'It's Not a Baby Doll -- It's Alive'
After Tornadoes Rip the South, One Discovery Heartens Tennessee Rescuers

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

CASTALIAN SPRINGS, Tenn., Feb. 6 -- The searchers had already gone over the field once.

It seemed unlikely that anything else would turn up. It was dark and rainy, and amid the awesome wreckage left by the tornado that had just passed here they had already found three dead. Some of the bodies had been flung hundreds of feet from their homes, landing in tangles of branches and across the roadway.

Then they stumbled upon Kyson.

The 11-month-old, dressed in a T-shirt and diaper, was lying as silently as any piece of debris in a field of tall grass about 100 yards from the now-leveled duplex where he once lived. He was face down in the mud, covered in bits of grass like many of those who had been cast about by the dozens of tornadoes that had careened across the South.

"It's not a baby doll -- it's alive," called out David Harmon, 31, an emergency worker from nearby Wilson County. He had first thought the boy was made of plastic.

Kyson, to the surprise of rescuers, had survived being tossed by winds that had not only flattened the brick post office next door but had killed his 23-year-old mother, throwing her several yards in the opposite direction, into some fallen trees.

"The baby was just shivering like this," said Keith Douglas, interim director of emergency medical services for Sumner County, who was on the scene, putting his fists to his chest, pressing his elbows to his sides. "He was cold and scared, and he had this blank look in his eyes."

The twister that flung Kyson from his home was among dozens that swept across the South on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, killing at least 54 people and leaving a huge swath of destruction. The winds caused millions of dollars in damage and injured more than 150 people. President Bush is scheduled to travel to Tennessee on Friday to inspect the damage.

For those who have lived through them, tornadoes inspire awe not just for their power but for their caprice, for destroying some lives while sparing others nearby.

"It's a miracle they ain't both gone," said Doug Stowell, 45, Kyson's grandfather, a carpenter and tile worker who drove up to the scene last night and found his daughter, Carrie, dead and his grandson alive. "He was found over 300 feet from his home, and that was demolished -- I mean wiped clean."

Such devastation was repeated in five states, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, as perhaps 50 tornadoes touched down. Others were reported in Missouri and Indiana.

After sowing destruction in the South, the storm system moved north, where it buried parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas under more than a foot of snow. The storm closed schools and businesses, grounded more than 1,000 airline flights and snarled highways.

The tornado damage in this small rural community was centered on the area post office on Highway 25. Elsewhere, the county seemed untouched. But for a few hundreds yards around the post office, the destruction was overwhelming. Nothing was left of the squat brick post office building but the concrete foundation. A steel vault estimated to weigh as much a 700 pounds wound up in a field across the highway, along with lots of other debris.

Two houses next door, including Kyson's, were flattened as well. Immense trees lay on their sides. Bits of vinyl siding, even sections of fences, were left hanging in tree branches and power lines.

After the tornado moved on to the east, those whose houses were largely untouched saw a brilliant fire in the eastern sky, a gas explosion in a nearby county.

"There was a large glowing in the sky that kept getting brighter and brighter and brighter," said Andrea Stewart, 29, a chiropractor's assistant. "It was pitch dark out, but I could see everything in my front yard."

Rescuers came soon after 10 p.m., when the tornado struck, to sort through the debris, and in a short time they found three bodies in the area, including that of Kyson's mother.

It wasn't until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday that Harmon found Kyson, diaper askew, in the mud.

He brought the baby out to the edge of the highway, where rescuers John Michael Poss, 25, and Douglas ministered to him. To make a place to lay the baby, a firefighter laid his coat down. They took off the shivering baby's wet T-shirt. His grandfather, who had just arrived on the scene, gave up his red flannel shirt so that the rescuers could swaddle him with it.

"I touched every inch of that child because I figured he must have some injury -- he'd been thrown so far," Poss said. There were no cuts. The baby seemed well enough. But still he had a blank stare. Maybe, Poss thought, the child had sustained a head injury.

To check for neurological trouble, Poss lay his hand over the sandy-haired baby's blue eyes and then quickly removed it, to see how his pupils would react to the light. At last the baby started crying, as they had hoped.

"He was crying, and we were so happy because of it," Douglas recalled.

Kyson was eventually taken to Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, where he was listed Wednesday evening in stable condition.

"He has no broken bones -- he's doing great," Doug Stowell said, though he was already wondering about medical costs and insurance coverage.

He said he and his wife will now raise Kyson.

"We'll get by best we can," he said. "We've had some divine intervention."

Staff writers Jose Antonio Vargas in Atkins, Ark., and Jill F. Bartscht in Washington contributed to this report.

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