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Charlotte children survive after tornado pulls them from home

Posted March 5, 2012
Updated March 6, 2012

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— When Latonya Stevens heard thunder and lightning in the distance, she knew the drill. Every time a storm drew near, her children would run to her room seeking comfort.

So Stevens turned on a hall light for the young kids as high winds began buffeting the house, which became one of nearly 200 homes damaged by the storm in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties Saturday.

"It started lightning, and I was, like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,'" Stevens said, recalling her terror as she sat in an upstairs hallway.

Then she blacked out, and the next thing she knew, she said, she was on the ground outside, holding on to one of her four children.

She quickly assumed the worst: that a twister had carried off the other three kids.

"I started praying," she said. "After that, I just started screaming."

No one knows precisely what happened, but this much is clear. The three children were in their rooms when the tornado approached. As the winds rose, most of the home's second floor was swept away. After the storm passed, the kids were found outside on the ground.

A neighbor found Jamal about 100 feet away, tossed to the far side of a fence along Interstate 485. His 3-year-old sister, Amber, was found under debris in her yard, and 4-year-old Ayanna landed in a neighbor's yard.

All three emerged with only cuts and bruises — and a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

"It's a miracle they survived," said their grandfather, Clarence Gray Jr. "God was looking out for them."

Most of the family's possessions were lost. But by Monday, the children were playing in their grandparents' house if nothing had happened.

They picked up family photos scattered on a coffee table. "This was our house," Jamal said, pointing to a picture.

The children — 3-year-old Amber, 4-year-old Ayanna and 7-year-old Jamal — said they don't recall anything.

"They're like me. They don't remember what happened," Stevens said. "We don't know. Maybe it will come back to us eventually. I mean, I've sat down and tried to figure out what happened. I don't know."

When storms moved into the Charlotte area late Friday, the four children were upstairs in their bedrooms. Their grandmother, Patricia Stevens, was watching TV downstairs on a couch. Their father, Tyrone Stevens, was out with friends who were in town for a basketball tournament.

The noise awoke the children, who initially went to their mother's room where they watched a Disney movie. When the storm died down, they returned to their beds.

But a half-hour later, Stevens heard a new storm approaching and got up to take care of the children. As she turned on the hall light, the house began to shake and the wind started to howl.

Then she lost consciousness.

Stevens awoke in the dark holding the other 3-year-old twin, Ashley, and shouting for her children. The roof was gone. Only then did she realize that her house had been struck by a tornado.

She hurried downstairs in the dark, screaming, "Where's my babies?" and spotted her mother, who also was frantic.

"I didn't know where the children were," Patricia Stevens said. "The house was shaking, and then we heard the noise. And all of the sudden you heard the house go whap, whap, whap, whap. Just like that. Then the walls were gone. Then I said to myself, 'Is this how you're supposed to die? Are we going to die in here or what?'"

Stevens handed Ashley to the girl's grandmother while she started searching outside for her children. Neighbors began searching, too.

Sheena Redfearn and her husband, Chris, heard Stevens shouting from four doors down the street.

After the couple was sure their own children were safe, Chris Redfearn bolted outside with a flashlight and began following Jamal's voice, leaping over fences in the search for the boy.

Amber was found in the family yard under some debris. Ayanna landed in a neighbor's yard. Jamal had been tossed more than 100 feet.

The children were rushed to the hospital. Tyrone Stevens, who was contacted by family, headed to the hospital, too.

When he returned to his house the next day, he couldn't believe what had happened.

"Just looking at it, it just shook me to my core," he said. "I was devastated. Thank God everyone is OK."

The Stevens family said they would love to rebuild in the same neighborhood.

"My neighbors were there for me, and those are the kind of people I want to be around," Latonya Stevens said. "It's a big family."

But first the family must confront the trauma of the storm.

"Every time I close my eyes, I still see it," she said. "I haven't had time to deal with it. I sleep on and off. I'm more worried about the kids and how they're feeling."


Associated Press Writer Joe Edwards in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.


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  • sammyg Mar 6, 2012

    I am so happy to read they are all alright. What a scary thing to have happen to such small children. Phew...

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Mar 5, 2012

    This is the most heartwarming picture I have seen to date!

    Magazine Cover picture!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Uhavenoclu Mar 5, 2012

    Athiests do not believe in God for they do,they just don't believe in some phony orthodox religion and church who feed you with lies.

  • Uhavenoclu Mar 5, 2012

    Thank GOD as he held them in his hand, and brought the back to the family.

    Praise God!!!!

    God is not Human,God is an invisible force in and flowing through each and everyone of us..and Not some old man with a 40 mile long beard sitting on a throne deciding who has it good and who has it bad and does not punish us..We punish ourselves for our only true enemy is ourselves.The Church makes you feel you are seperated from God by making you live in fear by thinking God lives up in the sky?,ha ha ha ....Rise into heaven means rising out of your lower self,your darkness,your negativity your hatred,your judgments,your depression and rising to your higher self,your happiness,your joy,your Love.
    Children have more power then you give them credit for and they are the ones who teach each adult what they lost while growing up,.

  • eoglane Mar 5, 2012

    Thank GOD as he held them in his hand, and brought the back to the family.

  • dwallace9392 Mar 5, 2012

    Praise God!!!!

  • bcde Mar 5, 2012

    There are no building codes in place meant to sustain 150+ mile an hour winds head on, especially in residential sturctures. An EF-4 which is what hit Henryville, KY was 175+ hour winds. Those type of winds pretty much flatten anything in their way. To be protected everyone would need to live in an underground bunker.

  • jamoka Mar 5, 2012

    christineeve: I hear most of what you're saying. People should be comfortable with what they believe and leave others be. However, please do not be under the (mistaken) impression that Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) has only resulted in 120,000 deaths within the past 500 years. Where does that figure come from? So far as I can tell, a good deal of the conflict and death/murder on this earth is the result of conflicting religious views.

  • christineeve Mar 5, 2012

    For you enlightened and apparently far more intelligent Atheists, if it's nothing we believe in, why are you so offended?

    I thank God for you. God bless you. God bless the family that survived this event. God bless the families that untimely passed away. They are at total and complete peace and are healed and whole. They are in a better place having fulfilled their duties here.

    So, why does it enrage you that I believe in a "sky fairy?" I do no harm to you at all.

    Anger is a reaction. That reaction is telling. Don't believe if you don't want to, but you have no right to trash what I believe.

    Atheism kills. Atheist nations have killed more humans than every other belief system except one; over 120 million people to date, in the last hundred years. Christianity has resulted in the 120,000 deaths in 500 years. You lose. But, you knew that, because you're so angry. The angry vicious Atheists, mad that I and others believe and you don't.

    Why don’t you just get back to proving there

  • shortcake53 Mar 5, 2012

    God bless them, I am so glad they are all safe. What a horrible thing to go through.