all out in the yard. I jumped out of the truck and said, ‘What are you doing out in this?’ and she said, ‘Well, Mom, we’re watching the storm,’ and I said, ‘It’s not just a storm; it’s a tornado coming!’ She panicked and I told them to get inside, get to their basement and under the table down there.”
Everyone went inside and got downstairs. One by one, they crawled under the heavy work table. When the boys and her daughter were under the table, Donna said she felt Will’s hand on her back and he shoved both Donna and her daughter’s mother-in-law down and got on top of them, wrapping his arms around the both of them.
“No sooner than he’d done that, the tornado hit,” said Donna. “The house just lifted up and went. There was lumber flying through the air, metal and everything. She had a wood stove right beside us by the stairway and I heard this squeaking and I looked up and those three-by-three concrete things that the flue was made out of started weaving back and forth, back and forth and all of a sudden, it came toward us.”
When she opened her eyes, the dust was starting to settle and she could see there was blood running under her.
“I didn’t know if it was her mother-in-law or if it was him,” Donna said. “I said, ‘Who is hurt?’ He said, ‘I think I am. I think my leg is broken.’ I raised up and I didn’t pull his pant leg up, I just told my grandson, my oldest in his early 20s, and I said ‘Let’s get him set up and out of this basement.’ You could hear people talking from the other houses that were around and when they picked him up, his leg was just swinging, limp.”
At first, Donna didn’t realize she had her phone, but when she did, she called for help. Her daughter’s mother-in-law’s foot was injured, but otherwise everyone else was fine.
“My daughter had everything destroyed down there — that stove, washing machines and other stuff,” said Donna. “We were the only things that were left.”
‘It looked like a bomb exploded on that hill’
Sheriff’s Deputy Captain Brent Miller arrived first and knew when he saw Will on the floor of the basement that his injury was very serious.
“It was a nightmare,” he said. “There was no way to get ambulances there and it took forever for EMTs to arrive.”
Donna had put a tourniquet on his leg and Miller said he sent Donna’s grandsons out to get sticks or wood or anything they could find to stabilize Will’s leg in the meantime.
“I kept having to go upstairs to get on my radio to find out when help was coming,” he said. “It was a helpless feeling for a while. I didn’t have the training to help more than I did.”
He said the family’s dog was there and another dog with its owner made its way into the basement and the dogs got into a fight over Will.
“We were trying to stabilize his leg and it just went from bad to worse,” said Miller. “It was like a MASH unit in a warzone. We were just working with what we had.”
Help arrived in the form of Paramedic Toby McIntyre and his partner on a four-wheeler. They had been forced to park the ambulance farther away because of road obstructions and someone drove them to the scene on an ATV.
“It was a mess out there,” said McIntyre. “It looked like a bomb exploded on that hill. We found Will with other first responders and bystanders and we got him secured on a backboard and onto the back of a four-wheeler.”
People walked alongside the four-wheeler to keep the backboard steady as the driver slowly worked his way through a field littered with debris.
“We got him out to the ambulance and started care for him and one of the women with them [Donna's daughter's mother-in-law],” said McIntyre. “We were the only ambulance on Daisy Hill. Communications were down. We went with firefighters and had other people come to us injured. We got them to the triage center at the clinic in Pekin and people were flown out from there.
“I remember it as well as if it were yesterday.”
McIntyre is a full-time EMT with the Columbus hospital and works part-time with the Washington County Ambulance Service. He was on-call that Friday.
“When our supervisor, Tony Floyd, saw the weather coming in, he called all of us in,” he said. “We were meeting at the hospital as our central point and we no more got there when everything hit.”
They were dispatched to the southeast corner of Posey Township, but it was slow going because of the fallen trees and other debris. They were diverted to Daisy Hill, which was also difficult to access.
“There was only one road open to us and only one road out that firefighters had cleared,” said McIntyre. “All the other roads were full of debris. I’ve been a paramedic for 12 years and I’ve been an EMT for 24 years and this was one of the worst natural disasters I’ve worked in my career. We had limited resources and only four ambulances from all of Washington County. Every one but us were sent to Pekin.”
Miller said one of the main things he remembers about Will is his serenity.
“I could see all the way through his leg,” Miller said. “He wasn’t freaking out or anything. I was really surprised … Somebody was looking out for him that day.”
He said once he and the other emergency personnel got Will and his family to the triage location, he moved on to other things and other people who needed help.
“We had houses and buildings to clear,” he said. “It looked like a war zone out there. Everything was torn to pieces.”
‘I’ll be praying the whole time I’m doing this’
Even though they arrived before others, Donna said once Will got to the triage center, he kept insisting others go first.
“It was 8 p.m. by the time he got to a hospital,” said Donna. “My husband kept saying, as they’d bring someone down off the hill and the helicopter came, ‘Well, go ahead and let them go.’ Finally, the EMT said, ‘For God’s sake, they’ve got to get a helicopter here! This man has got to get to the hospital!’ They’d seen his leg. I hadn’t. I didn’t want to see the injury part of it.”
She wasn’t allowed to go with him and, after all the family’s vehicles were destroyed after a tree fell on them, she had no way to get down to the hospital to be with him. A man from the Red Cross was willing to drive her down to the University of Louisville Hospital, where she found the man who would be her husband on a stretcher waiting for her.
The news wasn’t good.
