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Don’t let go.
That’s what went through Amanda Stockfelt’s mind as she clung to her 2-month-old daughter as a tornado approached her New Orleans workplace on Tuesday.
Stockfelt, baby Autumn and a co-worker took cover under a desk in the metal trailer where they worked and the storm hit within a minute. Stockfelt quickly strapped her daughter into her car seat. The trailer was ripped apart, and Stockfelt, who had hooked her right arm under the car seat handle and held on with her left hand, says they were lifted up into the tornado.
“All I could think of when we were in the tornado is don’t let go,” Stockfelt, 35, told TODAY Parents on Wednesday.
“I never let go because I was afraid if I let go, it was going to take her and I’d never find her,” she said through tears in a telephone interview. “It was the most terrifying thing in my life. It’s a miracle, it really is.”
“It was horribly amazing, but I’m utterly grateful we’re OK,” Stockfelt added.
Stockfelt, a clerk at an impound yard in the hard-hit eastern part of the city, said that after she and her daughter went airborne (she has no idea how high they flew), they landed about 10 feet from where the desk had been. Her elbow was still hooked through the car seat handle.
The storm had passed, but Stockfelt was terrified because her daughter wasn’t making any noise. “I thought she was dead,” Stockfelt said. “She wasn’t crying and at first her eyes were closed because of the dirt and the rain.”
Ambulances couldn’t get through, but Stockfelt’s boyfriend arrived in his tow truck and drove them to the hospital, with Autumn back in her car seat. Stockfelt suffered bruises on her left side; her daughter has a slight bruise on her head and a scratch on her arm.
“We’re lucky to be alive,” she said, adding that doctors thought Autumn didn't cry at first because she was in shock.
Stockfelt doesn’t usually bring Autumn to work, but did on Tuesday because the baby had a doctor’s appointment that day. Stockfelt had a typical morning, but kept an eye on the weather after receiving alerts on her phone.
She was holding Autumn in her arms when she heard what sounded like a freight train. She told her co-worker the sound wasn’t a train on the nearby tracks, but a tornado.
“All I could think of was to put my daughter back in her car seat, to strap her in,” Stockfelt said. “I shoved her underneath my work desk and I got underneath it with her.”
With the trio under the desk, Stockfelt says, “We heard the trailer ripping apart, it flipped over backward and it exploded.”
“It was like the trailer just broke into a million pieces and then the tornado sucked us up,” she added.
“I have no clue how I was able to hang on to that car seat but I did, because she was above my head,” Stockfelt said. “My tennis shoes were sucked off of my feet. I still haven’t found my shoes.”
When they landed behind a car, Stockfelt saw the damage. The trailer was gone, car windows were blown out and her own car was ruined. “It just looked like a bomb had exploded,” she said.
Despite everything, Stockfelt’s kept her focus solely on her daughter. “I didn’t care about anything else,” Stockfelt said. “I didn’t feel my injuries 'till hours later.”
“She’s my life,” Stockfelt said of her baby girl, a preemie who arrived six weeks early in December. “She’s the reason why I do everything, the reason why I get up in the morning.”
“I can get another job,” she said. “I can eventually get another car. That stuff can be replaced. My daughter could never be replaced.”
She offered the highest praise for the maker of her car seat.
“Graco makes the best car seats in the world, because if it wasn’t for this car seat, she’d be dead,” Stockfelt said.
Not even 24 hours after the tornado, Stockfelt was struggling to make sense of it all.
“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” she said. “It’s just like you see that in a movie, and it happened to me and my 2-month-old daughter. We lived and I’m able to tell you our story. I don’t know, obviously, God has a plan for me and my daughter because other than by God’s grace, we shouldn’t be here.”
“I need to figure out where to go from here, but at least I’m here to figure it out and she’s here,” Stockfelt said of Autumn. “That’s all that really matters.”
Amanda Stockfelt's mom launched a GoFundMe account to help them. To donate click here.
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam