N'wide driver McClure, his family starting over a year after tornado
With the heart of a Disney princess, 5-year-old Mabreigh McClure dotes on her three younger sisters. She helps Maryleigh, 3, and Mirabella, 21 months, pick through toys or select their pajamas. She cradles 6-week-old Merritt in her arms.
Mabreigh also looks out for her parents, especially her father, Eric, who races in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Once, after he was involved in wrecks in back-to-back events, she offered this advice as he left for the next race: "Daddy, be careful when you hit the wall."
Although Mabreigh might be ready to grow up, she's still a little girl, one whose light brown hair dangles down her back. When her mother trimmed it one day, Mabreigh cried. She wanted flowing hair as long as Rapunzel's, one of her favorite characters.
Mabreigh lives in a Disney home. Her parents are, in her father's words, "Disney crazy" from their trips to the amusement park to the videos, dolls, toys, dresses and paintings in their house.
Yet, as is often the case in Disney movies, danger lurks.
And then strikes.
When the wind gusts at night or thunderstorms bellow, Mabreigh is frightened. Those moments take her back to a year ago today when a tornado struck the family's home as they huddled in a basement. They emerged unscathed physically, but the event altered time for Mabreigh. Now when she describes past events, she notes if they occurred before or after the tornado.
That night changed more than a girl's view of history. Everything changed for the family. They didn't have a home for seven months, living with family members most of the time. They faced challenges they couldn't have imagined before April 27, 2011, and reacted in ways they wouldn't have had that night never happened.
Of all that Eric McClure and his family have gone through in the last year, one of the most searing memories came a few days after the tornado. They returned to their three-story house in Abingdon, Va., to retrieve belongings that survived the storm. It was their first time back in the home since that night.
Mabreigh, normally calm, became anxious.
"I don't want to go! I don't want to go," she told her parents.
Mabreigh worried that the "mean old tornado," as she called it, would return when they were inside. Her father comforted, cajoled and carried her into the home. She buried her head into his shoulder after they entered, lip quivering, tears welling.
The home Eric and his wife Miranda thought they'd spend the rest of their lives in now scared their little girl.
In 60 years previous, only 11 tornadoes struck Washington County, nestled in Southwest Virginia along the Tennessee border. So when Eric McClure and his friend Artie Hall talked about the impending weather as the wind picked up in late April last year, it was thunderstorms, not tornadoes, they discussed.
They chatted after church, ending a night with their families that started with dinner at a Cracker Barrel in nearby Wytheville, Va., and ended with a Wednesday night service at Rural Retreat Baptist Church.
Then they headed home while the storms approached.
As phone calls provided weather updates during their 45-minute drive home and the sky darkened, Eric and Miranda decided to take precautions when they returned.
Miranda hustled the kids to the unfinished basement where Christmas ornaments and remnants from the addition to their deck, completed only hours earlier, resided. Eric grabbed his daughters' pajamas and an air mattress and gathered their teacup poodles, Annabelle and Penelope, before joining his family under the staircase.
The storm struck a short time later. Miranda clutched Mirabella. Eric held Maryleigh and shielded his wife and Mabreigh.
The tornado, at speeds upwards of 110 mph, shook their home and peeled away parts of the roof. Windows shattered as wayward trees and branches attacked the house.
And then it was over.
Eric texted friends telling them what happened. One person he contacted was Pastor Jason McNeese of Rural Retreat Baptist Church, located about 45 miles east of Abingdon. After the center of the storm system passed, McNeese told Eric he walked outside his home and saw "the most heinous-looking storm filled with lightning. There was a green haze in the sky, but this particular cloud was as black as coal."
Eric and his family remained in the basement for about four hours, well past midnight, as reports of more storms circulated.
A tornado with maximum wind speeds of 140 mph avoided the McClure's home but struck Glade Spring, Va., about 15 miles away, just after 1 a.m. The storm killed four, making it one of the deadliest tornadoes in Virginia in more than half a century. It was part of a series of tornadoes April 27-28 that killed more than 300 people nationwide and ranks as one of the deadliest outbreaks since 1950.
From the basement, Eric and his family saw the damage in their backyard. A mangled swing set, twisted, torn and trampled, lay in the yard. When Mabreigh saw it, her eyes watered.
"Oh no, my swing set," she said.
Mabreigh asked her dad if he could fix it in the morning.
Eric's heart broke. No matter how much he wanted, he couldn't fix that.
Eric McClure looks forward to tonight's Nationwide race at Richmond International. Two days after the tornado struck his home a year ago, he was at Richmond. He admits his thoughts were back home, even though his family told him to go.
