HENRYVILLE, Ind. -- The piercing sound of sirens rang through the halls of Henryville Junior-Senior High School, as hauntingly dark clouds began to swirl outside of Perry Hunter's classroom window.
Hunter had lived through so many severe weather warnings unaffected. It was part of the deal, living and working in southern Indiana. And even on this day, as rumors spread of meteorologists lining the outskirts of Henryville, prepared to gawk at the fury of Mother Nature, Hunter remained calm.
But Hunter's eyes couldn't help but drift to the scene outside his window. Things were getting worse. It had been a beautiful day just a few hours ago, but now, well, he couldn't remember the town ever being this dark before in the middle of the afternoon. The darkness made him uneasy.
A missed text message caught his attention. It was from the girls' basketball coach Josh Conrad. He and the J.V. coach were in his office, just outside the gym. If something were to happen, they could all be safe there, the message read.
It's a part of the school in which Hunter was especially comfortable, near the gym that had become his sanctuary as boys' basketball coach for the last seven years. But nothing about that moment was comfortable. He left his classroom behind and headed toward the gym office -- a place he had officially detached himself from just three days ago.
He strode quickly through empty halls — halls that would have been lined with panicking students, just textbooks covering their necks from harm, had the administration not let them out 15 minutes early on that Friday. But now, it was just him and a custodian he had met on the way that came through the door of Conrad's office, not 50 feet from the gym. Louder and louder, the wind began to roar angrily outside.
Whatever was happening outside those walls, it was coming straight for them. Hunter closed the door behind him as they reached the office. His ears popped. And for the first time, Hunter was scared of what might lie ahead, of what decisions he might have made, of what he might leave behind. He surveyed the three other concerned faces around the room, all thinking the same thing.
His ears popped again. Suddenly, an explosion burst through the walls of the gym like a freight train, not far from the office. The tornado had made contact. Hunter and the other three in the office dropped to the floor.
In just an instant, everything had changed.
Hunter had always envisioned himself as a basketball coach. It was the game he had loved ever since playing on Henryville's team as a teenager in the small 4,000-person Indiana town.
Almost a decade ago, Hunter (pictured at left with his kids and Hoosiers coach Tom Crean) had been at an open gym in Henryville, the gym in which he had fallen for the sport, when he was asked to coach the town's freshman team. Everything had fallen into place, and soon after coming back to his hometown, Hunter became the Hornets' head coach -- a job that holds an air of prestige incomprehensible to those disconnected from small town life in Indiana.
But it mattered.
For Henryville -- a town without so much as a stoplight -- the gym is a basis of pride and unity. Thousands of people crowd inside the gym on any given night for a game. It is, by all accounts, the center of town.
That mutual and undying love of basketball has complicated Hunter's life on more than a few occasions. As years passed and the Hornets experienced ups and downs inherent to a high school basketball team, Hunter found himself fighting what he described as "unnecessary battles," day in and day out.
Angry parents furiously typing away on message boards. Passive aggression through social media. Hunter tried his best to avoid it, but Henryville was too small, and he was too curious.
His honesty is the first thing you notice about Hunter. He is unabashedly truthful, a quality that gives him a warm demeanor and also leaves him especially vulnerable to the emotional tumult of coaching. He gives a sense of this honesty in a public blog he's kept since May of 2009, entitled Life as a Basketball Coach in Indiana, never shying away from describing the struggles and pressure of coaching.
"I often wonder what it would be like if every single person was evaluated by the community once a week on their job either in the classroom, factory, or office," he wrote on his blog in February 2012. "Those moments when other people have the same helpless feeling, but no one notices except for a few co-workers and then you can go home and forget about it or pretend it didn't happen. With basketball coaches, we can't do that. All you have to do is get on the Internet (which I do much, much less now) and read anonymous message boards, or worse, Facebook."
This season had been especially tough on him, dealing with public criticism and difficult townspeople on a frequent basis. His players took notice. They saw that something had changed in him.
"It caused problems within the team," he said. "I think, this year, it really hurt our team."
Hunter questioned whether it was worth it anymore. He had started coaching at different clinics and grown in his faith, becoming Henryille's sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- maybe he was better suited for something else. He knew one thing for sure -- he no longer felt the same calling that had drawn him, day after day, to that gym.
It was the Friday after Christmas break when he rounded up his team and told them that he wasn't coming back as their coach.
