EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Senior Airman Trenton Pettus knew bad weather was headed toward his family home near Athens, Ala.
But, the 25-year-old didn’t know just how bad it was going to be.
On April 28, a large tornado almost flattened the area where he grew up. For a few harrowing hours, he couldn’t reach his father or brother.
When he finally received word they were alive, it came with other news: When the two emerged from their respective storm shelters, they found their homes destroyed.
Two of his father’s neighbors were dead. The town was demolished.
“My dad came out and found a light pole through his truck,” Pettus said. “Everything he had was pretty much gone.”
Distraught, Pettus called his flight chief late that night to let him know he wanted to get home to help.
“He was pretty bent up,” Master Sgt. Chad Sims said. “I knew we couldn’t just sit idly by and not do something.”
The next morning when Pettus arrived at the 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, a group of airmen had already volunteered to go along and help any way they could.
“I got hit by a number of storms in high school living on the Gulf Coast,” Senior Airman Thad Wright, 26, said. “I know what it’s like to need people to come help you.”
Wright called back home to Pearl River, La., and his own family was quick to send over chainsaws and safety gear the men would need.
That Friday, 11 airmen rode up to Alabama with Pettus.
When they arrived, the scale of the devastation was awe-inspiring.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” said Senior Airman Jacob Sayles, 25.
Pettus’ dad’s neighborhood was gone, nothing left but a pile of rubble.
At his brother’s place, a little over a mile away, huge oak trees, over 5 feet wide, had fallen into homes, dicing them in two.
From dawn to dusk, the airmen went from house to house, helping family members and elderly neighbors. They made quick work of it with seven strong, young men sawing trees and others hauling off the wood.
At one home, it took hours to remove a large tree that was dangling over the roof. By clearing a tree at another trailer, the resident was able to get inside to get his belongings before the landlord planned to torch the now-condemned building.
Pettus said his brother told him the Air Force team was able to get more done in one day than dozens of residents had been able to accomplish all week.
“I wasn’t really surprised, I’m sure the guys know I’d be the first to stand up to help any one of them if they needed it,” he said. “But, that they were willing to go spend a weekend, it helped out tremendously.”