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Former Cerean survives tornado-caused crash
A former Ceres man escaped death from a tornado-related car accident May 10 in the Joplin, Mo., area. Staff Sgt. Eddie Hukill, a National Guard recruiter, credits his survival to prayer and the fast action of a stranger who happened to be a storm chaser.

The same tornado killed 14 lives in Newton County.

Hukill, 34, and five passengers left Messenger College in Joplin on May 10 thinking that the worst of a tornado warning was over. They were traveling on Highway 86 to Hukill's Seneca home for a barbecue to celebrate the end of the school year. Softball-sized hail began to fall and then gave way to a black funnel cloud.

"It really just looked like a huge black cloud, like you'd see in the sky, except it was on the ground," said Katie Giles, a 19-year-old nursing major from Virginia who was riding in Hukill's van. "We didn't see any rotation in it, like you'd think you'd see. It was just a huge black cloud."

Suddenly pieces of flying debris from homes were flying around the skies, said Lucas Adolphson, a 23-year-old psychology major from West Plains. Realizing the tornado was upon them, Hukill raced for a low valley ahead. Trees and limbs were blowing across the highway as Hukill raced as fast as he could into a curve, trying to get to lower ground.

"I saw an embankment as we came around the curve, and I told Eddie to get up against the embankment if he could," Adolphson said. "Just as we stopped, I saw a pretty good-sized tree coming at us down the embankment to our right, and I yelled at everybody to get down. We all just hit the floor. It wasn't 20 seconds later that a huge tree branch came through the windshield."

The tree struck the back of Hukill's head, causing an eight-inch gash. Hukill leaned into his passenger, holding his bleeding head. Adolphson called 911, but the dispatcher couldn't hear him for the sound of the wind.

"It was deafening," Adolphson said. "Everyone was yelling to stay down, but it sounded like they were whispering over the sound of the wind. All the windows were blowing out of the van. Trees and things were smashing into us.

"I saw a truck parked next to us on the other side of the road, and the wind just pushed it straight off the highway," he added. "It all looked like an animated picture, with houses and trees and vehicles just being thrown around and pushed away.

"I really thought we were going to die."

The storm smashed the van on all four sides, with the front roof collapsed into the cabin and the tree limb blown straight through the windshield. Despite that, the van never moved.

"We rocked and we shook, but we never moved," Derek Murray recalled. "Everything around us was gone. Vehicles, houses, trees. Everything was just picked up and taken away, but we sat still."

Much of the incident was recorded on a voice message on Hukill's cell phone. Though he doesn't recall making the call now, Hukill believes he was trying to call his wife but somehow called himself instead and left a voice message of the horror.

"Someone call my wife," the recording recounts of Hukill's pleas, along with screaming, crying and prayer in unison coming from the back of the van.

"I was talking on my phone just before we ducked for cover, and I hung up," Giles said. "Right after it was all over, my mom called, and it was five minutes in between the two calls. I think we were in that tornado for five minutes."

Miraculously, all five of Hukill's passengers emerged from the rubble with only bumps and bruises. He sustained the head injury and a severely broken left arm. All the passengers said they knew his head injury was life threatening, given the amount of blood he'd lost.

Within minutes, a storm chaser pulled up to Hukill's wrecked van.

"The entire chasing community was south of Tulsa, but they sent me north," said Mike Scantlin, a 22-year-old storm chaser with KTUL Channel 8 TV in Tulsa. "The storm started to take a turn to the right, and when that happens, it will create its own rotation. I knew I was never going to catch up to it. I was five miles behind it the whole way."

Scantlin said because he never saw the tornado with his own eyes, he didn't expect to see the path of destruction it left behind.

"The trees, grass, bushes - everything was gone; it just left mud," Scantlin recalled. "When I came around the curve, there were people on the road. Everyone's eyes were like three inches wide; they were all in such shock."

Derek Murray flagged down Scantlin as he came through the destruction.

Murray stressed to Scantlin that Hukill couldn't wait 20 minutes for an ambulance and needed to get to the hospital right away. So Scantlin piled Hukill and another man and sped off toward Freeman Hospital in Joplin.

"He looked like he was bleeding pretty badly," said Scantlin.

Doctors at Freeman Hospital in Joplin later told Hukill if he'd gotten there any later, he would have needed a blood transfusion. Likely, he'd have bleed-out if Scantlin hadn't arrived when he did. Hukill's injury required 12 staples to close the wound and surgery to his left arm, where steel plates were used to mend the severe break.

"It's kind of ironic," said Hukill. "I'm in the Guard, and people like to see soldiers as heroes, but in this case, I had a hero. He saved my life."

Scantlin doesn't believe he did anything heroic.

"I didn't do anything that any one of my storm-chasing buddies wouldn't have done; that they haven't done in the past," Scantlin said. "There's never a worse feeling than being right there, in the middle of peoples' nightmare and feeling like you can't do anything. I've been in that position, and it's a really horrible feeling. I'm just glad that I could help. I'm just glad that he's going to be okay."

Hukill lived in Ceres and joined the Army right out of high school in 1993, and served eight years with the regular Army from 1993 - 2005, save one year he served with the California National Guard in 1997. During his enlistment, Hukill was stationed at Fort Sills, Okla., Fort Lewis, Wash., and attended recruiting school in Fort Jackson, S.C. where he gradated in December 2000. Also during his enlistment, Hukill was deployed to Cuba from December 1994 to May 1995.

Hukill moved to Newton County, Mo., in 2005 to help his pastor establish the Oasis Worship Center. He immediately joined the Missouri National Guard. He has served as a Guard recruiter in southwest Missouri in Anderson, Neosho and now Joplin, where he has served full-time since February 2006.

He lives in Seneca with his wife of 13 years, Janeice, a nurse, and their two children, Kristin, 12, and Levi, 9.