Evan Embree, the team's senior point guard, had expected something like this. But as he heard the news aloud, he struggled to wrap his head around it. The man who had become his role model and passed on his love of basketball to them, stood in front of them now, claiming it was no longer his passion.
"It didn't really seem real at first," Embree said. "He loves Henryville, he loves basketball. He puts so much time into that gym, so to hear him say he was resigning, it was hard to swallow. You just never thought it would really happen."
The Hornets lost their last five games and were ousted from the state playoffs in the first round, finishing the season 9-12. But even as he left the team, there remained some longing in Hunter. He kept a key to the gym to know he could go back at any time. He mentioned the possibility of being an assistant in the future.
But he remained steadfast in his decision. He focused all of his energy on the future, on traveling to help spread his faith and his love of basketball. In one conversation they had, his wife wondered what it would take for him to reconsider and continue his duties as Henryville's basketball coach.
"The only way I would coach next year is if something drastic happened," he said.
It was 2:15 on Friday -- 15 minutes earlier than Evan Embree expected to get out of school. Students had been released early from Henryville because of possible severe weather, but he didn't take the warning seriously. Still, he had decided it would be safer if he and his girlfriend rode together to his house.
They turned on the radio and were greeted by a stern voice.
"A tornado has been spotted in west Clark County," it declared. They noticed students and teachers running anxiously back into the elementary school. Embree grew uneasy.
As the car pulled up to his house, Embree's parents had already been prepared. Their home had no basement, and thus, no way to keep fully safe if a tornado were to strike. So the plan was to go to Embree's aunt and uncle's, where the house remained empty as they visited their daughter at college. They knew the garage code and would be safer in their basement, they reasoned.
But the wind continued to blow furiously around them: they were running out of time to make a move.
Embree's father jumped into the driver's seat, as Embree, his girlfriend, his mother, his sister, Allison, and his sister's boyfriend Ryan Boger -- a former player on one of Hunter's first basketball teams -- piled into the family's SUV.
It wasn't long, driving through their town now unnaturally entrenched in darkness, before they noticed the first tornado. It had been heading straight for the school, straight for the gym where Embree and Boger had spent so much of their time. But as they drew closer to their destination, Embree was no longer worried about the first tornado.
While the others in the van looked forward as they flew down rural roads pushing 90 mph, Embree couldn't help but look back. He had seen a second tornado. And it was heading straight for them.
He begged everyone in the car not to look back, not to see what he had seen and realize what was happening: the tornado was chasing them and destroying Henryville in its path.
"We knew once we got there that we weren't going to have much time," Boger said.
Finally, they arrived, parking the car along the beginnings of a concrete embankment leading to Embree's aunt and uncle's garage. Boger opened the trunk, while Allison quickly jumped out of the car to try the garage code. Furiously, she punched in the numbers, hoping that in a few moments her and her family would find safety below ground.
But the code wouldn't work. Others tried the numbers, punching them in desperately, but an electrical outage had deemed their efforts useless. Boger looked up at the tornado, gaining on them. It was only a few hundred yards away now.
"This can't be happening," Embree thought to himself. The tornado was close enough now that there would be no time to travel anywhere else. No time to break into the house. No time to find shelter. They would have to ride out the storm here -- uncovered and vulnerable.
The group huddled alongside the concrete embankment, pinned up between the wall and the garage. Boger sent up his last prayers. He tried to be strong for his girlfriend, who was sobbing in his arms, and for the rest of the group. But this was probably the end, he thought to himself. He looked up at the tornado, almost fully descended upon them. It was a scene unlike any he had ever experienced.
"It was the only time I truly have ever thought I was going to die," Boger said.
He closed his eyes tight, as the tornado, in its full fury, roared over them. For a brief moment, he felt his body being pulled toward the sky. Thirty seconds later, it was over. They had survived, and Boger stood up to survey the scene.
A house across the street had been completely leveled. But the tornado had just barely clipped the six survivors, none of them even sustaining so much as a bump or a bruise. It was a miracle in the midst of disaster.
Hunter opened his eyes, unable to process what had just happened. The tornado's arrival had lasted no more than 30 seconds. But he had survived -- his heart still beat in his chest, faster than usual -- and so had the other three in the office. But what had happened outside of these four walls?
It all seemed like a terrible nightmare, and as he rose to his feet, unable to comprehend what had happened, his thoughts soon turned to his wife, Kristi. She taught second grade at Henryville Elementary, not far from where he was right now.
