Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)


March 3, 2013

Photographer witness to tragedy and strength

West Liberty — What to say about West Liberty and Morgan County?

After covering the tornado that destroyed the downtown area a year ago yesterday, and following the progress since, it’s been a gold mine of chiches.

The destruction was unbelievable, horrid, terrible, tragic, catastrophic, horrendous, lethal, devastating, disastrous and heart-rending.

But because of what followed, I’m grateful to be a witness.

Because I was the closest photojournalist to West Liberty, I was sent into the cauldron that Friday evening to cover what was to become a national story.

The first heart-gripping visual in the dark was the steeple of the iconic white Methodist Church on the ground with telephone poles and wires laying all around it. Not an optimistic first impression. Then, there was the sound of a backhoe in the dark clearing Main Street of cars and rubble. A few steps beyond, I found the triage area set up for the injured.

But, there was no panic. Somehow, there was order to the chaos. People making their way out of shelters and into the television lights were a bit shocked, to be sure, but there was no freaking out. That gives me a bit of hope about the human spirit.

Assignments the next day, along with the months of contractors clearing up the debris of the town — while planning to rebuild — led me to believe that the community had a fighting chance to make something of itself again.

And through the sheer luck of proximity, I could witness it. I could watch a special people try to make their home special again.  Even better, I could photograph it. I could make the drive down Ky. 519 whenever the mood struck to make pictures and ask questions.

The questions had narrowed to only two: Did anyone in government, particularly Morgan County Judge-executive Tim Conley, ever waver in their abilities to lead through this disaster?

Conley told me a year ago that he never doubted himself. I challenged him on that and reminded him he’s only human. There just had to be times when it all just seemed too overwhelming.

I told him I’d ask the question again in a year, and I did last week. He told me that the Monday following the tornado, West Liberty was hit with six inches of snow. He said he went into his makeshift office and broke down while a Kentucky State Trooper stood outside the door to give the judge his moment. His human moment.

The other question was about the families who lost loved ones, and that also was answered last week. I was sent to Ezel to photograph the Endicott brothers, who lost their parents and grandmother when the tornado slammed into their farm along the cliffs overlooking Grassy Creek.

Eric, the youngest at 19, was in the home when it was lifted from the foundation and tossed about, along with the barn and other structures on the property. He landed, unconscious, just yards from the edge of the cliff line — and a 100-foot drop. He said when he came to, he pulled himself out of wreckage. As I stood on the spot he described, I couldn't help but think how lucky he was that he didn't drag himself in the wrong direction.

Chris Endicott, 23, could only watch the scene unfold from his truck on the single-lane road. I can’t imagine what he felt. It really is too much.

And it was the older brother, 25-year-old Charles, who refused to leave Eric’s bedside during the months of surgeries and recovery.  

Now that the two questions have been answered for me, I’m struck by a couple of things.

First, West Liberty will become as good a community as the people who’ve stayed to rebuild. It’ll be hardy, it’ll be strong and it’ll have that rural community feeling once again.

And standing along the overlook of Grassy Creek, I thought about how this must have been one the most beautiful places in eastern Kentucky, maybe in all of Kentucky.  

I get to do what I do because people let me. Even when their story is sad and tragic, they let me make pictures and try to understand them. In time, the Endicotts will rebuild and make the family farm beautiful again.  

I hope they let me witness that.

JOHN FLAVELL is on faculty with Morehead State's Convergent Media program and a freelance photojournalist.


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