Anyone who hears the harrowing survival story of Shannon Duett, her husband Justin, and their two young daughters, Peyton and Sophie, would certainly agree.
The family endured an ordeal that was nothing short of a nightmare nearly three months ago as an EF2 tornado ripped through their small town of Hamilton, Miss., during the evening hours of April 13, 2019. They had never before experienced anything like it. One person was killed by the twister.
Before all hell broke loose on that fateful Saturday night, life was normal for the family. Shannon, who was born and raised in the tiny town of fewer than 400 people, started her family there with Justin, her husband of four years and whom she’d met when she was 16. His work schedule was two weeks on, two weeks off at a land rig in Texas. A hernia and scheduled surgery had kept him home at the time leading up to the tornado strike.
Twenty-six-year-old Shannon had quit her job just the day before the twister tore their lives apart. A change in shift hours had started to conflict with when she was able to pick up her girls, 4-year-old Peyton and 2-year-old Sophie.
Shannon and Justin, who had rented a mobile home from her landlord for the past five years, were preparing to relocate the family from Shannon’s hometown to four hours south in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. They’d planned to buy a house there.
Their Saturday appointment with a real estate agent was postponed due to Justin’s hernia surgery appointment the following Tuesday, according to The Clarion Ledger. Instead, they got up that morning and traveled to Tupelo, about an hour away from Hamilton. They grabbed groceries then came home and played with the girls and their two dogs, Skye and Tank.
‘This is not happening’
Shannon and Justin had been aware of the threat of severe weather and had been keeping an eye on it throughout the day. Conditions didn’t seem worrisome until later that night, Shannon told AccuWeather.
“I wish I would’ve known that the lightning was an indicator,” she said. “The lightning that night was different from what I’ve ever seen. I was in the living room while my girls were asleep, taking pictures of it.” It was around 10:43 p.m., local time, when she snapped the “surreal” photos, the self-professed weather nerd recalled.
The vibrant bolts ripped across the dark sky, back to back, with no breaks in between. As she started to wind down for the evening, Shannon said her daughter Sophie, who barely ever slept through the night, came into her and Justin’s bed as usual to snuggle up with her parents, who were watching weather reports on television and Facebook Live.
“[The storm] wasn’t anywhere near us at that time; it was about to hit another city, Starkville, [44 miles away].” The Starkville storm was supposed to be dying down and weakening around that time, Shannon said.
Something that struck Shannon as abnormal was that her oldest daughter, Peyton, woke up and ran down the hallway, telling her mother she was afraid of the wind. “She never sleeps with us because she just likes to be by herself,” Shannon told AccuWeather.
Worried, she alerted her husband that something was wrong. Justin got up to put on his day shorts and a t-shirt as the family stood in the bedroom, Sophie next to her mother and Peyton near her father.
The sound of tornado sirens was nowhere to be found. Instead, what they heard sounded like a growing deep, echoing rumble. “I screamed for Justin to grab Peyton, and I grabbed Sophie and put her head under my t-shirt because I thought, “‘I have to protect her head.”’
That’s when the lights went off, and the sirens came on. The tornado was bearing down right on top of their frail mobile home. “You could hear it knocking us off the cinderblocks; you could hear it throwing stuff,” Shannon said. It wasn’t long before the family, fearing for their lives, was being flipped and thrown backwards as the bedroom wall was ripped off.
In the midst of the chaos, Shannon was able to see something not many people live to be able to describe: the inside of the tornado. “It was beautiful,” she told AccuWeather. “It looked soft and fluffy, and you could see big, black blobs, which were debris flying, and the lightning was still back to back to back, and it would light it up.” It felt like the family was trapped in a wind tunnel, she recalled. Before ducking her head once again, she remembered seeing lots of green when the house “just exploded.”
“Our house had sustained 100-mph straight-line winds before, but this was something different, like we were literally in a snow globe, and someone threw us like we weighed nothing,” Shannon said.
The impact tossed Shannon and Sophie into the woods behind the mobile home. Justin was knocked unconscious, likely by the dresser or cabinets in their now non-existent bedroom. Peyton had escaped his grip.
Shannon couldn’t recall where she landed, but she was able to run barefoot in her pajamas with her glasses knocked off her face while still holding Sophie as she screamed out for Peyton. “She sat up in the grass by herself and came running to me,” Shannon said. “She had blood streaming down from the left eye, and one whole side of her face was black.”
With her two daughters a little banged up, but safe by her side, Shannon cried out for her husband. “That’s when our lab, Sky, came running up to me. I don’t know how she did.” Their Great Dane, Tank, did not make it.
After walking over to her car, which was unmoved but had all the windows blown out, Shannon spotted Justin out of the corner of her eye, lying in the grass, not moving. “He looked like, you know, when you make snow angels, but he was face down.”
She immediately feared the worst, and she didn’t want the little ones to see their father this way. She wrapped her daughters in a blanket and sat them in the car as hail and rain pounded down hard around them.
“I finally got Justin to come to, and I tried picking him up, but I could not do it,” Shannon recalled. She felt as though something was blocking her. Justin told her, “Shannon, I can’t move. I can’t feel my legs.”
As the sirens wailed again, Justin instructed his wife to run as fast as she could for help. She didn’t want to leave him, but she knew she couldn’t move him by herself. She gathered the girls and ran half a mile up the road with Sophie on her hip and Peyton and the dog trotting along at her side.
The nearby neighbors brought the Duetts into their storm shelter and let Shannon use her phone to call her mother. She pleaded with the neighbors to go help Justin. “They went and got him and they loaded him on his stomach; thank God they did,” Shannon said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but he had broken his back and neck. He was leaking spinal cord fluid inside of his back. If they would’ve rolled him on his back, I’m afraid he would not be here.”
Road to recovery
Eventually, the family received much-needed medical assistance as the neighbors drove them to a nearby gas station, which was being used as a trauma center. Shannon didn’t realize it as her adrenaline pumped while in the middle of the hectic ordeal, but an unknown object had sliced a hole in her hip, while a 2-by-4 piece of metal had lodged itself in her back – the source of the stinging sensation she had started to feel. A metal pole had also gone into her left underarm.
Her daughters were physically fine, for the most part. Peyton suffered a concussion and a badly bruised left side of her face along with a black eye. Three months later, the 4-year-old struggles with severe post-traumatic stress disorder whenever storms approach. “Whenever it thunders, she will crouch down, put her hands over her ears and go into hysterics,” her mother said.
Justin experienced the worst effects, and doctors weren’t sure if he’d be left paralyzed, as he’d lost the function on the left side of his body and couldn’t bend his toes for two weeks. Now, with the aid of therapy three times a week, he’s able to walk with a limp, but without a cane, and he still suffers nerve pain. “He’s got three rods and a ton of screws in him. He’s a miracle,” Shannon said of her healing husband.
After a week and a half in the hospital, Shannon and Justin were released — but they had no home of their own to come back to, and very few of their belongings were salvageable, so they stayed with Shannon’s mother and stepfather for about seven weeks because they needed physical help taking care of the girls.
Recently, the family has been able to rent a home in Caledonia, about 10 minutes from Hamilton. “We’re just now getting on our own again. It’s been a major adjustment,” Shannon said.
The near-death experience brought the family closer, she said, and their main focus right now is recovery and getting as close to normal as possible.
“I don’t even know what normal is anymore,” Shannon said. “We’re tired and overwhelmed at times, but we’re grateful to be here.”