"I would like to go race better at Richmond just because I was not there mentally in April," said Eric, who finished 32nd in the race a year ago. "I feel like I want to get back there and get back to normal."
Normal has a different meaning for Eric since the tornado struck.
With the house unlivable, furniture ruined by the rain that poured through the torn roof and some personal items damaged beyond repair, the family spent the next couple of weeks with Eric's parents, who lived a short walk away.
With Eric's dad traveling and just his mom around to help Miranda and the kids, it could be overwhelming, so the family moved in with Miranda's parents in Chilhowie, a town of less than 2,000 about 20 miles from Abingdon.
They stayed there for most of the summer and much of the fall. The family rented a motorhome so Miranda and the children could travel to a few races with Eric, but even then they couldn't escape the memories of April 27.
As they stayed in the motorhome in early August at Iowa Speedway, a Midwestern storm struck. Thunder and lightning accompanied winds that rocked the motorhome. The girls couldn't sleep. Warnings about the thunderstorms and strong wind gusts advised people not to be in an RV.
Eric admits had they not gone through the events of April 27, they likely would have stayed, but that night changed everything. They quickly packed and got in their car to outrun the storm, heading to a hotel. They couldn't find a vacancy. Nearby hotel rooms were packed with race fans. They drove more than 50 miles before they found a hotel with a vacancy. The storm avoided the speedway, but not their hotel. A flying road sign struck their car.
At least they were together, unlike early March 2012 when severe storms struck Southwest Virginia. Eric was in Phoenix for that weekend's race when the storm headed toward Chilhowie and his family.
Miranda, nearly nine months pregnant, told the kids they would camp out in the basement that night with her parents. She didn't tell them about the storms and possible tornado activity.
Calm in front of her children, Miranda admits, "I was the one freaking out."
Eric tried to reach his family. When he couldn't, he admits "it [was] natural to think the worst."
Eventually, they connected and Eric talked to Miranda and his daughters, who were still unaware of the storms, which harmlessly passed.
That night, Eric texted his friend, Pastor Jason McNeese, about his frustrations with not being there.
Eric wrote: "It is very a helpless feeling when the only comfort you can offer is the sound of your voice."
It was time to say goodbye.
Eric McClure stood alone in the empty home last month. The home's sale soon would be completed.
The family lived there only two and a half years but so much had happened there. This was where Mabreigh blossomed, Maryleigh took her first steps and Mirabella first lived after her arrival.
On that day, those memories and more returned. There were the campouts Eric had in the den with his daughters that became a weekly ritual. It started with the Dora the Explorer tent that was big enough for two children. That first night, when Miranda went to check on them, she saw Eric's legs sticking out of the tent. The girls wanted him to sleep in the tent with them.
Such memories came to Miranda when she walked through the home a final time. She also was struck by how it "smelled like home."
Then it was time to go.
A variety of reasons led to the move, but Mabreigh's reaction to the home since the tornado also played a role. Around Christmas, she surprised her parents with a drawing on a small chalkboard.
"Here's a picture of our house during the tornado,'' she told them.
She drew the family in the basement. Beside the house were scribbles -- "there's the tornado," she said. At the top of the picture, she drew straight lines to signify the rain.
This spring, when Miranda's mother took the girls out for ice cream one day, Mabreigh begin to sing "if your house gets hit by a tornado'' and "if your swing set gets blown over by a tornado."
While those memories remain, fresh ones are made in their new home.
They found a three-story home on 12 acres in Chilhowie, closer to their church and Miranda's parents. Once a farm, now it's a playground for the children.
They moved after the NASCAR season ended in November. As they unpacked boxes and settled in, the girls worried that Santa Claus wouldn't know their new address and would skip them. They asked their parents constantly about if he would know where to find them.
Christmas morning, they saw that Santa knew.
Another big day was Mabreigh's birthday party. It was memorable not for the inflatable slide in the yard, the cotton candy machine or the Rapunzel theme, but for her reaction. After she opened her gifts, her parents told her she had one more left. It was from Rapunzel. Mabreigh had no doubt it was. She believes her dad talks to Rapunzel and other characters on the phone.
The gift was a champagne-colored Rapunzel formal dress. Mabreigh's eyes grew wide and she glowed with excitement as she held the gift. A couple of days later, she wore the dress all day.
"When you start creating those memories,'' Miranda said of Christmas and Mabreigh's birthday, "then that becomes home."
One that doesn't scare their little girl.