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How could anyone survive that?
Carrie Gates survived being blown out of their house by a tornado.
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Carrie Gates is expected to be released from UW Hospital next week. - photo by Photo by Josh Gates

On the wall of Carrie and Josh Gates’ home in Platteville, there was a plaque that said, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”

That statement was reinforced the night of June 16, when Carrie Gates survived the destruction of their house by the EF2 tornado.

The duplex, at the corner of Staley Avenue and Gridley Avenue, was ripped off its basement foundation by the tornado. Carrie Gates was sucked out of the top floor of the duplex, landing in the front yard of the next-door house.

Carrie was the most seriously injured of the six Platteville residents injured in the tornadoes. She had two broken vertebrae in her neck, two broken vertebrae in her spine, five broken ribs, a gash in her shin, and numerous bruises, cuts and scrapes. The broken ribs caused both of her lungs to collapse.

“I’m recovering, step by step,” she said from her room at UW Hospital in Madison Monday night. “I’m going through physical therapy right now, and just taking it day by day. Everything is going to get better. I don’t have anything permanent. It’s remarkable.”

“There’s not many people in this world who got picked up by a tornado that big and lived to tell about it,” said Josh.

Carrie is projected to be discharged from UW Hospital next week. After that, she’ll have outpatient therapy.

Another priority for the Gateses will be finding a place to live. All that is left of their duplex is the basement. Their belongings were blown all over the south side of Platteville, as far south as Hillside Cemetery.

The Gateses are looking for a house that allows pets. Their dog, Dexter, and three cats survived the tornado. The Carrie and Josh Gates Benefit Fund has been set up at Dupaco Credit Union in Platteville.

The tornado

When the weather turned bad June 16, Josh decided to go storm chasing. He convinced his downstairs neighbor to go. The two went south of Platteville.

Around 10:50 p.m., the tornado formed in a pasture just west of Platteville. Josh, a foreman at Fink Fencing, said he had installed a fence there three weeks earlier.

“We had kind of thunderstorm conditions, and our electricity went out,” said Carrie. “So I went and got some candles, and I was trying to light the candles. I got to the third candle, and something swept me up, and I was gone.

“To me, it never sounded like a freight train noise. I just got one big whoosh out of it.”

She woke up either when she landed on the lawn next door, or when something hit her in the head.

“I was in a lot of pain and I knew I was pretty broken up,” she said. “I had to hold my head up with my hands.

“I felt like I was literally the only person on Earth. I started screaming because I knew if I was silenced myself, I’d be silenced forever. I was in that moment where I had to decide whether I was going to live or die. I had to decide to live.”

The Gateses’ downstairs neighbor, Tyler Steinbach, picked her up and carried her to a nearby house.

Josh, meanwhile, was near Ipswitch Road and College Farm Road when, he said, “We had to flee because we almost ran into the tornado ourselves.” They stopped briefly at an Amish residence, then saw a house with heavy damage, “and they said it was a tornado.”

Getting back into Platteville proved difficult because law enforcement had roads blocked off going into Platteville because of the tornado damage. Josh managed to get back into the city, though, and back to their house, to find that there was no recognizable house left.

“When I got home, I didn’t have a home anymore,” he said. “And that was a hard pill to swallow, because how could anyone survive that? It was a pretty sinking feeling, that I’d failed my wife.”

Panic-stricken, Josh started looking for Carrie, when he was told he was in the next-door house. Josh found her, seriously injured, but saying to herself, “I’m not going to die.”

“You could tell she was mentally keeping herself alive,” he said.

Getting her to the hospital was the next problem. Josh said it took a half-hour for an ambulance got to her, because of concern over fallen power lines in the area, with no operating street lights.

Carrie was taken by ambulance to Southwest Health, then transferred by ambulance to UW Hospital. Southwest Health had called for the Med Flight helicopter, but the thunderstorms that followed the tornadoes prevented the helicopter from flying.

Carrie underwent surgery to fuse five bones in her spine. She didn’t need surgery for her neck injuries.

The other happy detail of a horrible night is that the Gateses’ eight-month-old  Samoyed dog, Dexter, and their three cats, which went missing after the tornado, were found. Dexter is living in a house with a Siberian husky.

“I’ve really come to appreciate every minute detail of my life since this has happened,” she said. “People have been amazing, and the hospital has been amazing. Every card, every flower, everything — it’s just meant the world to us.

“Josh keeps saying I’m a miracle. I don’t think I’m a miracle, but I am amazed I’m still here.”

She may not be the only person who can say that. On the ground floor of the Gates duplex, where their storm-chasing neighbor slept, was a 300-pound air conditioner.

Since the tornado, Josh has been finding their possessions everywhere from the hillside north of West Business 151 to Hillside Cemetery.

“They’ve been finding our clothes in trees by the cemetery,” he said. “They found part of our roof. I have one of every pair of shoes I had.”

One of their possessions was found, dirty but undamaged — Carrie’s wedding dress.

“The things I expected to survive — my safe — are just shredded,” he said. “But a lot of our glassware survived, and our plates survived. The things I wouldn’t expect to break did, and the things I expected to break didn’t.”

The Gateses’ pets have posed a problem for finding a new place to live.

“We have been trying to find a place in Platteville to rent, but they don’t allow pets, and we’re not giving up our pets after all this,” said Josh.

Anyone who finds some of the Gateses’ possessions, or has a suggested place to live, are asked to call 778-7509.

The benefit fund is to help the Gateses replace what their renters’ insurance won’t replace under their policy limits.

“The important thing is my wife and our animals survived,” said Josh. “Our family is still intact.”

“To me,” said Carrie, “I still feel I have a positive outlook on things.”