June 16, 2024

The calm in the storm

A greenfield tradition lives on despite the damage. The town's Scouts of America put out Memorial Day flags in front of Dorsey and Gymer's home.

GREENFIELD — On May 21, Scott Gymer of Greenfield had just made it in the back door of his house with the dog when he heard the telltale sound of trees snapping.

With more than 25 combined years of experience between fire, EMS, emergency management and law enforcement, Gymer knew he and his fiancée, Hannah Dorsey, were in danger. He told Dorsey to get to the basement and quickly followed suit.

Hannah Dorsey and Scott Gymer

“By the time I made it to the bottom of the steps, the house was basically gone,” Gymer recalled. “She was dazed and confused. I wrapped my arms around her, picked her up and headed into the bathroom. It was about that time it was on top of us. I looked up, right up in the center of it. The only thing I thought was, ‘Not today, bitch.’”

Wedged in between the washer and dryer, they felt the tornado’s suction and its effects.

“I remember having so much ear pressure, it’s insane. I felt like my head was about to pop,” Dorsey said. “I had opened my eyes a few times, but the debris was so thick. There were things in your eyes, the grittiness in your mouth and on your gums. It was indescribable, and you can’t breathe. I was gasping for air, trying to breathe into a hoodie but there was nothing — no air.”

On the floor of her basement, Dorsey was sure the worst would happen. “I wasn’t scared at that moment,” she said. “It was the clearest, calmest thought of ‘we’re going to die, and that’s OK.’ And then it was over.”

Search and Rescue

Their stairs leading out of the basement were gone, but they used a kayak that had flown in to get both of them and their 3-year-old golden retriever Willow out.

A view into the basement where Hannah Dorsey and Scott Gymer hid during the tornado.

Once they were on solid ground, Gymer’s years of training kicked in.

“I looked and saw the neighborhood was gone — the neighbors we’ve known for 15 years,” Gymer said. “I looked at her, she was fine. I said, ‘I’ve got to go to work,’ and I left.”

First he saw his neighbor Carl. After discovering Carl and his family were all OK, he moved to a neighbor’s house where two girls and their mother were trapped in the basement, one pinned in. A little shelf held up the corner of the house, only a small opening left to get them out.

“We started getting people in there as safe as we could,” Gymer said. “I told people who I was, my experience, and people started listening.”

As he was facilitating that rescue, a neighbor said there was an elderly gentleman down, bleeding all over and unable to move.

“I get over there, he was laying in the open, 5 ft away from him was a gas meter that was blown off. Natural gas was blowing,” Gymer said. “He was injured definitely. I got a few people over there, and we got him scooped out.”

Gymer knew Dan Beaman lived in the house across the street, but they didn’t know where he was. Then they heard him through the rubble.

“We located roughly where he was at. I was stressed, no one knew what was going on,” Gymer said. “Next thing I knew, [Nick] Perry was right at my side and Cory [Dorsey] was right there, so at least I had somebody.”

Perry and Cory are both Creston Police Officers, coworkers of Gymer who has worked as a Union County dispatcher for the past four years. Cory is also Hannah’s brother and Gymer’s future brother-in-law.

Hannah had called her brother as soon as Gymer left. Cory had no clue Greenfield had been hit as he was focused on a tornado reportedly headed toward the north side of Creston.

“Hannah called me and said hey a tornado hit Greenfield. Our house is gone, our friend Paige’s house is gone, the whole town is just gone,” Cory said. "

At the time, Cory and Hannah didn’t know if their mom, who was working at Fareway, was safe or not.

“I start trying to call my mom, but it was going straight to voicemail,” Cory said. “Of course, I start thinking the worst.” They later discovered their mom was safe after hiding in the store’s freezers.

Cory and Perry headed to Greenfield to help. They parked where they could and began making their way through the rubble on foot.

“When the tornado came through Creston in 2012, I saw that damage right after it happened, but I’ve never seen anything like Greenfield,” Cory said. “That’s where I grew up. I knew or recognized most of the faces.”

As they made their way to a man trapped beneath a pile of rubble, they saw Gymer leading the efforts.

“We go over there and at first, whoever was buried under the rubble, we couldn’t see him,” Cory recounted. “No part of him was visible. You could talk and he could talk back, but that was it. We started removing piece by piece, carefully. We’re all playing Jenga with the house pieces, making sure it doesn’t cave in on the guy.”

