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'We'll find joy in each other': College student raises siblings after losing parents to Sandy

Oct. 29, 2013 at 11:59 AM ET

Rich and Beth Everett brought their kids up to be independent. They never could have anticipated how important that would become.

“They kind of gave us a lot of room to be independent and learn things on our own,” 19-year-old Zoe Everett, a student at Rutgers University, told TODAY’s Natalie Morales.

After Superstorm Sandy hit, that would all be tested.

Before the storm, the Everetts had an ordinary, if somewhat crazed, family life: two working parents and four kids. Besides Zoe, there was 17-year-old Talia, a senior in high school, and the two high spirited boys, Theo, 14, and Pierce, 11.

It was, “kind of a Cheaper by the Dozen . . . without the dozen,” Zoe said. “My parents were really busy. They worked really hard. It was kind of just like a crazy household—but somehow it worked.”

At least until that fateful night last fall.

The call that came into the 911 operator was ominous.

“A car just crashed... into a tree...the lights are still on in the car... and the horn is still blowing,” the caller said.

A freak gust of wind had uprooted a 100 foot-tall tree and slammed it onto the roof of the Everett family’s truck. Rich and Beth Everett died instantly. Their sons, Theo and Pierce, were alive, but trapped in the back seat.

“Somehow I untied my shoes and slipped out through the window,” Theo said. “Pierce got out the back window that was also shattered. And then a police car pulled up.”

Fortunately, help came quickly.

“The first responders happened to be about 100 yards down the street,” Zoe said.

The kids often wonder about that day.

“Sometimes I ask questions to myself ... (like) how the tree fell from the right and how the passenger side wasn't squished and only the driver's side was squished,” Pierce said.

One seat over and he would have been crushed.

“So it was really a miracle,” Zoe said.

Since the tragedy, Zoe’s siblings have become her priority. She’s become their legal guardian, taking care of them while she continues college.

When she’s not attending college classes, she’s serving up the dinners donated by neighbors, teaching her little brother about chores, and helping everyone with homework.

She’s sure that the lessons she learned from her parents are paying off in spades now.

"It's kind of funny,” Zoe said. “It's just, the more you think about it, it's-- it's kind of a weird situation that I feel so prepared almost. And, like, no one can really be prepared for this kind of thing. But I'm just-- like, my parents raised me to be very independent. And same with my siblings. And we're very-- very self-sufficient kids. So it's definitely playing to our benefit.”

The kids are sure that their parents would be proud of how they’re coping with their new lives.

“I think that they would say that we're being as strong as we can and that we're doing a lot better than how other people would react in the situation,” Theo said. “And that Zoe's probably doing a fantastic job and exactly what they want her to do.”

As independent as the Everetts are, they might not have made it without their community’s help. And the kids want to say thank you to everyone who’s come to their aid.

And that’s the whole reason the Everett kids wanted to talk to TODAY.

“We've all agreed that our main goal especially of doing this interview isn't to be on TV,” Zoe said. “But we just really thought that the community and the first responders, especially the firefighters and the policemen deserved a huge thank you right from our mouths and seeing us say it on tape and in front of the whole world. Because without them, without the community that we live in, without our family friends and our neighbors, there is just really no way we would have survived the year. I don't know how we woulda done it. They gave us so many good memories and it just proves how good people are.”

In the end, the Everetts are making it by following their parents’ life philosophy.

“They definitely lived by-- you know, ‘Live day to day and make the best out of every day,’” Zoe said. “Although this wound can't be healed, we'll find joy in each other and other things. And we'll develop new traditions and new things to be happy about each year. 'cause there's still so much life, and life is still so good.”

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