Found amid tornado-strewn rubble and bodies in the Tennessee town of Castilian Springs was a tiny miracle — a rugged infant boy who survived lying face-down in the mud for hours during the night wearing only a T-shirt and diaper that dangled off his bottom.
The remarkable survival of 11-month-old Kyson Stowell has helped the battered town and its exhausted rescue workers cope with the carnage.
The town was smashed by tornadoes Tuesday, leaving six people dead — including Kyson's 24-year-old mother, Kerri Stowell, whose body was found late Tuesday night in the same field where her son was later found face-down in the mud. Kyson was located around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, about 100 yards from where his home once stood.
Firefighters David Harmon and Carl Wagner from neighboring Wilson County, found the baby. They had come into Sumner County to help local officials with the search and resuce effort They were led to the field by a canine search and rescue team headed by Dr. Melissa Riley. Working their way through the pitch-black darkness, they shined their flashlights on the wreckage of the town.
Half of a boat, an entire motor and a transmission torn from a car, and a couch lay in the middle of the field. There were also plenty of bricks from a post office that no longer stood.
Though the dogs were trained to pick up on live human scent, there appeared to be nothing alive in the messy gloom.
Wagner was the first to notice a baby stroller propped up against a fence. Then Harmon said he saw what he thought was a baby doll, face-down in the mud with both arms above his head, motionless.
"We knew there was some kids that had lived in the area. I was telling my partner, 'Hey there's a baby doll here,'" Harmon said. "But before I could completely get that out of my mouth, the baby moved its body."
The infant was covered in mud and grass and wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a dangling diaper.
"The diaper was hanging halfway off the kid," Harmon said. "When the exposed bottom wiggled just a little bit, I said, 'It's not a baby doll. It's an actual human.'"
Harmon said that he felt the baby was twitching in response to their voices and approaching footsteps. "It's like he was letting me know he was there. 'I'm here, I'm alive. Help' is kind of the way I feel about it."
Riley said she heard Harmon yell, "Hey I've got a baby here!"
Keeping the head in line with the spine as a precautionary measure, the two firefighters turned the baby over.
"Once he was rolled onto his back, he took a gasp of air and immediately started crying," Harmon recalled.
The little boy had been overlooked the night before by a search crew that had also included rescue dogs trained to pick up live human scent. That earlier search recovered one victim's body, which Harmon learned later was Kyson's mother.
Riley had asked for permission to comb the area again as a secondary search team.
"Because of the number of structures in that area, there was a probability that more people might still be out there. So I asked for permission to search again," Riley explained.
"Things get so word of mouth during disaster," she said. "The area may have been searched, may not have been. But sometimes that information gets changed from person to person, so it's best to look it over a couple times more if you have the resources."
Though the dogs are trained to pick up live human scent, Riley said it was possible the baby was covered in so much dirt and junk that the dogs missed his scent. And the rescuers were working against the clock. A cold front with hail and lightning was moving into the area within a few hours, so the the rescuers had a small window in which to work before they would have to stand down for the storm to pass.
The next search of the area was scheduled for daylight, and the rescuers agree that it would have been too cold for the baby to survive.
Keith Douglas, interim emergency medical services director for Sumner County, who reported to the scene after the discovery, said that the tornado hit the area at approximately 10:15 p.m. Tuesday. The baby had only a few scratches on him, but rescuers were concerned about his temperature.
"Even though temperatures weren't drastically cold, the baby had been wet from the rain and out there for several hours, and that can take quite a toll for a baby body's ability to maintain temperature," he said.
The boy was reunited with his maternal grandparents and his stepfather, who'd survived the tornado.
Kyson was a hardy infant, Douglas said.
"You always hope there are survivors, but after going on for a couple hours the reality of finding a survivor is slim, once it gets to that point," he said.
Harmon said, "Something like this, I guess it gives you a little bit of a happy ending to a traumatic night. It makes everything you do worth the training and worth the time you put into it. You deal with death and dying all the time, and when you have something good like that, it helps."
Riley said, "It's a real big morale booster. It made everyone see all this training, and this one chance to make a difference. It's all worth it."