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Video: Mom who shielded kids from tornado: I acted on ‘instinct’

By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/7/2012 9:57:24 AM ET 2012-03-07T14:57:24

Though she selflessly shielded her two young children from a tornado while being battered to within an inch of her life, Stephanie Decker says she’s not a hero; the simple title "mom" fits her just fine.

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"Really, it was instincts and it was protecting my children," the 36-year-old Indiana mom told Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday via satellite from her hospital bed in Louisville, Ky. "There is nothing you won't do for them. You get a momma bear out there and they're vicious, they're going to do what they have to do.

"I honestly feel like it's just me protecting them. Once I knew they were safe, I knew I could rest. If anything were to happen to me, as long as I knew my children were safe, I was OK with that."

‘Sound of a train coming’
Decker indeed thought the end was near after she checked her injuries in the wake of a 175-mph tornado that leveled the family's stately, three-level home in Marysville, Ind., on Friday. She suffered multiple injuries; by far the most severe was one leg that was nearly severed and another that was crushed. Fearing help might not come, she took out her cell phone to record a goodbye message to her husband Joe.

Snow, cold add to tornado survivors' misery

Beforehand, she had had the presence of mind to lead kids Dominic, 8, and Reese, 5, to the family's basement, wrap them up in a comforter and lay her body across them. While Lauer marveled at the maneuver that may have saved her children's lives — both emerged with nary a scratch — Decker credited a mom's innate protectiveness for her actions.

Video: Mom who shielded kids from tornado: I acted on ‘instinct’ (on this page)

"Instinct is the only thing I can tell you," Decker told Lauer. "We were in the basement; I could tell this was not a typical storm.

"I could hear the sound of a train coming behind me, and I did not want to take the chance. There was a blanket in our basement ... I just wrapped them up and tied it tight to protect them."

Girl, 2, orphaned by twister dies in hospital

Having heard that a storm was approaching, Decker pulled her kids out of school early, but she couldn't have anticipated the depth of the tornado's fury. "The extent of our scenario are typical, get in your basement and ... ride it out," she said. "Never in my life have I gone through a scenario of a tornado taking my entire house."

‘I saw a brick coming’
Decker took her most severe injuries during the first tornado assault; when things seemed to have calmed down outside, she sent Dominic out to take a look and seek help. But the child said, "There's another one right there, mommy," Decker recalled at a press conference Wednesday.

The family was battered again: "I saw a brick coming at my daughter," she said. "So I maneuvered my back left and right, almost like dodging so I would take the hit and not my daughter or my son."

Slideshow: Early season tornado outbreak (on this page)

Fearing her injuries were fatal, Decker found her cell phone and began recording her message to husband Joe, who was at work at the time of the storm. All the while, she was being pelted by the storm's aftermath — golf ball-sized hail rained down upon the family in their now-exposed basement.

In a seeming miracle, Decker's neighbor Brian Lovins came to the family's rescue. Lovins, a member of the local sheriff's department, fashioned a tourniquet out of his belt to stanch Decker's bleeding, and she was whisked to the hospital.

But her injuries were severe: Decker lost one leg above the knee and the other above the ankle, along with suffering seven broken ribs and a punctured lung. She's due for further surgery this week, but doctors tell her she may be up and walking with new prosthetic legs within three months.

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While Decker deals with her injuries, she still keeps her children, who stood beside her in the TODAY interview, foremost in her mind.

"They're doing well (but) I do worry about post-traumatic stress," she told Lauer. "I think it's going to be helpful for all of us to have a little counseling."

Tornado drops boy on highway, 350 ft. from home

The other aftermath of the story is, of course, what Decker imagined to be her final message to her husband — a message, Joe Decker revealed to Lauer, that he has not yet heard.

"It's probably going to be a long time before I have the courage to look at that," he said. "It's very powerful; that's probably why I can't look at that."

In a report that aired on TODAY Wednesday, Joe visited the rubble that used to be his family's home with NBC's Tom Costello. Thinking what might have happened to his family, he broke down in tears.

Decker recalled the first thing he told his wife when she came to after surgery — "You get to see your kids grow up" — and shook his head in looking at the carnage.

"I could have really easily walked up on this house to three dead people," he said.

