Moving On

Last year, a tornado decimated a small Colorado town and one unfortunate family. Now the residents of Holly are slowly rebuilding their homes and lives the only way they know how—by looking ahead instead of revisiting the past.

March 2008

Click here for a slideshow with commentary from survivor Gus Puga.

Gus Puga opened his eyes to blackness, the raw scrape of a tree against his skin, and the intense chill of settling turmoil. Suddenly suspended eight feet above the ground, he heard the cries of his three-year-old daughter, Noelia, and reached out to feel his wife, Rosemary, beside him. He could see nothing, but he remembered, seconds earlier, the terrifying rushing noise, like multiple trains bearing down on his family. Noelia had been asleep when the storm came. He'd grabbed her and Rosemary, wrapped them in his arms, and curled into a ball on the living room floor.

When the fury passed, Gus dragged himself down from the perch near what, moments earlier, had been his family's house. The tornado had lifted the entire frame of the mobile home from the ground and hurled it into the tree. On the ground, battered and bleeding, Gus called out to no one as his daughter's screams pierced the night. She remained trapped in the branches next to her unconscious mother, who was pinned by the metal framework that wrapped around the gnarled tree. "My wife," he mumbled. "Help my wife."

Half a block away, Rodney Anderson stepped outside his house. The power had gone out as he and his partner, Sherie Phillips, heard the ominous roar. The wind knocked a travel-trailer through a wall of their sturdy World War II era house, but they escaped unharmed. Scanning the ravaged neighborhood, Anderson heard crying. Without thinking, he took a flashlight from a neighbor and stumbled down an alley toward the sound.

Anderson quickly reached Gus, who was hurt, incoherent, and unable to help. Shining the light upward, he found the source of the screams and started up the stout trunk to get Noelia. After securing her, he climbed down and tried to hand the terrified child, covered in blood, to her father. But Gus, injured and in shock, couldn't take her. "He was gone...lost," Gus' mother, Aurelia, would say later.

Anderson left Noelia with a neighbor who'd arrived to help and climbed back into the mangled branches, around metal shards, shredded insulation, and railroad spikes that had been ripped from nearby train tracks. Rosemary dangled upside down, her leg trapped by the metal house frame. Shaking, Anderson braced himself, his legs against one branch, his back against another, and held Rosemary's head in his lap. There was nothing to do but wait. When a local firefighter finally reached the scene, it took 90 minutes for the two men to free Rosemary. All three Pugas were taken to a hospital in nearby Lamar before being airlifted to Colorado Springs; Gus and Noelia were released several days later. Surgeons operated on Rosemary for four hours before she succumbed to internal injuries the following morning. Anderson went to her funeral a week later. There were so many people at the small church that he couldn't get in.