12/21/08 — After the storm: Tornado victim trying to pick up the pieces

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After the storm: Tornado victim trying to pick up the pieces

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 21, 2008 2:00 AM

A cold, driving rain brought consciousness back to Argiro Gomez Nov. 15.

It was well after midnight when he opened his eyes to the scene left by the tornado that touched down on his Kenly home.

"I was lying down on the floor, on my chest. I started looking around," he said. "There was all this debris, all this wood, and I looked up and was like, 'Where is the roof? Where are the walls?'"

His wife, Marilyn, was missing too.

"I called out for her. I said, 'Marilyn. Marilyn. Marilyn,' Gomez said. "I was looking for her but I fell. I fell a couple of times."

Minutes earlier he awoke in his son's bed to the sound of dogs barking.

"Then all of a sudden the puppies are all over me," he said. "Running all over my chest, you know?"

They must have felt the house shaking, Gomez added -- moving his hand frantically to recreate what the walls were doing when he came to.

"Then, something fell on me. It broke my head. It broke my nose," he said. "Something is running down my face so I touch it. It was thick and hot. It was blood."

He got up to turn on the bedroom light.

"That's when something hit me from behind," Gomez said. "I was knocked unconscious."

At the time, Marilyn was sleeping in the master bedroom.

The only reason Gomez was not beside her was because the family dogs were acting particularly wild -- so the couple decided to split them up between bedrooms -- and parents.

"At 11:30, she goes to sleep," he said. "She said, 'Goodbye honey. I love you. God bless you."

Gomez had no idea he would never see his wife again -- or that her "sweet" goodbye would be the words echoing in his mind more than a month after her death.

He tried to find Marilyn after that rain revived him.

He even woke his next door neighbor, who promptly called 911 and ran toward the wreckage with a flashlight.

But loss of blood was making him weak.

"I fell a couple more times," Gomez said.

He never made it to Marilyn.

"The last thing I remember is somebody picking me up, putting me in his truck and turning on the heat," Gomez said. "He said, 'Stay here Mr. Gomez. Don't get out.' And he told me an ambulance was on the way."

It wasn't until first responders arrived that he learned the fate of his 24-year partner, the mother of his only son.

"Before the ambulance took off, (my neighbor) came," Gomez said, tears rolling down his cheek. "She said, 'Mr. Gomez, they found Marilyn.' She was crying. I knew (Marilyn) was dead."

The 61-year-old was in too much pain to grieve.

And so he simply sat in an ambulance following medics' instructions, all the way to Raleigh's Wake Medical Center.

Gomez was offered pain medication, but refused it -- even as they cut into his chest and started drilling through ribs already cracked by the tornado.

Then a tube was inserted into his right lung to drain the blood that filled it after the organ collapsed.

"That was terrible," he said. "They had five people holding me down."

Doctors managed to stabilize Gomez later that morning.

And when he was well enough to understand, a Wayne County Sheriff's deputy told him officially what he accepted at his mangled home on Scott Road.

"He said, 'Your wife, she was found.' He said, 'I'm sorry but she didn't make it. She passed away,'" Gomez said as more tears started falling. "I asked him, 'Did she suffer?' He said, 'No. Not even a scratch.' I thanked God."

He was released from the hospital Nov. 18, his children by his side.

"The nurse, she said, 'Do you want to go home?'" Gomez said. "I said, 'I wish I could. I wish I could.'"

He knew the kitchen his wife loved so much was gone.

The yard where she ran with her dogs was now covered with debris, broken furniture and dry wall.

Still, he revisited the scene of her death -- more to pick up those things still salvageable than for closure.

The truth is he will likely never come to terms with it.

"I just looked at it and just couldn't believe it -- a 2,000-square-foot house lifted up from the foundation," Gomez said. "I thought I had the safest house of them all because it was surrounded by trees, but the tornado came from the front, lifted us up and threw us.

"How I survived, I don't know. I don't know what kept me from dying. But things will get nicer. I just have to try to live one day at a time. Life is so beautiful. It teaches you. Sometimes, God will just make you fall to see if you're strong enough to get back up."