For information on how you can contribute to a fund to benefit Stephanie Decker and her family, click here.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Early season tornado outbreak

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  1. Residents work to gather their belongings March 5, in Harrison, Tenn., after an F-3 Tornado touched down in the waterfront Chattanooga, Tenn., suburb on March 2. (Dan Henry / Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Brack Hensley checks donation items at Morgan Central Elementary School in West Liberty, Ky. on March 5. Forecasters say the tornado that hit West Liberty last Friday was on the ground for about 60 continuous miles in eastern Kentucky. (Nam Y. Huh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dakota Keeton, 3, takes a rest on a temporary bed at Morgan Central Elementary School as Red Cross provides the shelter in West Liberty, Ky. on March 5. West Liberty was hit by a tornado packing winds up to 140 mph last Friday. (Nam Y. Huh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rhonda Dixon clears out records and other items from the Morgan County Home Health Agency, on March 5, 2012 in West Liberty, Ky. The tornado that hit the town last Friday, tore off the roof and back walls to the clinic. (John Flavell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Snow covers the remains of a demolished home in Marysville, Ind., on Monday, March 5. (Nam Y. Huh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Henryville, Ind., also saw snow on March 5 that slowed cleanup efforts. (John Sommers Ii / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Darrell Osman, left, Carolyn Osman, Casey McDonald, Jennifer Osman and Brad Reed attend a worship service for the tornado-ravaged community of Harrisburg, Ill., on March 4. The town was hit by the first round of twisters the previous week. Six people died there, including Darrell Osman's mother. (Whitney Curtis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lori Hall searches for items to salvage from the home of her aunt and uncle after it was destroyed in Henryville, Ind. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Danielle Madden reacts on March 4 after seeing her friend's tornado-hit home in Moscow, Ohio. (David Kohl / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Firefighters in Holton, Ind., pray at a tornado service on March 4. The service was held at the Methodist Church, the only one in town still intact. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A young girl sits in front of donations for tornado victims at St. Francis Catholic Church in Henryville, Ind., on March 4. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Philip Whitley stands in front of a damaged church in Salyersville, Ky., on March 4. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Jamal Stevens, 7, is seen with his cousins Devon and Miriah Bennett at his grandparent's home in Charlotte, N.C., on March 4, two days after he was snatched from his bed and thrown 350 feet onto the embankment of an interstate as a tornado ripped through his family's home. Stevens suffered only minor injuries. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Debris is seen from the home in Charlotte, N.C., from which Jamal Stevens, 7, was sucked out by a tornado. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A U.S. flag hangs in front of a destroyed home in Henryville, Ind., on March 4. (Steve C. Mitchell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Kevin Bridges collects belongings from what's left of his childhood home in Henryville, Ind., on March 4. (Steve C. Mitchell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Debris clings to tree branches on March 4 in front of a home damaged by a tornado in West Liberty, Ky. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People carry supplies past a church damaged by a tornado in West Liberty, Ky., on March 4. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Buildings damaged by a tornado are seen in West Liberty, Ky., on March 4. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Janine Stauffacher, left, comforts her sister, Mary Ann Holt, on Saturday, March 3, after she survived in the closet of her home in Holton, Ind., when a twister touched down a day earlier. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Janine Stauffacher on March 3 helps salvage what she can from the destroyed home of her sister, Mary Ann Holt, in Holton. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Mike Reilmann and his son Mike on March 3 inspect the home of his mother after it was hit by the tornado in Holton. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Homes lie destroyed along the Ohio River in Moscow, Ohio, on March after a tornado hit the town Friday, narrowly missing the Zimmer power station shown at top. (Al Behrman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Wayne Jones on March 3 salvages belongings after his home in Henryville, Ind., was destroyed. (John Sommers Ii / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The storms that spawned tornadoes also produced severe winds that flipped these aircraft at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport in Dallas, Ga. (John Amis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Storm damage was also evident on March 3 in Charlotte, N.C. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. People collect some of their belongings in shopping carts after a tornado swept through Henryville, Ind., on Friday, March 2. (Philip Scott Andrews / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A man inspects the damage at a home in Henryville on March 2. (C.e. Branham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A tornado destroyed most of the Henryville elementary, middle and high school complex on March 2. (Garry Jones / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A school bus is crushed into a business in Henryville, Ind. on March 2. (C.e. Branham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A tornado left a path of destruction as it passed on March 2 in Athens, Ala. (Butch Dill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Lisa Copeland, right, and Kacie Rose carry a dog to a safe place before a second round of storms approaches on Friday in Ooltewah, Tenn. Powerful storms stretching from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes flattened buildings in several states, wrecked two Indiana towns and bred anxiety across a wide swath of the country in the second powerful tornado outbreak this week. (Angela Lewis / Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A family walks by damaged buildings that lay in ruin after a tornado touched near Henryville, Ind. on March 2. (Philip Scott Andrews / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Jerry Vonderhaar, left, comforts Charles Kellogg after severe weather hit the Eagle Point subdivision in Limestone County, Ala. on Friday. A reported tornado destroyed several houses in northern Alabama as storms threatened more twisters across the region. (Jeronimo Nisa / The Decatur Daily via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Don Benton sorts through items at his home at the corner of Snow Hill Road and White Cypress Trail on Friday in Ooltewah, Tenn. (Angela Lewis / Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Blaine Lawson, 76, stands inside his house after a reported tornado tore the roof off his home on Friday in Cleveland, Tenn. Neither he nor his wife were injured. (Robert Ray / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Debris litters the front of the Henryville Middle School which received extensive damage from storms that rolled through the area on Friday. (Timothy D. Easley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Two of many large pieces of hail that fell on Friday in Henryville, Indiana. (Larry Johnson) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Hailstones, some as large as baseballs, litter the ground in front of a destroyed home following severe storms Friday in Henryville, Ind. Tornadoes ripped across several small southern Indiana towns on Friday, killing at least three people and leaving behind miles of flattened devastation along the border with Kentucky. (Timothy D. Easley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Tina Wellham takes her children to the basement of the New Bethel Baptist Church as a tornado warning sounds on Friday near Fredonia, Kentucky. Tornados have been spotted throughout the Midwest today. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Police, rescue workers, and other local media gather in a storm shelter to ride out another threatening storm as it approaches areas already damaged by an earlier tornado on Friday in Athens, Ala. Powerful storms stretching from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes in the north wrecked two small towns, killed at least three people and bred anxiety across a wide swath of the country on Friday, in the second deadly tornado outbreak this week. (Butch Dill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Ceola Dejean,Tony Hernandez and Angela Franklin look for photos in Dejean's damage home on Friday in Meridianville, Ala. Reported tornadoes destroyed several houses and hit a maximum security prison in northern Alabama as bad weather threatened more twisters across the region Friday, two days after a storm system killed 13 people in the Midwest and South. (Dave Dieter / The Huntsville Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Greg Cook hugs his dog Coco after finding her inside his destroyed home in East Limestone, Ala., on March 2. (Gary Cosby Jr. / The Decatur Daily via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Tornado photographed in Palmyra, Ind. on Friday. (WTHR) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A power pole blown over by a tornado in New Market, Ala., on Friday. A swarm of tornadoes slammed the U.S. midsection on Friday from Indiana to Alabama, splintering homes, damaging a prison, overturning trucks and causing some injuries in the storm-tossed region. Seven people were hurt by a suspected twister in northern Alabama and multiple tornadoes hit along the Ohio River valley and caused extensive damage in at least one county in Indiana. (Harrison McClary / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Several homes in Athens, Ala., have their roofs damaged or blown off on March 2. A reported tornado destroyed several homes in northern Alabama as storms threatened to spawn more twisters across the region. (Gary Cosby Jr. / The Decatur Daily via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Cheerleaders, fans and officials gather in the basement of the Municipal Auditorium after the stadium was cleared because of a tornado warning during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Tennessee Tech and Eastern Illinois at the Ohio Valley Conference tournament on Friday in Nashville, Tenn. (Wade Payne / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Steven Curet talks to family members and describes the damage after severe weather hit Huntsville, Ala., on March 2. (Eric Schultz / The Huntsville Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. A 18-wheeler is flipped on its side in Harvest, Ala., after severe weather swept through the area on March 2. (Eric Schultz / The Huntsville Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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