As they began to uncover Beaman, they realized he had a severe leg injury and a piece of concrete or brick resting on the top of his head.

“We needed to put a C-collar on him because of his neck injuries,” Cory said. “This is when you look for the EMT or paramedic who pulls something out of their bag because the ambulance is right there, but there was nothing.”

That’s when Gymer said he needed a towel or a blanket, something he could roll up to use as a makeshift C-collar.

After they recovered a few towels that had blown in, they needed something to attach the towels to his neck.

“He said, I need a couple belts, does anyone have belts?” Cory said. “Guys were taking off their belts and Scott used that to stabilize the towel.”

From there, they loaded Beaman on the nearest undamaged door they could find. With roads blocked with debris, trees and power lines, an ambulance wasn’t going to make it through.

“Some guy said, ‘hey that’s my truck, load him up,’” Cory said. “Scott hopped on and went with him.”

As he looked around, Cory saw similar scenarios playing out at homes around the neighborhood.

Back at what was left of the house, Hannah was working with others to help neighbor Dale Nelson, who had a severe spinal injury.

According to Nelson’s wife Kelly, Dale was taken by helicopter to Methodist in Des Moines where he had eight fused vertebrae. He will be wearing a neck brace until July and is very sore, but Kelly said he is blessed to be alive. Scott said Beaman is back home and on the mend.

Though four people lost their lives in Greenfield, Hannah and Gymer said their neighborhood had no fatalities and only the two serious injuries. Other than bumps and bruises, the couple had no injuries to themselves.

Experience

Even before the tornado hit, Gymer knew firsthand the tragedy of Mother Nature. In 2022, an EF4 tornado, the same size as the one that hit his own home, went through Winterset, killing seven people.

Gymer was working dispatch at the Union County Law Enforcement Center in Creston the night it hit.

“It was a typical day, storm warnings come through from National Weather, everyone has alerts,” Gymer said. “We weren’t really under much of anything from what I remember. But it was coming up through. I knew by radio traffic there was a big issue in Winterset.”

The phone only rang once that night. It was a 911 rollover from Madison County as their lines were overloaded. What he didn’t realize when he answered the phone is that this was the 44th time the caller dialed 911, trying to reach someone.

The caller, Kuri Bolger, said Gymer answering the phone was the first spark of hope she had.

“I had to use my nose to call because my left hand was trapped, Bolger said. “I used my mom’s phone. She landed behind me, but her arm was on my shoulder. She told me to use it.”

Bolger and her family were visiting her mom from their home in Blue Springs, Missouri. In the home with her were her mom, step dad, three children, husband and brother. At this point, her mom, two of her children and her husband were gone.

“My exact words were that my babies were dead,” Bolger said. “He was really good at trying to keep me calm.”

In emergency response, maintaining emotional distance can make the job easier. But Gymer knew in that moment, he would need to do whatever it took to keep her calm.

“I had to be that comforting voice on the other end of the phone,” he said. “It became more personal. Her and I were talking. I had to bring her back down to earth. We just talked about things to get her over the hump.”

To this day, Bolger still uses one of the breathing techniques he taught her that night. “He said to take a deep breath and breathe out like you’re kissing your grandma,” she recalled.

As Gymer relayed information to Madison County, he stayed on the phone. It wasn’t until there were first responders on scene that he finally hung up the phone.

As the voice of 911, Gymer said they rarely find out the rest of the story. He found solace that night talking with the officers on duty, debriefing the situation and just having them there with him.

But days later, Bolger wanted to talk to the man on the other side of the phone.

“He came to the hospital with some of the other officers and first responders,” she said. “It was extremely nice to put a face to the voice. I can still hear his voice. He didn’t have to ever reach out again or anything, but he does because he cares. He doesn’t do his job just to do his job, he does it because he cares so deeply.”

Brysen and Kuri Bolger, two survivors from a 2022 tornado in Winterset, smile with Gymer outside the hospital. Gymer was the 911 dispatcher on the phone with Kuri until first responders arrived.

Cory said most people wouldn’t be able to jump into action in person and also be able to use only his voice to assist from afar.

“There’s a lot of things you can train for, but I don’t think you can train to do both sides like that,” Cory said. “It takes a special person to be able to use just random objects to make lifesaving or medical equipment out of nothing, and also be able to sit behind a phone. I wouldn’t be able to stay behind a phone.”