The thought of her fate briefly overcame him. Had she survived? Was she trapped? He had so many questions, but he wouldn't allow himself to wonder. Wondering would tear him apart.
So he left the office, leaving his old life and angst behind with it. The far wall of the gym had imploded and the ceiling had been badly damaged. He surveyed the scene in a state of shock. The town's beloved gym, where he had worked for so long, had been destroyed.
The school itself had been badly damaged -- plaster and broken glass littering every corner. He walked through hallways that used to be lined with lockers, only to find them strewn across the ground. If students had been in these halls, like the school's tornado drills had called for, many of them wouldn't have survived.
He walked outside in a near-post-apocalyptic haze, as the reality of the situation had yet to truly hit him. As baseball-sized hail rained down on the wreckage, he questioned all the decisions he had made that day. He knew his children were safe at school several miles from here, but he had left that morning, upset with them. What if that was the last memory they had of their father?
Eventually, he was led by police to a small, yellow Community Center building close to the school, where many of the displaced were gathering. He could barely see out of his glasses, with dust and rain obscuring his view, as the sound of children crying surrounded him. But suddenly, he had heard her voice.
His wife. He frantically searched for her, until her gaze met his. They ran to each other and embraced, holding each other close, both of them sobbing at how close they had come to being torn apart.
She had been taking phone calls at the elementary school when she watched the hallway shake in front of her and the roof tear away. But like him, she had made it out relatively unscathed.
But what had happened to everyone else? His friends? His students? His players? Would he ever get a chance to teach some of them again? Would they move on from this? Would the town survive?
He looked around at the new, nearly unrecognizable scene his hometown had become. A distant tree line had been erased from the horizon. One of the school buses had been thrown through the front window of a nearby restaurant. And the gym -- the center of town -- stood in complete and utter ruin.
Just a few days ago, the biggest story in town had been his resignation. Now, with the survival of the town in question, that seemed so far away.
Weeks had passed as Hunter abruptly awoke from a nightmare, his first since the tornado had hit. His heart pounded violently in his chest, and soon the pain became overwhelming. He thought he felt the bed shaking below him.
He had had a panic attack one time before, at school last May when he went to the emergency room, worried he was having a heart attack. But this was the first since then, as he lay in bed, his wife trying to calm him down.
He had yet to confront head-on what had happened that Friday when everything had changed. His uncle, Wayne, had been the only casualty throughout all of Henryville, and aside from serious damage and injuries, the town had survived. But he had tried so hard to remain strong in that time since then, for his wife, his students, his players, everyone who needed him. But the burden began to overwhelm him as his heart continued to pound.
"The feelings you have when this goes on are overwhelming," he wrote in his blog. "But I guess my mind and body told me it was time to come face to face with what I went through."
As a coach, it had always been his responsibility to remain strong for all those that had counted on him. Officially, he was no longer a coach. But he had carried the entire town's expectations on his shoulders for seven long years. It would never matter that he was no longer the town's head basketball coach. His instinct to protect those around him had remained in the days following the tornadoes. It would always remain.
Today, he can't help but feel guilty that people have heard his story when so many other tales of heroism had taken place throughout Henryville. He cites Embree and Boger's story as a true tale of survival. Or Stephanie Decker, who lived in the house that was leveled down the street from Embree and Bogers. She had saved both of her children by covering them up during the tornado, and lost her legs in the process. He refuses to refer to himself as a victim.
But he will still refer to himself as a coach -- on his blog at least. Because as coach, with those instincts still intact, he can better help Henryville move on. He can help it heal. He can continue to write in his blog and help others feel like they're not alone.
Hunter was asked soon after the tornado if he could remain as coach and give the athletics program a better chance at achieving some semblance of continuity. But he knew it wasn't in his heart anymore to continue. He gave his recommendation for the school's J.V. coach to get the job -- a job that now has a damaged gym and a rebuilding town on its hands. The gym will hopefully be ready by next season.
Until then, Henryville will do its best to move on.
"It is a cruel reality in death and tragedy that the rest of the world goes on," he wrote on March 19, 17 days after the tornado. "While you mourn, others go about their lives as if nothing is any different (and it usually isn't for them)."
Hunter will remain a teacher at the school as it continues to rebuild, a job he believes he can affect more students' lives in anyway.
And he'll always have that key to the gym that had collapsed around him at the hands of a deadly tornado. A subtle reminder of his old life. A reminder of the life he was spared. And a reminder of the fact that he will always, in some capacity, remain a coach.
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