OHATCHEE, Ala. (WIAT) — One month after her death, one family is opening up about the life of Deborah Free, the sixth victim from the Ohatchee tornado March 25.
Free was taken to a Birmingham hospital not long after the tornado and spent weeks fighting for her life. On April 24, she died.
“When I lost her, it was just devastating to me,” said Jerry Free, who was married to Deborah for 27 years.
The couple was able to escape their mobile home near Simpsons Bend Road. After sheltering at a nearby family member’s house, Jerry Free realized the change in atmospheric pressure from the tornado had impacted his wife’s lungs.
“She stepped out, I mean she just collapsed. She couldn’t breathe,” he said.
Deborah Free left behind a family in Alabama, Kentucky, and beyond. She was an animal lover and was looking forward to a new addition to the family.
“We’re just now starting to have great grandchildren and I know she was looking forward to that,” Jerry Free said.
Jerry and Deborah met in Charlotte and later moved to Kentucky before settling in Alabama. Free’s family in Kentucky traveled to try to help while she was in the hospital.
“Debbie was a very strong woman. She loved very deeply animals, people. She was a very caring, loving person. Debbie was always a rock. She was a rock for everybody,” said Cristel Baber, Free’s sister.
Baber said Free was released for about two days, only to return to the hospital with the same issues.
“I think that is why it hurts so bad because on Sunday, she thought she was going to be alright,” said Baber.
With the family burial plot in Kentucky, Free’s family initially struggled to find a way to bring her home. It was against Free’s wishes to be cremated. However, a manager at Alabama Cremation and Funeral Services in Steele answered the family’s prayer.
“Josh Horton worked tirelessly. He drove my sister up here so we would be able to have a funeral with her and you just don’t find that in the world we live in today,” Baber said. “God puts people in your path and he’s never late and never early.”
Jerry Free is now living in camper on the same property so he can rebuild the house near his family in Calhoun County, all while trying to honor his wife’s memory as he picks up the pieces around him.
“I have a lot of moments when I think about her and it seems like she’s there and I guess I will have that feeling for a long time,” he said.
Like other neighbors, Free is trying to get housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Agency.
Free also thanked neighbors for the prayers and support during the past two months.
“This Ohatchee community, they’re the best people in the world. They’ve helped us more than anybody,” he said.