Bolger had significant injuries, but fortunately her son, Brysen, suffered only a black eye and a sprained ankle.

“I ended up breaking my left lower leg. I have a rod, plates and screws,” she said. “My left arm was cut open in six different places because I had compartment syndrome. My pelvis snapped in half, and didn’t heal properly. They had to re-break it back home, and I was in a wheelchair for eight weeks once we got back home.”

Now when there are warnings for severe weather, Kuri and Brysen go to friends’ homes with storm shelters.

“Their homes are always open to us,” Kuri said. “Even if it isn’t super scary, we go have dinner and play games, just to make Brysen and myself feel safe.”

They were watching the weather the night of the Greenfield tornado, watching for information.

Though the town was in mass chaos, power was out and signal was tough to come by, Gymer messaged Kuri that same day to fill her in on what had happened to his home.

“I was sitting there praying,” Kuri said.

Kuri said she tries to keep 11-year-old Brysen’s life as normal as possible. “He absolutely loves to help other people. He’s always enjoyed helping others, but more so now. He tells me facts about tornadoes. Anytime he comes across a video or a news thing about a tornado, he watches it. He wants to be more educated.”

With two years of recovery experience under her belt, Kuri has some words of wisdom for the tornado’s victims.

“Accept help from other people. You just want to do everything yourself, but it helps them too to be able to help you,” she said. “Know that things will eventually get better. If you don’t give up, you will find the beauty in life again. Keep searching for the little things and keep appreciating those little things in life.”

Rebuild

After the dust settled and the immediate crisis was over, the weight of the tornado’s long-lasting impacts began to set in.

The next day, officers and deputies from Creston, Afton and Union County came to support Hannah and Gymer.

“They were like monkeys crawling around in this stuff,” Gymer said. “I kept getting told to stop digging.”

Hannah said the response has been amazing.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “People that do it for nothing, that come up and ask if they can dig something out of my house. They say sit down, let us do something for you.”

While Gymer was able to find Hannah’s engagement ring untouched in the rubble, most of their things weren’t so lucky.

“Our dog Piper died last year. Her ashes and her collar are gone,” Hannah said. “It’s stuff like that you wish you could find untouched and not Scott’s lunchbox for work or something stupid. I lost my purse with everything in it.”

They know they’ll be able to build their life back, but it won’t be at the plot on SE 2nd Street in Greenfield.

“I’ve lived in this town in 15 years and she grew up here,” Gymer said. “As far as building back right here on this spot, you’re not going to be able to. Not only for scenery, but just the memories.”

They plan to stay in the area, and may even return to Greenfield one day. Right now, it’s just about finding a place to call home.

One of the hardest parts of moving on will be the neighborhood splitting up.

“I’ve known some of these people since I was 5 years old, growing up in this town,” Hannah said. “It’s a neighborhood where if we’re gone and someone pulls in the driveway, we’re getting a phone call. Or if someone needs a dog let out, someone will let the dog out.”

“Everyone knew where the spare keys were at; everyone knew codes to houses,” Gymer added. “We didn’t care. It’s more than just your neighbor. It’s that small, family neighborhood.”

A group chat on Facebook had the neighbors suggesting buying a bunch of acreage to fit the whole group.

Bright Spot

Their home and personal belongings may be gone, but life will move on.

Only weeks before the tornado hit, they paid off a three-week trip to Italy, something they’ve been planning for nearly two years.

After they lost their home, Hannah thought they shouldn’t go, but friends and family encouraged them to take the trip.

“It’s something we’ve been working toward and it’s paid off,” Gymer said. “By God, I’m going.” The two leave July 10.

There’s also the big question around their October wedding. But like with their vacation, the couple decided to move forward with it.

With less than six months until the big day, the wedding may not look the way they had planned, but as long as they have each other, things will be OK.

“My wedding dress was found in a neighbor’s vehicle. It didn’t make it. It got shredded,” Hannah said. “Every piece of wedding décor, everything is gone.”

Hannah Dorsey's wedding dress for her October nuptials was found damaged in a neighbor's truck.

A big bourbon fan, Gymer has been stockpiling bottles for the wedding. Nearly all were recovered, and the wedding is sure to be a day to remember.

“I think keeping those long-term plans has helped them maintain some normalcy,” Cory said. “If he hadn’t have done what he did that day, that guy probably wouldn’t be here.”

Cheyenne Roche

CHEYENNE ROCHE

Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.