Nightmare. Worst-case scenario. Those are just some of the words people have used to describe the events of March 2, 2012.
On that date ten years ago, communities in southern Indiana were forever transformed after an EF-4 tornado tore through several towns on a Friday afternoon.
The tornado was on the ground for nearly an hour, covering 49 miles across Indiana and Kentucky with maximum winds of 175 mph.
From Fredericksburg to Pekin to Henryville and even into Trimble County, Kentucky, the violent storm ripped up pavement, tossed school buses and destroyed dozens of homes.
Eleven people lost their lives.
Despite the devastation, the events of that day show how communities can rebuild - becoming even stronger than before. We talked to some of the survivors 10 years after the outbreak to see how they remember that day.
Stephanie Decker: From picking up the pieces to finding passion
Stephanie Decker became a household name across Kentuckiana - and the nation - after her house literally fell on top of her. Ten years ago, when the EF-4 tornado that hit southern Indiana was most fierce, she lost portions of both of her legs, sacrificing her own body to protect her two kids.
Decker still remembers that day vividly.
“It's like a movie, it plays out like a movie in my head. I can see it play over on the screen, it doesn't mean I necessarily live that movie, but I can see it and watch it,” Decker said.
Decker didn’t just live through one tornado – she survived two. Shortly after the EF-4 tore through her home, a second one came along on nearly the same path. She said she used her body as a human shield to protect her daughter.
“That’s what broke my ribs,” she said. A piece of debris hit her in the back, puncturing her lung and breaking eight of her ribs. On top of all of that, the golf ball-sized hail left a scar on her head.
Decker shared her incredible story of survival on network news, television shows and with the president of the United States. To this day, she’s never considered herself a victim.
“Nothing but great things have come into our lives,” she said. “We have a home we love, my kids are well adjusted, they’re happy. They’re going on to college and doing all the things they want to do, and that’s what you want for your kids.”
Her family is her passion, along with motivational speaking and the Stephanie Decker Foundation, the nonprofit organization she started to help children get prosthetics.
“The foundation… is probably one of the biggest bonuses,” Decker said. “It gives more to us than we could ever give to it. It just warms our heart to be able to help kids that are missing arms and legs, to be able to play sports, or even sponsor a kid to go to another camp if they want to.”
After 10 years, Stephane said her prosthetics still prove to be a challenge, but surviving that day ultimately gave her family the power to push through any of life's future storms.
“I think what the tornado taught us is the difficult times are always going to be there,” she said. “It’s just how you’re going to handle those difficult times… You can’t sit there and feel sorry for yourself because life goes on - whether you do or not.”
Today, Decker urges everyone to be well-prepared and to have a severe weather safety plan. She calls her basement Fort Knox and says her family is ready for when severe weather strikes again.
Henryville Elementary: Students remember the chaos
Ten years ago, an after-school daycare was seeking shelter in a school office, while a tornado was ripping through its building.
Sam Gilles and Jackson Bagshaw were seven-year-old second graders at Henryville Elementry School when the EF-4 tornado struck their school around 3 p.m.
"It went on for what felt like forever," Bagshaw said as he remembered a moment that only lasted about 30 seconds.
"It's pretty scary to know that happened, and I was 50 feet from it," said Gilles. "It's pretty crazy."
Initially, the daycare took shelter in the bathrooms near the elementary portion of the school.
"It got really loud, and you definitely could hear a bunch of stuff crashing, and it got pitch black, and your ears started popping," said Bagshaw.
Thankfully, teachers decided to move the students to an office in a different part of the building moments before the tornado hit.
"If we even stayed in that bathroom, I can't really say what would have happened," Gilles said.
Gilles and Bagshaw were among the first to see what was left of their school once the storm had passed.
"We walked through the hallway, and it was all just rubble, and there were hanging wires, ceiling tiles, glass, steel, and we walked through the cafeteria, which was basically just ripped apart," said Bagshaw.
It was a parent's worst nightmare. Gilles' mom and dad were 20 minutes away in Jeffersonville, Indiana, with no way to reach their son
"[My dad] got about a mile and a half away from the school, and traffic was so bad he pulled off to the side and got out and just ran the rest of the way just trying to find me," said Gilles.
Less than 10 minutes after the school was hit, the tornado was headed directly towards Isaac Middleton's home. He was a seventh-grader at the time. Middleton said he was taking shelter in his basement with his mom and two friends.
"It's everything they say it sounds like, a train," said Middleton. "And it's incredible to hear your house being split into toothpicks."
Middleton said the first two floors of his tri-level home were destroyed or wiped out completely, with his room lying in the front yard.
"My house, it's gone, we have nothing, we have nowhere to go, we're not sure what we're going to do," Middleton said. "It's just a process that you keep rolling through your mind."
Today, Gilles and Bagshaw are seniors getting ready to graduate and Middleton is a first-time teacher at Henryville High School. While ten years have passed, they're still feeling the effects of that day.
"I still get scared over storms, like really bad ones," said Bagshaw. "I've gotten better about it, it gave me anxiety problems, but I've learned to cope with it."
It only took about five months to restore the schools to get students back in for the next school year. The building has been restored, but the memories remain.
"Sometimes going to the elementary side, just going to drop something off to a teacher, pick up my sister, I'll stop for a second because I'll get a brief little flashback," Gilles said.
49 Miles of Misery: Indiana museum commemorates 10th anniversary
Ten years after the tornado, the Clark County Indiana Museum in Jeffersonville is commemorating the storm, its aftermath and what was learned from it.
"49 Miles of Misery: The 10th Anniversary of the Henryville and Southern Indiana Tornado Outbreak" features photos and mementos from March 2012. It also includes an emphasis on weather safety in the hopes of preventing any more deaths from severe weather.
It honors those who lost their lives or were injured but also recognizes the good that came afterward.
"We also have a lot of things to celebrate about this, the fact that over 12,000 people came here from every state in the union and seven different countries to help southern Indiana," said Kathy Copas, a board member for the Clark County Indiana Museum.
Many of the volunteers who helped with recovery efforts were people who had experienced similar tragedies, like Hurricane Katrina or the tornado in Joplin, Missouri.
Local groups like Metro United Way also lent a hand to their neighbors in need.
"I was glad that I had the skills and the knowledge and the organization of Metro United Way to provide backing and support to all these people," said Mary Sullivan, a former disaster manager with the organization.
The exhibit will be open through the month of March at the Clark County Indiana Museum.