Couple gets replacement vehicle after surviving deadly tornado

June 1, 2013

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J.P. and Ruth Zapata crouched into the bathtub over their children, with two mattresses they hoped would shield them from whatever was coming their way.

The tornado J.P. had just seen a few minutes earlier was now bearing down on them.

“The hail first, and then the wind and the sirens,” Ruth said, noting that they felt bursts of wind coming into the bathroom that threatened to pull away the mattresses.

But they managed to hold on.

“I was numb,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.”

Next, powerful vacuum forces whipped up by the funnel deprived them of their air supply, and Ruth was ready for the worst.

“Our breathing air just got sucked out,” Ruth said. “I just surrendered. I knew we were going to fly away. We couldn’t breathe for a minute. I thought we were going to die right there.”

Suddenly, the May 15 assault on their Rancho Brazos home was over.

J.P. said when he first spotted the funnel, it appeared to be only about 100 yards away.

“I saw it in the clouds, and I went inside,” he said. “I think it was moving slow. I just kept saying, ‘Everything’s going to be Okay.’ I felt calm.”

It wasn’t the first rodeo for J.P., possibly explaining his calm demeanor. He said he survived a tornado in the Stephenville area when he was “just a boy.”

“I remember hanging on a pole and my legs were dangling like I was a flag,” he said of that twister, which he guessed may have been 30 years before.

‘MIRACLE’

Ben Fields, who oversees the Project-44 ministry along with his wife Margret out of their home base in Fort Worth, described some of the damage sustained by the Zapatas’ Habitat for Humanity home.

“There were gaps between the living room and the rest of the house,” Ben said of the three-bedroom home in the 3400 block of Tumbleweed Lane. The home was totaled.

“The ceiling lifted off two or three inches,” J.P. said. “In the bedroom a portion of the ceiling caved in. I went in and found my wallet and my cell phone.”

Margret, outreach minister for Acton United Methodist Church, said, “The roof had been so severely damaged that it was literally a wind gust away from crashing down on them – so it’s a miracle it didn’t.”

The Zapatas’ 18-year-old daughter Anna, along with sons Zeke, 12, and Noe, 7, had squeezed into the tub like sardines. Their other daughter, 16-year-old Rebecca, wasn’t there because she is living with her father in Somervell County while finishing her high school education in Glen Rose.

Ruth said she passed along a message to her children when the danger was over.

“I told the kids, ‘Don’t ever forget this. Ya’ll have another chance to live.’ I just thank God he gave us a second opportunity to live. Whenever we took that last breath there, we really did die.”

In front of the house, Ruth’s 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix and J.P.’s 2004 Dodge Durango were heavily damaged. Ruth needs transportation to get to her job as a certified nurse’s aide at Granbury Villa. J.P. also needs transportation as an employee with a local tree service.

That need led to Project-44 entering the picture.

REPLACEMENT VEHICLE

Project-44 has been collecting and repairing donated used vehicles in this area and giving them to people who need transportation since June of 2008. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, which is not affiliated with a church, also has an organic vegetable garden on 2.5 acres off Old Granbury Road. The facility, which includes a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse, supplies produce for local food pantries serving people in need.

On May 23, the Zapatas received a 2002 Chevrolet Camaro – the 117th vehicle given away by Project-44.

“We got connected with them through the Jobs for Life program,” Margret said. “This will at least provide some semblance of a normal life – basic needs.”

The Zapatas are staying in a rental home for now.

The car provided for the Zapatas is only the start for Project-44’s newly targeted effort to help tornado victims.

“Normally, we give away 30 a year,” Ben Fields said. “We need to give away 25 cars in the next two weeks. There are probably 25 to 30 families without transportation right now.”

The total number of vehicles either temporarily out of commission or destroyed by the tornado in Rancho Brazos is unknown, according to Sheriff Roger Deeds and other officials.

PROJECT-44

Ben said that eligibility for a vehicle through Project-44 is fairly straightforward.

“They need to have a legal Texas driver’s license, and we try to stick with people who don’t have a running car in the household,” he said.

An application to be considered for a vehicle can be found on the organization’s website (www.project-44.org), Ben said, along with a form for those who want to donate one.

“There are probably 150 on the waiting list all the time,” Ben said, noting that the Rancho Brazos tornado will make the selection process even more difficult because of the limited number of vehicles available. “We have to get really good at sorting through and figure out who it’s going to make the biggest difference for.”

He said that even before the first vehicle was given away five years ago, he had been trying to figure out the best way to make it work. Ben makes his living as a mechanic, so he repairs the donated cars at his shop in Fort Worth at no charge. He decided to start making presentations of the vehicles in front of various churches and other groups to get the word out about Project-44.

“It had been on my mind for a long time,” Ben said. “Figuring out how to do that was the trick. I am amazed and humbled, the way Project-44 started.”

Project-44’s garden in Granbury grew 36,000 pounds of organic vegetables during the last year alone, Ben said. It’s now entering its third harvest season.

“It’s been an amazing adventure,” Ben said. “God shows up when you step up.”

Bunny Cremeens, volunteer coordinator for Project-44, said that volunteers are needed for the current harvest at the garden. Call her at 817-573-1862.

[email protected] | 817-573-7066, ext. 254

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