'I would do it again for them'
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA – It was a cloudy afternoon on the playground at First United Methodist Church when Stephanie Parker heard the crack that would change her life in an instant.

“I don’t remember much about what happened,” she said. “I just remember the tree cracking, and we all started screaming and pushing kids to the other playground. Everybody made it off but me. I had just a few more steps, they told me, and I would’ve been clear of it.”

Around 3 p.m. on May 17, the former FUMC Kindergarten worker was wrapping up their end-of-the-year party with seven 2-year-olds and three other workers – Teneshia Tinney, Samantha Colwell and Justina Boudreaux – on the preschool playground when they heard a distinctive cracking sound. Workers rightly predicted that a two-foot wide limb from a tree towering 20 feet over the playground was headed south. They hurried each of the children to safety, but in the midst of the rush, Parker was struck by the heavy limb.

Still conscious, but pinned awkwardly between a chain-link fence, she remained relatively calm as coworkers immediately called for help. Minutes later, an entire shift of policemen and a crew of firefighters, as well as other volunteers, were on the scene.

“Based on the dispatch information, we understood there were children trapped, so when we got there, it was pure panic,” Fire Chief Matt Missildine recalled Wednesday. “We realized that (Parker) was the only one hit, so we turned all of our attention to getting her out.”

A group of about 30 people onsite attempted to lift the limb, but it wouldn’t budge, so Missildine made the call to bring in a chainsaw. A fireman cut the limb in two places – one cut about 4-feet in front of Parker to relieve excess weight and a second about 8-feet behind her to split the wood in a way that responders could lift it off.

“Everybody came together and was able to get the job done,” Missildine said. “It worked really well. We overcame the chaos of that many people coming to the scene.”

Police Chief Chris Carden said the rescue was unlike any other in his 19 years with the city. “The police and firefighters were so emotionally involved,” he said. “It was really interesting, because you don’t see that often. I’ve never seen anything like that happen. It was a bad situation, but everybody at the scene told us (Parker) made sure those kids were off the playground. She could’ve run off, but she didn’t. That’s just true heroism; she’s a heroine.”

Parker was transported by ambulance to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, where she remained until June 15. Her injuries include two broken femurs, a broken pelvis, two collapsed lungs, multiple broken ribs, three compound fractures in her back, broken bones under her eyes, muscle damage to her right arm and a large abrasion on her right foot.

During her hospital stay, she was on a ventilator and kept sedated for two weeks, developed pneumonia, and underwent surgery to insert permanent metal pins in her pelvis and femurs before eventually progressing to the rehabilitation unit.

“I wouldn’t have got through this without all the prayers, because I had lots and lots going out for me, half of them from people I don’t even know,” Parker said. “I’ve had random people come up and tell me they’re praying for me. It makes me feel good to know that people care.”

FUMC Kindergarten Director DeeDee Mathews said the church has rallied to support Parker emotionally, spiritually and even financially, giving various fundraisers and donations in her honor.

“We’re just thankful that she’s doing as well as she is,” Mathews said. “She’s got the best medical attention you could have, good worker’s comp, and her family is very supportive. She came to visit us just the other day, and when you see her now, she is so much better.”

Since returning home, occupational and physical therapists are visiting Parker twice a week. Doctors say it will be at least two months before she can put weight on her legs and begin to walk (her goal is to be walking by her 25th birthday on November 15), but she has already increased mobility in her upper body enough to regain some independence.

“The hardest part has been not moving my feet and needing help getting dressed or bathing when I want to do everything myself,” she said. “I’m glad that now I can do some things myself again.”

Parker’s father, Paul Parker, said he is proud of his daughter’s recovery, and credits the support of many people, including the medical staff at UAB, for keeping her spirits high.

“She’s doing great. I think all her friends, coworkers and kids have brought her through,” he said. “I know this happened for a reason, and God took care of her.”

Her motivation to get well, she said, is the hope of eventually returning to work with children, something she has done since her teenage years. Parker’s job had to be filled for summer daycare classes, but Mathews said they would gladly have her back in the future.

As for the playground, it has been closed since May 17, and trees surrounding it were cut down the following day. Mathews said city workers have also been checking trees around town for potential hazards.

“As always, Sylacauga comes together when we have a tragedy like this,” she said. “This has given us a better perspective on, of course, life and reassured us that we do a good job of keeping children safe, and thank God none of them were hurt.”

Parker said she doesn’t regret her actions that day, and any questions asked about her experience are redirected to the children.

“I would have died if anything happened to one of them. I would do anything for my babies. I would do it again for them. But I won’t never sit under a shade tree again,” she said with a laugh.

One of the few things Parker does remember about the incident is that she never saw the tree coming. The cracking sound was enough to jolt her into action, and putting the children’s safety before her own was, in her words, a natural instinct.

“I never saw the tree fall,” she said. “I never looked back.”

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2013