ONE YEAR AFTER THE STORM
Different responses brought similar results
Saturday, March 02, 2013 6:00 AM
Few people can say their first year on the job was as eventful or intense as Jim Scroggin's, transportation director for West Clark Community Schools.
Jim Scroggin, director of transportation for West Clark Community Schools, was filling in for a driver and was taking special needs students home at the time of the tornado. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Last year, the Madison resident caught a first-hand glimpse of a deadly tornado-producing storm system that ripped through Henryville. He then was tasked with assisting the school district in rebuilding.
"The gym was there one minute and gone the next," said Scroggin, who worked for more than 20 years in transportation for Madison Consolidated Schools and then in New Palestine. "We had lockers that literally blew down the hallway and took the entry doors out."
While Scroggin wasn't at Henryville on March 2, 2012, he was behind the wheel of a bus near Borden, making him one of the first people in the school district to spot the storm.
He was driving a special needs bus from a school that elected to dismiss its students on the belief that the storm was still far enough away. The corporation was aware of the warnings, but some administrators thought time was on their side.
"The whole time I'm running the bus, I have this sense that something is just not right," Scroggin said.
Having heard reports of a possible tornado in the area, Scroggin and his bus aide were ready to identify a safe place, which turned out to be a residence with a well-stocked, full basement. He dropped off two children before he looked out the window and spotted a massive funnel cloud with a small funnel cloud attached to it.
"Oh, it was huge. It was huge. And it didn't look like it was moving," he said. "But what I found out later, after doing some research, was that if you see a tornado and it doesn't look like it's moving, it's coming right at you."
The bus returned to the home and its occupants sought shelter. Scroggin radioed the school and told the central office the names of each child he had with him.
Then, they waited.
Meanwhile, the deadly storm system swept across the region taking countless homes and buildings and killing 13 Indiana residents.
In the aftermath, Henryville became the posterchild of the destruction. The town and much of the school were described in one simple word: Gone.
Back at the central office, Scroggin and the other administrators quickly set up a task force to manage the disaster. They even had an approach for the inevitable influx of media calls.
They gave each other updates every 10 minutes.
"We really got organized in the office," Scroggin said.
He recalls anxiously waiting as each of his drivers checked in with the school.
"For the longest time, pretty late into the evening, I thought I lost a driver," he said. "When they came in, my heart went from my throat and back into my chest."
The cost damage from the storm quickly skyrocketed into the millions. The district reported a loss of seven vehicles, not including four contract buses.
Perhaps the most iconic image of the day was that of a bus that was blown into the entrance of a restaurant near the school. During the storm, the driver quickly made the decision in the middle of the route to turn around and seek shelter at the school. The driver and students evacuated the bus about one minute before it was destroyed.
Incredibly, every driver for the corporation returned to the school that day, including the driver whose bus was thrown into the diner.
Scroggin said an overlooked detail following the storm was that each of the schools in the district opted to respond to the event in different ways. Henryville dismissed its students, while other schools in the districts sheltered students.
And luckily, each decision was correct.
"Had we followed standard protocol (which was to shelter the students) in Henryville, we would have had mass casualties," he said. "I have no doubt about that. Was it dumb luck or divine inspiration that we let the kids go early?"
Since the tornado, Henryville has rebuilt itself, but signs of the storm remain. A new school is in place. New houses are popping up around town. And gas stations that were reduced to rubble are now functioning again.
Near the school, the restaurant that had a bus smashed into its front entrance affectionately renamed the entrance School Bus Stop.
The rebuilding of Henryville was fast-tracked with the help of local and state officials, Scroggin said. The school was put back nearly stone for stone.
"We put it back just like it was," Scroggin said. "Honestly, when I saw the school, I thought they were going to take bulldozers and push it over. But there was a lot of it that was salvageable. They went through everything, and they were very frugal."
There was little red tape to cut through, as officials convened special meetings to push the project forward, Scroggin added.
When the school needed inventory of items found in the wreckage, able bodies appeared. When they needed a special permit, they ascended to the top of the list. When a grant opportunity sprouted up, they were the first to know.
While students attended surrounding schools for the rest of that year, they returned to their own classrooms this school year - about five months after the storm.
"To be able to put that school back together and actually start school on time was remarkable to see," he said.
Now in his second year at the school, Scroggin and the administration - most of whom are certified school safety specialists - tour the region to speak and attend safety seminars.
As a result, more teachers are becoming trained as school safety specialists, the district updated its radio system and has re-evaluated its emergency plan for sheltering students.
Scroggin said he looks back at the traumatic day, he can't help but think about the strong response by the local community and those beyond.
Within days, the district had an entire warehouse filled with supplies he said. They had mountains of Crayons, piles of notebook paper and plenty of pens and No. 2 pencils.
And as the school persisted, the townspeople picked up the pieces, too.
"This school year has been really good, and it's really drawn that community together. It's really tight-knit," he said.