Seconds after Stephanie Decker threw a blanket on top of her two young children and lay her body over them in a small recess of their home's basement, she felt the windows shake violently and watched helplessly as the foundation on her house separated from the structure -- her home disappearing with the two massive Category 4 tornadoes that so randomly and cruelly cut through her Indiana community last spring.
Bricks, shattered glass and broken furniture pounded Decker's body in a horrifying version of human dodge ball, but she did what she says any mother would do: tightened her grip and leaned in harder to shield and protect her children while pieces of her life swirled around her body and mind.
And then came the hard part for Decker, 38, who was honored for her courage during NASCAR's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Saturday night.
When the winds slowed and the debris had stopped hurling itself at Decker's badly beaten body, she had to convince her eight-year-old son, Dominic, to leave her and his six-year old sister Reese in the twisted wreckage to find help. Both children had been sheltered enough to escape without so much as a scratch or bruise.
"He didn't want to go and I didn't want to send him; it was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, but I realized that my injuries were life-threatening, I knew that I was bleeding out and I didn't have a whole lot of time,'' said Decker, whose badly injured legs were pinned and crushed under a steel beam.
Finding help wasn't easy. The Deckers lived on 15 acres, and their hopes rested on a neighbor behind them and whether the couple was not only home, but had survived the two tornadoes themselves and had a way to summon help.
Able to use only her upper body -- which had suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung in the pounding of the tornado -- Decker found a couple mismatched flip-flops for her son to wear; ever the mom, she didn't want him to step on something and cut himself. And then she sent him on his way, not knowing if she'd ever see him again.
"The kids really didn't realize how hurt I was because I wasn't screaming, I wasn't crying,'' Decker recalls vividly. "It was one of those things where I was really trying to stay under control for them because I didn't want them to know how badly injured I was. On the flipside of that, I didn't want to die in front of my kids. I wanted to get them to safety. And if I was going to die, I needed to make sure they weren't there to see it."
Thanks to Dominic, it never came to that.
Those that know Stephanie Decker say that the tornadoes had met their match in this busy mother of three -- her teenage stepson Nolan wasn't home that day) -- who had "never sat still" before and had no intentions of that now.
She lost both legs in the accident, but has not missed a step since.
Only now -- in addition to shuttling her kids to baseball, wrestling, gymnastics, football and basketball practices and cheering on the Silver Creek High School baseball team her husband coaches -- she is a successful advocate and lobbyist for other amputees.
"When the accident first happened, it was pretty clear that she was going to lose her legs before I got to the hospital to find her,'' her husband Joe Decker said. "She still had a trach (tracheotomy) tube in so she would write on her hand to talk to me. About her second day she wrote on her hand, "lost legs?" And I said, 'yeah.' And she cried for about 10 minutes then after that, she hasn't cried since.
"She and I have both taken the same approach -- once I went out and looked at our house and saw what was left of it -- just the fact she's here and the kids are here and they're okay, I think we can live with whatever hand we've been dealt.''
"I told her, 'What you did was great, but I think a ton of moms would have done the exact same thing. But to me, what set you apart is how you've handled it since. It's been such a great example for our kids, our community, everybody on how you can take something like what happened and it's all in your frame of mind.'
"If you want to sit and dwell on it and go, 'woe is me' then you're not going to make it very far. She has not done that once.''
Nor would she have had time. Decker's efforts to help other amputees through legislative lobbying and her Stephanie Decker Foundation is more than a commitment, it's a crusade.
Because of state laws in Indiana, she was able to get top-line prosthetics and resume as normal a life as possible. But, Decker was soon shocked to learn, that isn't the case everywhere.
Recently, her tenacity and testimony helped push a state law through in Kentucky requiring insurance companies to give patients access to better technology for prosthetic arms and legs. Now her efforts are aimed at similar laws at the federal level.
After hearing her story on the national news, President Obama met with Decker and her family at the White House. And just last week she was visiting with victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, inspiring, comforting and motivating them.
"(The opportunity) is truly a gift given to me because never in a million years would I ever thought I'd be able to reach that many people, help that many people,'' Decker said. "It just puts a whole new perspective on your life when you realize it's not just about me, it's not just about my family. It's really about how many other people you can really try to help.
"Visiting (the Boston victims), I try to help guide them the way I was guided. It played a huge role in my recovery to get me going and back on myfeet again."
Speaking with Decker, there is never a hint of loss or despair. There are no excuses. Her tone is upbeat and she actually considers herself fortunate, preferring to concentrate on what she has, not what may have been lost.
And that extends to an amazing story of recovering her family's treasured possessions in a scene of complete destruction.
Both of her kid's baby books were mailed back to her -- one found hundreds of miles away in Kentucky, another in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not a drop of water damaged her wedding album.
"It obviously happened for a reason, I wouldn't be where I am today if we didn't feel this was something meant for us,'' Decker said. "But everything that was important to us was saved.''
"This how we tackled it,'' Decker continued. "You can either pull up your big-girl panties, and go on. Or you can wallow in self-pity. And that's just not how we do things.
"It's a teaching moment for my kids too. They've learned that life throws you struggles and bring times that you think are unbearable, but there's always a solution to the answer and it may no be what you like and it may not be what you want, but you learn to adapt and cope and that's what we do. We adapt and cope."
She is grateful for the opportunities that have come out of this situation, like the chance to bring her family to their first NASCAR race this weekend, where she was so fittingly celebrated during Mother's Day weekend and gratefully accepted a $5,000 donation from The NASCAR Foundation for her foundation.
"I've always said this is about replacing the bad memories my kids have with good memories and if I can do that then I am,'' Decker said. "This is a moment for them they'll never forget. It will put a smile on their face and there's nothing better than seeing my kids smile after all they've done all they've been through.''
Decker's ordeal was gut-wrenching and life-changing, but she steadfastly refuses to let it be heart-breaking. There's still work to be done.
"In less than 30 seconds, the tornado just flipped our lives upside down and not in a bad way many people think,'' Decker said. "Yes, at first, when the accident initially happened and you're fighting for your life and not knowing if you're going to live or die or your children, that's obviously a moment I don't want to ever experience again. It was truly a test of my will and spirit and determination to figure out a way to live through something like that.
"However, our lives in themselves have changed dramatically in such a good and positive way."
"And,'' Decker continued, "I firmly believe any parent that loves their children would do the exact same thing I did. I think what's different about the story is the recovery side of it. I think it's amazing to watch my kids bounce back, they are the true heroes.''
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