published Monday, April 23rd, 2012

April 27 tornado cloud had silver lining

Bob Colby stands on what used to be the garage steps of his home in Apison, Tenn. on Wednesday near ground cleared for a new foundation. His injuries in last April's tornadoes led to the early discovery of his bladder cancer, which was successfully treated.
Bob Colby stands on what used to be the garage steps of his home in Apison, Tenn. on Wednesday near ground cleared for a new foundation. His injuries in last April's tornadoes led to the early discovery of his bladder cancer, which was successfully treated.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
The storms, rebuilding and recollections

BROUGHT TO A CROSSROADS


Editor's note: The tornadoes brought many people to a crossroads, where they had to face questions about life and self, the future and sometimes the past. Today's crossroads story looks at a man who learned something about himself before it was too late.

Bob Colby says there was a silver lining to last year's April 27 tornado, which blew away his Apison house, badly injured his wife and bruised him from head to toe.

It probably saved his life.

The full-body scan performed on him at Erlanger hospital the morning after the tornado was aimed at finding internal injuries.

"But the next day as they were discharging me, the hospital guy said, 'Mr. Colby, you have no internal injuries, but we did find something in your bladder that's not supposed to be there. You might want to follow up with your personal physician.'"

The something was what a urologist would later describe to Colby as "high-grade cancer."

Two surgeries later, Colby said, he is now cancer-free. If not for the tornado, that wouldn't be the case.

"I had no symptoms," he said. "I don't even know what the symptoms of bladder cancer are. I had no reason to know. And I'm sure just going to your regular doctor for a full physical or check-up wouldn't have shown this. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to have a full-body scan performed on me on April 28."

Now he and his wife are overseeing the building of a new home on their bucolic hilltop on McGhee Road in Apison.

Colby, the executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, is on a two-year treatment program. He said he will be monitored closely for cancer for the rest of his life.

The cancer finding wasn't the only tornado serendipity for the Colbys on that stormy night.

As the storm warnings screamed up the Tennessee Valley, Colby rousted his wife, son and mother-in-law to take shelter. Their two-story white house had no basement, just a crawlspace, so Colby steered everyone to the closet under the stairs next to the gun safe.

Avid hunters, the Colbys had asked their builder, friend and fellow hunter Danny Fennell to frame in the gun safe as he built the house. The idea was to make it so secure it couldn't just be carted off, Colby said.

That idea worked, sort of. The tornado carried away the house, but not the gun safe and the family it fell over to cover.

"When the house came apart, the gun safe was pulled over on us by the steps catching the wind at 194 mph or whatever it was," Colby said.

"And he," Colby paused for drama and pointed to Fennell, "was supposed to have bolted it to the floor. I came out that next day and I looked down at the floor, and there were no holes."

Colby said when he asked Fennell later about the bolts, his friend told him he reckoned he just forgot them.

"And I said, 'Thank you!'" Colby said.

"That was a silver lining, too. The gun safe pinned us and kept us from being thrown into all that debris, thrown into the blender."

The new house, Colby and Fennell are quick to note, will have a safe room.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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