Tornado victims mourned by families, neighbors

Survivors began counting their losses Sunday, the day after tornadoes ripped through eastern North Carolina, killing two people.

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KENLY, N.C. — Survivors began counting their losses Sunday, the day after tornadoes ripped through eastern North Carolina, killing two people.

"You don't realize the devastation until you see it in person," volunteer Warren Nichols said.

A neighbor placed a cross outside the remains of a house on London Church Road in Elm City, where 11-year-old Joshua Wiggins died.

"That little boy was so sweet, and that family has always been good to me," neighbor Danny Hill said. "I don't know what to say. I am still a little tore up about it."

Joshua had lived with his grandparents – who survived the tornado – after his mother was murdered in 2005. Her slaying is unsolved.

Joshua's grandfather, Roberto Guillen, said he wants to find and thank a stranger who stopped and tried to save Joshua's life. The stranger helped remove the wall and mattress Joshua was buried under, he said.

Relatives said they were left to search for answers after Joshua's death.

"I asked my mother why God didn't protect him," cousin Shakira Knight said. "She said God doesn't make mistakes, so he's in a better place."

The boy's grandmother, Shirley, was recovering at the hospital from cuts on her face and mouth, Guillen said.

The storm claimed its first victim in Kenly – Marilyn Gomez, 61, of Scott Road.

"She's just a free-spirited loving woman ... She was like a kid, always used to joke around, laugh," her son, Jonathan Gomez, said. "Best thing I could say about my mom, any time I was sick, she would take care of me, and she raised me right."

Her husband, Argiro, made it out of the house and ran to a neighbor for help, but they found Marilyn Gomez's body in the wreckage of her home.

"She told me she had a dream where God told her when I was ready, He was going to take her from me," Jonathan Gomez said. "Not like this now. I don't think I was ready."

Her son, Jonathan Gomez, 23, of Asheville, searched the home's rubble, trying to find important belongings: a Christmas ball with "Loving Mother" written on it, a drawing of a heart and the names of Marilyn, Jonathan and his two sisters.

A neighbor, Lillian Jernigan, joined Jonathan in the home's wreckage. She had gone Christmas shopping with Marilyn Gomez Friday and hidden gifts in her friend's home. But the tornado had strewn those gifts across a field, Lillian Jernigan said.

Jonathan Gomez said he had been looking forward to bringing his family to one of his mother's famous Thanksgiving meals.

"Everything she cooked, Thanksgiving, like my neighbors said, was the best," he said. "I used to starve myself the whole day until dinner was ready. Her stuffing was amazing, her turkey – that's what everyone's going to miss about her."

Despite losing his wife and home, Argiro Gomez had kept up his spirits and kept cracking jokes while recovering at WakeMed in Raleigh, his son said. Argiro Gomez had a punctured lung and bruising but was listed in good condition.

"Anybody here would tell you my dad is a jokester. He makes jokes all the time, and he's still doing it in the hospital even," Jonathan Gomez said. "I just can't believe that he made it out of this. I'm so grateful I didn't lose two parents."

Less than a mile away, the home of the Stephenson family was twisted and torn, but they were spared from injury, except for a few cuts.

"It sounded like a really loud train .... and the next thing we knew the ceiling and walls were on us," Michelle Stephenson said. "But I think God was taking care of us, because we picked it up and got out, and our kids are safe. And thank God for that."

"I know it's a miracle. God was looking out for us," Mark Stephenson said.

Along London Church Road, Crystal and William Pittman searched through the rubble of their rented home but said they couldn't find much to salvage. The couple was homeless, didn't have medical or renters' insurance and hadn't found a house where they could keep their dogs.

"The only thing that matters is your family, you know? So that's all that matters," William Pittman said.

Kenly survivors Teresa and David Batten found all their possessions strewn across the field, but the parents agreed they were grateful they and their sons had escaped alive.

"You really don't what's going on. It happens so fast. All I could think about was that I'm going to die," David Batten said.

Jeremy Paul, of Lucama, was awakened by a call from his soon-to-be father-in-law, James Murray, who had seen the tornado's projected path on WRAL News. Paul rushed to protect his fiancee and their 8-month-old daughter.

Although he was on the phone with his future son-in-law while the tornado hit, Murray said he was talking with someone else.

"I was talking to the Lord, asking Him to look out for them," Murray said.

Esther Wells, 88, survived a large tree smashing through the roof of her mobile home, a few feet from where she slept. Wells said she's planning for the future and will be moving.

"I don't want no more trees around where I stay, neither," Wells said.

The American Red Cross was organizing relief for storm victims. Donations can be sent to:

American Red Cross
801 S. Third St.
Smithfield, N.C. 27577

Checks should include "Wilson-Johnston tornado" in the memo line to make sure the donation goes directly to the relief effort.

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Stacey Cameron, Reporter
Stacy Davis, Reporter
Bruce Mildwurf, Reporter
Michael Joyner, Photographer
Tom Normanly, Photographer
Chad Flowers, Photographer
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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