Afterward A Paramedic Works Alone

One Family Deals With Tragedy

After the tornado, Oklahoma City paramedic Steve Finley was sent to a middle school gym in Bridge Creek, a community hit by 300 mph winds. The gym looked like a battlefield hospital.

For hours, Finley was the only paramedic there. "My greatest fear was that this gymnasium, instead of a triage center, was going to turn into a morgue," he recalls.

Samantha Darnell and her husband Deon arrived at the gym after the tornado obliterated their home and ripped their 3-week-old son, Ashton, from her arms.

"I held my son in my arms and I kissed him on his face," Samantha Darnell remembers of the moments just before the tornado. "And that's my last memory I have of my son. I don't know what happened to him after that. I didn't know if my son was dead or alive."

Tornado Connections
Learn more about some of those featured on "Tornado," the July 27 edition of 48 Hours.

Three days passed before Ashton's body was found. "I think it was more a relief than anything, just to know that he was found," says Samantha Darnell.

For Deon Darnell, the loss was doubled. When he regained his senses after the tornado passed, he found his mother, Lucille, lying in the debris.

"By the time I crawled to her, she was gone," remembers Deon, who says his mother was his best friend. Deon Darnell's father Blaine was also badly injured.

More and more injured people continued to arrive at the gym. But no ambulances were coming to take people away. Hours passed and Finley was still working alone. "I don't think anyone knew we were here for a while," he says. "It was really pandemonium."

Tom Tinneman was among the injured lying on the gym floor, along with his two daughters, Tawny, then 9, and Kylee, who was 6. Both girls were in critical condition. "I checked them both out, and things looked really, really bleak," Finley says.

Of the two, Tawny was in worse condition: She was near death. When help did arrive, Tawny and Kylee were among the first to leave for the hospital.

Deon Darnell's father followed. He survived.

Tom Tinneman, who had fractured his pelvis, severed his tailbone and broken his collarbone, was the last to leave the gym.

His wife Cindy was driving home when the tornado forced her to take shelter in another town. She drove 45 minute to the hospital to see her daughters and her husband. Her daughters didn't look good when she first saw them.

"There was no life in that baby," she says of Tawny. "She was having to have a breathing machine to breathe on. She didn't do anything; she just laid there."

Both girls were in comas, purposely induced by doctors to help them heal. Kylee woke up after two days. But Tawny didn't wake up after the drugs wore off. For the next four weeks, Tawny showed little sign of life.

"She's fighting just to stay alive, and even if we keep her alive, we don't know if she'll wake up. And if she wakes up we don't know what we're going get back," Tom Tinneman said at the time.

Doctors said that Tawny had a 50 percent chance of coming out of her coma, Cindy Tinneman recalls.

While lying next to Tawny in the hospital, Kylee often spoke to her unconscious sister. "I'd say, 'I love you, and I want you to wake up,'" says Kylee, who thinks that Tawny heard her. Finley, the paramedic who had saved their lives, often visited the girls at the hospital.

Every once in a while, Tawny would grip her mother's hand.

Then almost a month after the tornado, Tawny woke up and told a nurse that she hadn't slept very well.

Everyone was shocked. Recalls Tom Tinneman: "The nurses were excited, and everybody was excited. And it was like she just got on the fast track from that moment on."

"There's no other way to explain it than it's a miracle," he says.

Today Tawny says that she thought the experience - tornado, injuries and coma - was a dream.

Finley, who is now in medical school, often visits the Tinnemans at their new house, just a few miles from Bridge Creek, where the tornado destroyed the Tinneman's mobile home. "He's a miracle worker," Cindy Tinneman says of the paramedic. "If Steve Finley hadn't been there..."

The Tinnemans have a new house, built by volunteers. The couple put in a state-of-the-art tornado shelter.

Deon and Samantha Darnell also had to make a new start. "You quit looking for answers after a while," says Deon Darnell. "And you just go on with living."

The Darnells have a new house, near Oklahoma City, built by Habitat for Humanity. They moved into their house, just months before the arrival of their new baby Gabriel.
Gabriel turns one this week, and the couple is expecting another baby within days.

Gabriel has given the Darnells hope for the future. "Babies are God's way of saying that life goes on, and we're living proof of it," says Samantha Darnell.

But they also think about Ashton, only 3 weeks old when killed by the tornado. Says Deon Darnell: "There's not a day that goes by that - you know, we don't think of him." And the Darnells mourn the loss of Deon's mother Lucille.

Locating Lost Photos
Find out more about Kenn Bird's project. Cox Cable's Channel 18 in Oklahoma is cablecasting lost photos recovered by Bird's group through September.

The Darnells were helped by photographer Kenn Bird, who in the last year, has collected, catalogued, restored and attempted to return more than 10,000 photographs blown away by the tornado. "These are the one items that are irreplaceable and (that) mean the most to people," Bird says.

Recently Deon Darnell, who had thousands of photos of his family, looked through Bird's catalog, and was excited to find a photo of his late son. "I don't have the words to express what I'm feeling," he says.

To read about the storm itself, go back to A 300 MPH Monster.

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