Balloons are flown at Washington Middle in Cairo, Ga., in honor of Sarah Radney, 11. She died during Hurricane Michael. Purple was her favorite color.
Special to the Democrat, Tallahassee Democrat
DONALSONVILLE, GEORGIA — A dried pool of blood, almost black, remained on the floor, flowing out from under the couch where 11-year-old Sarah Radney died.
A hole gapes in the ceiling right above where she sat when Hurricane Michael’s powerful winds catapulted a concrete-embedded post through the roof. It smashed onto her head.
Her grandfather Eugene Radney removed the concrete block from her face and held her lifeless body.
“When I picked her up, I knew she was gone,” he said, still reeling a week later. He rubbed his eyes and coughed, trying to block tears. “She was so limp.”
He remembers the time — 4:21 p.m. on Wednesday. The post was holding up the carport in his backyard at least 50 feet away. The rest of the lakefront, modular house was untouched, save for a blown-out window and damage to a corner from the carport.
“It just seemed like God’s timing,” Eugene said.
Sarah sat down on the couch next to her grandmother seconds before the sudden force of the hurtling post burst through the ceiling like a bomb. Eugene was sitting across the room in his green recliner. Her grandmother, Elizabeth, who sat a foot away from Sarah, suffered a collapsed lung and a bruised arm.
It would take five hours for emergency medical services to arrive. Eugene held Sarah’s little hand as wind and debris swirled around the living room. He laid her down, covered her with a purple-and-blue quilt, and called her dad, Roy Radney.
Roy, staying three counties away in Thomasville with a cousin, called every few minutes to ask if she was breathing.
“It was panic,” Roy, 37, said Thursday, staring into the distance. “You never think that anything like this is going to happen.
“You always worry but you always feel like you’re going to be OK in the end. This time shows — it’s not always like that. We always say, ‘That won’t happen to us,’ but it really can. It can happen.”
Broken glass and insulation settle on the wooden floors of the house like remnants of an exploded pillow. Sarah and her brother Gavin, 12, were spending fall break at their grandparents’ place about 60 miles northwest of Tallahassee and at least 100 miles from the coast.
Mourning the victims of Hurricane Michael
Hours before the winds arrived like a freight-train, Eugene’s glowing granddaughter said her last prayer at breakfast. They held hands and she closed her eyes.
“God, be with my daddy, my step-mama, my brother Gavin and my sisters,” she said, naming them all. She prayed for her grandparents and for her incarcerated mom. “Be with my mama. Let her get back on the right track and follow You.”
As the historic hurricane plowed farther inland, Sarah gazed out the window with her brother in awe of the powerful rain and gusts of wind. She sang “Amazing Grace.”
“She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful heart. She was one of a kind, and God took her home,” her father said. “It won’t ever be the same without my baby.”
Across from his destroyed barn in his now-crumbled woodworking shop, Eugene, 65, was saving a cedar wood hope chest he made for Sarah. He was going to give it to her for Christmas, along with an Easy Bake Oven. Sarah loved baking snowman Christmas cookies and pink-frosted strawberry cake with her grandmother.
Burly and white-bearded, Eugene dresses as Santa each year. She was excited to be his helper elf again.
He looked at an old photo of Sarah as a small girl, wearing a backward pink baseball cap, her face scrunched up funny. “That’s the kind of spunky girl she is,” he said.
Roy’s favorite memory of Sarah is an early morning car ride when she was 5. She broke the silence, asking him out of the blue, “Daddy, you know, I dream of pigs all the time?”
So he got her one.
Piglets were her favorite animal. Roy plans to carve one into her gravestone at the Pine Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Cairo, Georgia, where she was buried Monday.
“The things that aggravated me the most — her messy room and shoes in the middle of the floor and dirty clothes in the bathroom — Oh my God, I’m going to miss that so much,” Roy said, his voice low and tired.
She’d always leave little puddles of coffee and specks of sugar on the counter when making a cup for her dad or stepmom. If they could have Sarah back, her stepmom, Amber Radney, wouldn’t say a thing.
“I’d clean it right up,” she said.
Sarah loved glitter and pink and purple. Last week, purple balloons were flown at her remembrance at her school, Cairo’s Washington Middle, where she acted in plays and learned the trumpet in band class.
“She loved everything she did,” said Roy, a welder. She’d come home and practice her lines every day. He is going to keep making the monthly payments on her trumpet. “We’re going to keep it,” he said.
Roy hasn’t gotten a new tattoo in a long while. But he plans to have one last image inked into his skin to honor Sarah. Eugene and Elizabeth want to donate an Easy Bake Oven to a church for a girl in need.
The church community paid for the funeral, Roy said. His sister set up an online fundraiser to gather memorial funds, collecting more than $20,000. A local department store donated suits and dresses and shoes for the family.
On the way to the graveside funeral at Pine Hill, Roy and Amber saw a doe cross the road.
“That’s Sarah,” their doe-eyed girl, they thought.
The past few years, when she’d try to hold her dad’s hand, he’d chuckle and say, “You’re too old for this, Sarah.”
How he wishes he could grasp that child’s hand again.
“If you have kids, love them — love them, hold them, don’t take them for granted,” Roy said. “If I could go back, do anything different, it would have been to love her more.
“I just would have done it a lot more.”
Hurricane Michael’s inland aftermath:
A coast in crisis
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