The most injured Crestonian in last year’s devastating EF2 tornado sat in her wheelchair Monday afternoon. She was in good spirits, cracking jokes and telling me all about her days as a baton twirler in the Creston Fourth of July talent show.
Connie Brentnall, 68, was severely injured by the tornado that struck Creston leaving millions of dollars in damages last April. The tornado very easily could have killed her and her son John.
The tornado picked them both up and lifted them airborne out of her home. Connie suffered significant injuries including a broken neck in three places.
The Brentnalls — including Connie and her two loving sons John and Terry — agreed to speak with the Creston News Advertiser Monday about what transpired the evening of April 14, 2012.
The day started with Connie and son John expecting to attend a 50th birthday party for Mitzi Cellan. The party was planned that evening at Cellen’s apartment at the newly-renovated Iowana Hotel.
After dinner, at about 6 p.m., Connie and son John sat down in the living room at her house at 1405 Clayton Road to watch television and relax before heading to the birthday party.
“We were both a little tired,” John said. “So, I turned on the television and shortly after that it started storming outside. It was bad enough outside we made the decision not to go to the birthday party.”
A severe thunderstorm warning was announced about 6:40 p.m. April 14, 2012.
“I was in the recliner dozing off,” John said, “but I do remember the warning being announced. I was groggy, but I stood up shortly after that and started walking toward the main window of the house. I pressed my nose to the glass and looked outside. There was no visibility. There was very little light. The only thing I could see were trees blowing sideways. Immediately, I knew something wasn’t right.”
Concerned, John called out for his mother. He thought she was in the kitchen or possibly on her way to the bathroom. He wasn’t for sure though. He called out for her again.
“It wasn’t even seconds after I called out for her a second time that the power blew,” John said. “I started hearing a rumble and I ran and barely made it into the nearby pantry. Bam. The tornado hit and instinct tells you just to hold on.”
John said he held on inside the pantry for probably 10 seconds. The tornado blew him and the pantry off the house’s foundation. He was a pinball inside the pantry, bouncing off the walls and floor. Canned goods and other grocery items ricocheted off John’s body.
When the ride eventually seized, he was still enclosed inside the framework of the pantry in the middle of Townline Street.
“I finally stopped,” John said. “I was on the highway about 60 feet away from the house, but had not lost consciousness. At that point, I had a bunch of debris on my body. I’m still laying inside (the pantry’s framework) on my right side and I can see the sky.”
John noticed immediately he was bleeding. The source of the blood was a puncture wound on the right side of his nose. The tornado had slung a pebble with enough force to break his skin leaving a hole in his nose.
“I didn’t know how much I was bleeding,” John said, “but knowing it was a wound on my face, I knew I had to get out of there as quickly as possible. I tried to call for help, but couldn’t get anyone.”
John eventually wiggled his way out of the rubble.
“I knew I had to get out of there. I was worried about mom,” John said.
John walked back to where his mother’s house used to be located and found her laying the yard. Connie was breathing, but was unconscious.
“I knew, because of my injuries, if I stopped to help her I would not be able to get up,” John said, “and I was not really in the position to help her. I saw she was breathing, so that gave me comfort and kept moving toward a neighbor’s house.”
John walked to a neighbor’s house. Upon arrival, he collapsed on their sidewalk. Another neighbor was an EMT professional and helped stabilize Connie.
“I don’t remember a single thing that happened from the time the tornado hit until I woke up in ICU,” Connie admitted during a CNA interview Monday. “They told me afterward I kept asking what happened and was I going to die?”
Greater Regional Medical Center, just blocks away, was also severely damaged by the tornado. However, their medical personnel arrived minutes after neighbors called them. They loaded both John and Connie in the ambulance and began giving them care.
“We weren’t at Greater Regional for more than 20 minutes,” John said.
They were both transferred by ambulance to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. John sustained a broken nose courtesy of the pebble that punctured his nose. He also received numerous cuts on his arms and legs.
Connie, though, received much more serious injuries.
She broke her neck in three places — the 5th, 6th and 7th vertebrae. She broke both collarbones and sustained a brain concussion. Connie was placed in the intensive care unit at Mercy Medical Center that night. She was conscious that night, and by Sunday she was still a little groggy, but was able to speak with family.
“I looked around and saw some family from out of state. Some people that were there I hadn’t seen in a very long time,” Connie said. “I was still a little groggy. I said to them: ‘What are you all doing here? Are we having a party?”
That drew a laugh from her family.
But, Connie said she wasn’t that out of it because later Sunday she asked someone from the medical staff if they were gay.
“I asked him and he said, ‘well, actually I am,’” Connie recalls. “So, I guess I wasn’t that out of it. I told him he was a good boy.”
Terry and John both admitted Connie has a way of lightening the mood and raising people’s spirits.
Connie spent three days in ICU, and a little more than three weeks in the hospital — including a portion of that in time spent in intensive physical therapy.
She was released from Mercy in early May 2012. She then spent about almost a full year recovering from her injuries in nursing homes in Osceola and Creston.
In May of 2013, Connie moved into Prairie View Assisted Living in Creston. Connie is still very weak on her right side. She’s in a wheelchair, but does use a walker and can get around her apartment by herself just fine.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” Connie said. “I cry sometimes because I used to be so active. I was out of the house everyday. I’d shop until I dropped. I used to practice baton twirling 2 to 4 hours per day. So, yes, it’s frustrating. But, this is the best place for me now to recover. They give me great care here. My spirits are still up.”