Early Friday morning, when the storm called Florence was still at hurricane strength and bearing down on North Carolina, Adam Johnson was in the bedroom he shared with his wife Lesha Murphy-Johnson and their 8-month-old son.
He knew the storm was supposed to be historic, but the one-story house they rented on Mercer Avenue in Wilmington wasn’t even in the mandatory evacuation zone, and authorities had warned that the biggest threat to the city would be flooding.
The family–including Lesha’s three daughters from a previous relationship and her mother–didn’t feel like they were in any imminent danger.
“And then it all went wrong so fast,” Johnson told The Daily Beast on Monday, three days after his wife and child became early casualties of a storm that has claimed at least 20 lives.
“I heard a big boom, so I jumped up and I got hit in the head with the bottom half of my body still on the bed and I was trapped.”
A tree had fallen over and smashed into the home, although it took Johnson, 48, a few minutes to figure out that’s what had happened.
Both his legs were pinned under the massive trunk and a pile of debris. Even worse, a mountain of building material had completely covered Lesha, 41, and Adam. He couldn’t see them, hear them, or get to them.
“All I could do was start yelling, ‘Help! Help! Help!’” he said. “Everyone came running.”
A splintered bed post was blocking the door but one of his stepdaughters kicked it down to get in. It was instantly apparent that there was nothing anyone in the house could do to rescue the three.
“But my kids are good thinkers and they called the fire department, who were there in five minutes,” he said.
It took a couple of hours for emergency crews to extricate Johnson. “They told me the hospital sent two guys to cut my leg off if they couldn’t get me out any other way,” he said.
At one point, he added, the rescuers lifted the tree for a few moments only to have it shift and come crashing down on Johnson’s legs again, he said.
The pain was brutal, but the silence from the other side of the room was worse.
“I just knew the worst had happened,” he said. “I was calling and yelling her name and... nothing. I just knew.”
It wasn’t until he was freed and taken to the hospital that he got the news that he was right: Lesha and Adam had not survived.
Johnson, a janitor, said his wife, who used to work for the local housing authority, was “just a happy person.”
“She always had a smile and a good word for you. She’d help you out with her last when she could,” he said.
The baby, who they nicknamed Smoo, was “just a bundle of joy.”
“He was well-behaved, slept through the night, gave you no problems at all,” he said, his voice cracking. “He hadn’t quite started crawling yet but he would stretch out as far as he would go to get to a telephone or a remote or a cup.”
Johnson said he has several broken bones and tissue damage but expects to be out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. What happens now, with his home destroyed and two gaping holes in his life, he’s not sure.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. “Just one day at a time, I guess.”