This story was originally published on Feb. 10, 2016.
The school was the first to come back. Crushed by a tornado minutes after buses with children fled the parking lot ahead of the killer storm, Henryville Junior-Senior High reopened in six months. Bulldozers rumbled alongside U.S. 31 through the night as crews rebuilt the school in eight-hour shifts.
It was March 2, 2012. An EF-4 tornado came together when a cold front moved through a warm Southern Indiana day, creating a monster that tore a 50-mile swath through the area. Damage was estimated at more than $1 billion, and Henryville took a direct hit. The combined Subway and Marathon gas station, reduced to a pile of metal and sticks, reopened a year later. It gave away sandwiches to residents still recovering from a storm that smashed more houses than it spared.
Fifteen months after its roof peeled off like a tomato can lid, Goodfellas Pizza returned in June 2013 to a full crowd.
“Had we sat there and worried about feeling sorry for each other, we never would have made it back,” says Henryville Junior/Senior principal Troy Albert. “We were just trying to pick each other up and make things whole again. The community came together, with the support of outside communities — around the state, and country.”
The last major rebuild was Mt. Moriah Church. The church met where it could, including tents, but not until February 2015 did its new building open across the street on Otisco Road. A townwide recovery that took three years was mostly finished.
It started with the school.
“The school was put together first,” Albert says, “and everything else came around it in due time.”
Including the Henryville High boys basketball team. In its own way, a program that has won six conference titles and two sectional championships — in 2004 and ’05 — was leveled by the tornado of March 2, 2012. But the Hornets are back, all the way back like their town, and they will be in Indianapolis on Saturday for the Circle City Showcase.
Their best player is a sophomore named Nick Walker, who hit a game-winner on Jan. 23 against Class 1A No. 6 Borden. Four years ago the tornado threw a school bus at Nick Walker’s house.
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The basketball goal was the only thing left.
The Hornets play in Furnish Gymnasium, named for the winningest coach in school history — Herman Furnish won 160 games from 1941-52 — and on March 2, 2012, the beautiful gym became an outdoor court. The walls were gone. Rain poured through the gnarled girders looming above the court. At the south end one basket was hanging down, 10 feet from a hardwood floor that had been ripped apart.
The gym had a security camera. Henryville coach Jared Hill has seen what happened to Furnish Gym.
“One second the wall was there, and there’s a flash, and then the entire wall is gone,” says Hill, 33, a 2001 Henryville graduate. “Lights flicker, flash, and then there’s nothing left.”
Most of Henryville’s 1,900 residents stayed, but a handful of families left that fall for other school districts. That included the best two guards on the team. When the team’s third-best guard tore his ACL before the season, Henryville was helpless. The Hornets went 0-20 in 2013.
Poor Dan Carmony, he never had a chance. Carmony, who had won sectional titles at Morristown, Indian Creek and Rushville, was hired by Henryville before the 2012-13 season. He replaced Perry Hunter, who had announced his retirement before the tornado that killed 34 people in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. It killed one person in Henryville — the coach’s uncle, Wayne Hunter. Carmony lost his first 30 games, went 3-18 in 2014, and was replaced last season by Hill.
Hill, a stocky 6-foot guard, had played four years on the Henryville varsity. His dad, Terry, sure did love Henryville basketball. Terry Hill was friends with Jack Brooks, the coach on those 2004 and ’05 teams, but he died of liver cancer a month before Brooks led the Hornets to the first of the only two sectional titles in program history. The Hornets also had reached the sectional final in 1999 and 2001, but they weren’t at full strength. Not with Terry Hill’s boy — Jared, now the coach — having endured three foot surgeries in 18 months.
“I’ll always wonder how we would have done if I was healthy,” says Jared Hill.
He’s now the Henryville coach and an English teacher, and a father of two kids with two more — twins — on the way. On March 2, 2012, Jared Hill huddled with family in the basement as the tornado ripped overhead. A few minutes later the storm delivered a follow-up insult. Hail the size of baseballs pounded Hill’s home, driving through the vinyl siding, the insulation, the drywall.
“I had hail inside my house,” says Hill, whose first Henryville team went 9-13 last season. “Some people were more affected by hail than the tornado itself. Some houses were torn to shreds by hail.”
Up the road, behind Budroe’s Family Restaurant on Ferguson Street, sixth-grader Nick Walker emerged from his basement to find a house that was mostly untouched. Nick opened the door to devastation. On his street, every house was gone. Every house but his.
He’d find out later what had spared his house, and maybe the 14 people inside.
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Want a Henryville story? This is a Henryville story:
On March 2, 2012, Sherman “Budroe” Sykes hurried eight other people — customers, employees — into the basement of Budroe’s, across the street from the high school. They heard what sounded like a sonic boom, then silence. They came upstairs to find a school bus, the big orange kind, wedged into the restaurant like a doorstop.
Sykes reopened his restaurant six months later. New name:
Budroe’s Bus Stop.
Not far behind Budroe’s, on Front Street, sits the house where Nick Walker was among 13 friends and family waiting out the tornado. Draw a straight line from the orange bus in the school parking lot, and it was headed for Nick Walker’s house. Budroe’s got in the way.
“If the bus missed the restaurant,” says the coach, Jared Hill, “it would have destroyed Nick’s home.”
Nick Walker is a quiet 6-2 sophomore averaging 15 points per game. His 3-pointer in the final minute against Borden on Jan. 23 pulled Henryville within 41-40. After a free throw made it 42-40, Hill drew up a play that was thwarted by a tipped pass. Time running down, Walker looked to Hill on the bench.
“Hit a game-winner,” Hill yelled to him.
Walker’s 3-pointer beat the buzzer, and Borden. Three weeks later Walker is about to get his first look at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Henryville plays Crawford County at noon Saturday, the first of the Circle City Showcase’s five games.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Walker says. “We’re from a small town, and going to the capital of Indiana and playing in the Pacers stadium is kind of cool.”
The kids from Henryville are coming. Where they came from? A place of terror.
Most of the team was in junior high on March 2, 2012, sitting inside school buses outside Henryville Junior-Senior. School had just ended. Buses were warming when the wind started blowing and the sirens started roaring and school administrators made a decision that probably saved hundreds of lives.
Instead of pulling the kids off the buses and putting them into the school’s hallway — the way they had always practiced the tornado drill — the buses were told to get moving. The tornado was coming here. Be somewhere else.
The school was destroyed minutes later.
“The hallways were wind tunnels,” says the principal, Troy Albert. “Doors were flying 100 mph. Now we put the kids in places that are solid brick, with as few doors as possible: Closets, bathrooms, locker rooms. And I can tell you this: The tornado drills we have now, everybody takes it pretty seriously.”
That day, it changed the kids at Henryville. When an EF-5 tornado three years ago killed 24 around Moore, Okla., and ruined two elementary schools, Henryville students filled 300 book bags with supplies for the kids in Moore and raised $3,000 in gift cards for the teachers.
“And that’s just one example,” Albert says. “Even today, when something happens (elsewhere), kids come in and say, ‘What are we going to do?’ In the past that didn’t happen. Now they’ve lived it.”
Lived it, survived it, somehow thrived. Henryville is coming to town on Saturday, and bringing its best boys basketball team (10-5) since the sectional champs of 2005. Ninety miles south on I-65, family members will wait for the school bus to bring the team home Saturday night. They will sit in a school parking lot that looks just like it did the day before March 2, 2012.
“Everything was put together exactly the way it was,” Albert says.
Better, sounds like.