The scene is sickening.
The contents of a home, smashed against a hillside. Beheaded trees with jagged, wicked stumps. Broken glass. Crumpled cars. Burning piles of debris. Choking smoke.
The Rev. Todd Chancey is a month into the disaster that now monopolizes his ministry. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were on vacation in Blue Ridge, Ga., when members of his church and community were terrorized by tornadoes on April 27.
Everywhere you go in Apison, Tenn., people tell their stories.
"There were 17 people and five dogs hiding in my daughter-in-law's basement," says Darlene Powell, recalling the night the monster killed neighbors, destroyed homes, rearranged the landscape.
Even after the tornado had passed over, Powell said, they stayed the rest of the night in the basement, delaying the future until morning light.
"All we could hear were sirens and helicopters," she says. (See photo.)
Chancey, pastor of Apison United Methodist Church, has been checking on the Powell family and other parishioners ever since he drove from his Georgia cabin back to the Cleveland District in the hours after the storm.
Like other townspeople, Chancey can point to sites where people died as the winds tore apart their homes. He's thankful his church members all survived, "but out of 35 active families, 25 of them had storm-related damaged," he says.
"When one of your members hurt, the pastor hurts. But when you have 25 families hurting, there's not much time to grieve. You just go from house to house, seeing what you can do."
Before other groups could come to Apison's aid, the United Methodist pastor was rounding up generators for families without electricity, finding temporary homes for those who had nowhere to go, directing offers of help that came over the phone, and distributing gift cards handed to him at roadside.
When pictures of Apison's destruction appeared in the media along with mention of the community preacher on the scene, financial donations started arriving from as far away as California, Indiana, and Florida. (See UMNS story.)
About $20,000 was received and quickly used to help residents survive the early days, Chancey said. In addition, work teams from nearby United Methodist churches as well as from other denominations and states began arriving after the first week.
Within the Holston Conference, volunteers and donations (first aid, bottled water, chain saws, gift cards, personal hygiene items) have come from Christ, Burks, Hixson, First-Centenary, Calhoun, Daisy, Cokesbury, as well as other churches.
Baptist, Presbyterian, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, and Calvary Chapel work teams also arrived from as far as New York and Florida. Apison UMC has served about 800 meals to residents and workers and hosted out-of-town teams and firefighters in the church building, Chancey said. (See photo.)
Even the most experienced disaster workers said they were surprised by the devastation.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Darrin Merriman of Brooklyn, N.Y., who came with a Calvary Chapel team to remove broken trees on the Powell's property. "It looks like a war zone."
"The devastation of having all your belongings strung all over the valley must be awful," said Jeff Kotzen, a Calvary Chapel worker from Melbourne, Fla.
"I heard a story from a family who huddled under a stairwell util the tornado tore it out. It's mindboggling," he said. (See photo.)
Not all the workers are outsiders. On a stifling, sweat-soaked day, two Apison members and a friend were piling up pieces of a shattered manufactured home so it could be burned. (See photo.)
The home belonged to Gene and Roxie Gambrell, also members of Apison UMC. The Gambrells now live in a temporary apartment until they can relocate near their daughter's home in Easley, S.C.
"I hate it, but I don't know where else to go," says Gene Gambrell, age 69. (See photo.)
Standing near the crumbled cinder blocks which used to support his house, Gambrell tells how the tornado bore down on him and his 68-year-old disabled wife. He could not possibly evacuate her on his own.
"All I could do was lay across her knees and hold on to her recliner," he says. "Just had to ride it out."
The tornado pushed the house several feet off its foundation and partially down a hill. When the wind stopped, it took neighbors two hours to help Gambrell get his wife out of the broken building. (See photo.)
Chancey points to a hill behind the Gambrell house where one Apison resident lost his life on that same night.
"It was a miracle we got out at all," Gambrell says.
Story about Apison UMC members Mark and Conner Kapperman, "Pair lift gun safe to rescue neighbors" (Chattanooga Times Free Press, 5/8/11)
To send teams to Apison or other Holston areas affected by spring storms, call (865) 309-9530 or (865) 309-9563. To make financial donations, write a check to your local church with "Advance #143" on the memo line or go directly to the United Methodist Committee on Relief site.