By Mike Pound
“Are you sleeping at night?”
Crystal Whitely pondered the question posed to her for a second. Then, through a tight smile, she said, “No, not really. I don’t know if I will ever sleep like I used to.”
It was a statement that was sort of tough for me to get my head around. Imagine something so horrific, so life changing that you don’t think you will ever sleep like you did before that terrible thing happened.
Like a lot of people on the late afternoon of May 22, Crystal didn’t give the weather warnings she heard on TV much thought at first. Dire weather predictions are something you get used to when you live in the Midwest. Then Crystal’s father, Felix Whitely, called her on her cellphone.
“He said, ‘You better get the kids and get into your bathtub,’” Crystal said.
So the young mother of three collected her children — Shante, 10, Trenton, 6, and Keana 4 — and ran to the bathroom in her home at 1602 E. 18th St. Crystal had her children climb into the tub first and then laid on top of them.
The storm ripped through the small house and picked the bathtub off the ground with Crystal and her children inside. The bathtub was thrown out of the house and tipped on its side, tossing Crystal and her children out of it.
“The noise was so loud I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t even tell if my children were screaming,” she said.
As the storm tossed the bathtub, Crystal felt a small leg by her hand. She didn’t know who the leg belonged to but she grabbed onto it and refused to let go. When the tornado passed, Crystal was in her front yard. Keana was next to her. Shante and Trenton were missing.
Despite the pouring rain and her numerous injuries, including broken ribs and a collapsed lung, Crystal picked up Keana and frantically began looking for Shante and Trenton. The first person she saw was her neighbor, Crystal Cogdill. She was looking for her 9-year-old son, Zach.
The women spent a few frantic minutes searching the area for their children but as her adrenaline rush wore off, Crystal Whitely knew she needed to get herself and Keana to a hospital. Someone — she’s not sure who — drove them to a triage center set up at 20th and Main streets.
“I was in shock. I was shivering and kept going in and out,” she said.
Medical personnel at the triage center took Keana from Crystal and then she was taken to Freeman. She would find out much later that Keana had been taken to Cox Medical Center in Springfield.
Sometime Sunday night, Aleta Whitely, Crystal’s mother, had to tell her daughter that Shante had been killed. Much later, Moses Caton, Crystal’s ex-husband, called from a hospital in Kansas to say that Trenton also had been killed. Later, she found out that Zach, her neighbor’s son, had also been killed in the storm.
That’s why Crystal doesn’t sleep much right now.
It’s been almost two months since that horrible night, but Crystal no longer thinks in terms of months. She thinks in terms of minutes, then hours.
“Day by day. That’s how I get by,” she said.
When Crystal said that, Keana looked up from the coloring book she was working on in Felix and Aleta’s home in Baxter Springs, Kan.
“Why do you keep saying that, Mommy?” she asked.
Crystal just looked at her daughter and smiled.
Crystal and I talked about the future. She wants to return to school and get her nursing degree. Hopefully, in a few weeks, she’ll be cleared to return to work.
“But it’s hard to see the future without my children. Things will never be normal again. We are just going to have to make our own normal,” she said.
Crystal says she has good days and she has bad days. The good days are tolerable. The bad days are horrible. But, she keeps on. She has to.
She has to be there to hold onto Keana.