Shawn and Sarah Marsh greet visitors from the back of a borrowed SUV, with little more than their three children, the clothes on their backs and the shocked look of survival fresh in their eyes.
It is less than two weeks since they took shelter in the family bathtub in a midnight run for their lives, only to have their house “explode” around them. The family of five emerged from the rubble of their home, the only house in a row of three to be destroyed. The Marsh family home was leveled in the tornado that, in the dead of night April 15, ripped through Woodward, Okla., claiming the lives of five people.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced or ever come close to,” Shawn Marsh said. “You just cannot imagine it unless you experience it. The sounds, the sights, just everything. It was horrible, just crazy.”
The crazy started the morning of April 15, when Shawn left for work and Sarah stayed home with the couple’s three children, Austin, 13, Britton, 11 and Colt, 2. Shawn and Sarah Marsh were still settling into their new community after moving from Castle Rock in Oct. 2011 to Oklahoma, where Shawn drove a truck, sometimes seven days a week, working in the oil industry.
That morning, Shawn knew there were tornado warnings throughout the day. But the 1994 graduate of Elizabeth High School knew from experience that tornado warnings rarely resulted in any danger.
“In the back of your head you say ‘it won’t happen to me’,” he said. “It did.”
He got home late from work that night and joined Sarah and Britton in front of the television, where he dozed off until right around midnight, when Sarah shook him awake.
The news reported that a tornado just touched down about six blocks from their house. The storm was moving 60 to 70 mph. They needed to take cover. At about that moment, the power went out and the house went dark.
The couple frantically gathered their children, put shoes on their feet, and put everyone in the bathtub. Little Colt was in the middle, Austin and Britton on either side. They had just enough time to throw blankets and pillows over the kids when the noise started. The deafening sound of the tornado bearing down on them.
What happened from there seemed like an eternity, but Shawn believes it was just a matter of seconds.
“It sounded like basketball size hail was hitting everywhere,” he said. “It was the debris of the house flying all around us.”
Shawn recalls the point of no return as the moment the roof was lifted off the top of the house. The couple hung onto the edge of the bathtub and both recall the sensation, over several seconds, of the tub moving as the storm tried to pull them out of the house. They were dragged several feet, never loosening their grip of the tub.
“I just wanted to stay on the ground,” Sarah said. “That’s all I was thinking. Just leave us on the ground, just leave us on the ground.”
The noise reached an indescribable boiling point, when it died down as if by a switch and “let us go,” Shawn said.
The wind was replaced by a torrential rain. The tub was at an impossible angle, propped next to a hot water tank that was emitting the smell of natural gas. They were surrounded by the rubble that was once their home.
Their children were safe.
In the pitch-black darkness Austin thought his dad was under the tub. Then he heard his father’s voice calling, “keep talking to me so I can find you.”
“And all of a sudden I see his face digging to find us,” Austin said. “It was just real, real scary.”
Shawn Marsh did not realize the extent of the damage until the next morning, when he returned to try to find his wallet. That was when he saw the house on one side of his had some damage to a fence, the house on the other side was untouched and his house was gone.
The family, who had yet to set down roots in Oklahoma, spent the next few days in a blur of trying to find a place to sleep, grappling with insurance companies and gathering what little they could from the rubble of their home.
The house in Oklahoma was a rental and they were without rental insurance. They hope to recover something from the damage done to their vehicles, but otherwise they returned to their family in Colorado with little more than the clothes on their backs.
They are bouncing between family members until they can get the funds together to afford a deposit on a rental home and start the process of getting back on their feet. It is no easy task.
Shawn got his job back at his former employer in Castle Rock, but the job of clothing their kids and finding a home remains high on the list.
“You can’t put your life back together in a day,” Shawn said. “You can try but you just can’t do it.”
At 2 years old, the needs for Cody Marsh are being met, Sarah said. Britton had to abandon a beloved collection of about 100 stuffed animals because of insulation damage and is in need of girls’ clothes, size 12.
Austin lost a lifelong Lego collection – “I found some of the pieces but I had about 100 Lego people and not a single person made it,” he said – and wears a men’s small or medium shirt, pant size 29 or 30.
Sarah and Shawn are not large people but did not know their sizes. They said cash donations would be ideal to help them find a place to live.
Interested donors can call Sarah Marsh at 303-945-1478, donate online at www.youcaring.com/marshtornadorelief or donate to the “Marsh Tornado Relief Fund”, c/o FirstBank, 4775 Front St., Castle Rock, CO 80104.