“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘It looks like we’re going to have to amputate his leg,’ and my husband — he never lost consciousness, not one time — and he said, ‘Do you think you could save my leg?’ and the doctor looked at me and he looked at him and said, ‘Well, I’ve never been asked to do that before in a situation where it’s this bad. Is that your wish?’ Will said, ‘Yes, if you don’t mind, I’d like to save it.’ The doctor turned to me and said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll be praying the whole time I’m doing this surgery because this will be a first for me to put his leg back together.’”
They whisked him off to surgery and thus began Donna’s long sojourn in the waiting room.
“He was in there 14 or 15 hours,” she said. “It felt like a lifetime.”
The surgery was a tricky one. Will had almost died of blood loss from the injury — doctors told Donna her using a belt as a tourniquet back in that shed saved his life — and needed nine units of blood during the course of the procedure. Doctors did some transfer work of flesh, blood vessels and ligaments from one leg and inserted them into the injured one, replacing some of the missing bone with a metal rod.
“The doctor said if he could move his toes in 24 to 48 hours, we’ll know it has blood flow and it’s going to work,” said Donna. “Lo and behold, in 24 hours, the doctor came in and said, ‘Mr. Callahan, can you move your toes for me?’ and you would have had to look close to see that toe move, but he moved it and that doctor was elated!”
His medical journey was far from over and it would take an army of doctors and medical professionals to get him back on his feet.
“They were wonderful,” said Donna.
Will spent about three months in the hospital and went back periodically for more surgeries, 10 or 11 in just the weeks following the one that saved his leg and 15 altogether, procedures and check-ups.
“We were going over there all the time, back and forth, back and forth,” said Donna.
He graduated from a bed to a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. He healed and battled infections and healed again, but his medical battles were not over.
‘Mr. Callahan, you have Stage 4 cancer’
The stomach pain began in August 2015.
Donna, now married to Will, took him to the doctor, who did a scan and ran tests to find the cause
“The doctor walked out of there and said, ‘Mr. Callahan, you have Stage 4 cancer,’” said Donna, sitting in one of the recliners in her living room on State Road 335 in Pekin on Feb. 20. “From there is where we are now. It’s been a long journey and a hard one. He’s been so, so good about it. He’s accepted it. I’ve never known anyone to have such a bad disease and knowing it’s so serious and he’s just accepted it and takes it one day at a time. He says as long as he has me, he was OK. He keeps saying, people will come and ask him how he’s doing and he’ll just say, ‘I’m OK; I’m doing great.’ … He says ‘God’s grace is going to get me well. With my wife and God, I’m going to beat this.’
“But he’s not,” she added quietly. “He’s worried about me and what’s going to happen to me. I have two types of cancer — I have melanoma and squamous cell and I’m having an outpatient surgery next week … I’ve missed two appointments for some other spots I’ve found because of my husband, but he comes first.”
There’s cancer in his liver, his bones and Donna said there’s now tumors at the base of his skull that could be affecting his brain as well.
“He gets frustrated because he used to work construction,” she said. “Now, he can’t use his arms. He has to be hand-fed. He’s in the hospital right now with pneumonia … He can’t walk. His body — the cancer has just eaten all the muscles in his body. In the last three months, he’s been in the hospital three times … There’s a mental toll to not being able to do what he wants to do. His mind is clear as a bell.”
Their bond is a tight one, even if it got off to a bit of a rocky start 16 years ago.
“My first husband died of cancer at 58 and I was single for 20 years,” said Donna. “I was perfectly content and here he comes into my life, even when I wasn’t wanting a man in my life.”
The couple met at the American Legion. Donna’s father was a veteran and she was in the auxiliary. Will’s father was a veteran and he was a member as the son of a veteran.
“It was on a Saturday and they used to have euchre tournaments there,” said Donna. “I was playing euchre and I went over to the bar to order a burger between games. He was catty-corner with his friend. They were sitting there, drinking a beer. When I went back to get my food, he spoke up and told the bartender, ‘I’ll pay for that.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know you. You’re not paying for my food.’ That’s just the kind of guy he was and he said, ‘Yes, I am. I’m paying for it,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re not!’ and we had a little dispute there. I had to get back to my table so we could finish the games.
“Somehow or another, he came over to our table and asked, ‘Why didn’t you let me pay for your food?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know you, for one. Why would you want to pay for my food?’ and he just kind of grinned. He went back to sit and talk to his friend and when he saw the games were done, he came up to me and asked, ‘Well, can I buy you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s?’ I pondered over it for a while and decided, why not? We went to McDonald’s and that was the beginning of the story.”
They’ve been together 16 years and married three years in May.
Donna said Will is usually anxious for her to come back to the hospital to see him when she has to leave to take care of things at home, including the couple’s dogs and chickens.
“He loves for me to come down and rub his arms and his legs. He’s almost bald, but he loves when I come and scratch his head. His treatments dry his skin out, so I put lotion on his head and face and arms. I miss him so much,” she said. “This house just feels like I don’t know what. I normally keep it cleaner than what it is, but I just don’t have the heart to do anything.
Knowing someday he won’t be here is something I’ll have to come to terms with eventually.
“He has been through so much.”
Author's Note: I was notified Friday afternoon of Mr. Callahan's passing on Thursday, Feb. 23, just three days after I interviewed Mrs. Callahan. Leader Publishing, and I personally, offer our condolences to the family at this time.