As It Happens

'I just broke down': Family reunited with dog 54 days after deadly Tennessee tornado

The Johnsons barely survived the tornado that destroyed their home last month. One of their dogs was killed, and the other ran away. But Bella the Australian shepherd is now back where she belongs.

The Johnsons lost their home in the storm, but their beloved pet Bella is back where she belongs

Eric Johnson holds onto Bella. The dog went missing last month after a tornado destroyed his family's home. (Paul Ramsey via The Associated Press)

The Johnsons needed some good news.

The Cookeville, Tenn., family just barely survived the deadly tornado that ripped their house apart in early March. 

Faith Johnson held onto her young kids so tightly in the chaos of the storm that she suffered two broken ribs. Her husband Eric Johnson suffered a head wound. One of their dogs, Scooter, was killed. The other, Bella, ran away.

But this week — after 54 days on the lam— Bella came home.

"I cried when I finally got my hands on her. You know, I just broke down," Eric told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It's incredible to have her back. She was the last missing piece of the family."

The night of the big storm 

It was Bella who first alerted the Johnsons that something was amiss in the wee hours of March 3. At about 1:15 a.m, the Australian shepherd started whining and hiding under Faith and Eric's bed. 

At first, the couple couldn't figure out what was wrong. But then Eric remembered that Bella always gets spooked by storms.

"So we turned the TV on," Faith said. "And sure enough, we had seen where Germantown had been getting hit by a tornado, and that it was headed our way."

This was what was left of Eric and Faith Johnson's home after a tornado struck Cookeville, Tenn., in early March. (Submitted by Faith and Eric Johnson )

Things escalated quickly from there.

"It was at 1:57 when we got the tornado warning on my phone. And by 2:00 a.m., our house was gone," Faith said. "We had three minutes."

In those three minutes, the Johnsons grabbed their three-year-old daughter and one-year-son.

"We got the children out of bed, wrapped them blankets, and put them in the bathtub," Faith said. "I sat in the centre of the bathtub and I had my son in my left arm and my daughter in my right arm."

But Eric wasn't with them. He had run off to find the dogs. 

"I started screaming, and I told him, I said, 'You got to come now,' because you could feel the tornado tearing our house up. And he came and run and really literally dove on top of us and tried to use his body as a shield," Faith said. 

"And the tornado sucked him out of the house and he went flying."

Faith Johnson, centre, is pictured with Bella, front, her three-year-old daughter Mya, left, her one-year-old son Uriah, and her 14-year-old step-daughter Chloe, right. (Submitted by Faith and Eric Johnson )

The next thing Eric knew, he was outside. It was pitch black. He had a gaping cut on the back of his head, and all he could hear were people screaming for help.

"I'm thinking I'm going to have to start looking for my wife and kids, so I start screaming for them, and my wife starts yelling, 'We're over here, we're over here!'" he said.

"I make my way through the yard. About 15 feet from me … the bathtub was broke, snapped completely in half, and they were just sitting on top of it."

The children were fine, but Faith had two broken ribs and a fractured sternum.

"I asked [the doctors] how in the world I broke my ribs because I didn't feel like I had," she said. "They told me it was from hanging on so tight to my children."

The tornadoes that ripped through Tennessee that week killed 18 people in Putnam county, where the Johnsons live, and at least 24 people in the state. 

Finding Bella 

Despite Eric's efforts to find and protect the dogs, Scooter didn't make it, and Bella was nowhere to be found.

But the Johnsons knew she had survived the tornado, because their neighbours kept spotting her around town.

"Every time we'd get over there to where she was at, she had already moved on to a different area," Eric said.

"We actually started losing hope as he each day went by. And then I got a call this past Sunday from a lady we go to church with who's been tracking Bella and said she knows exactly where Bella's at."

Eric Johnson took Bella to the vet, where she received a clean bill of health (Submitted by Faith and Eric Johnson )

That lady was Sarah Romeyn. She had been on the lookout for Bella ever since she heard what had happened. 

She got a tip from other community members about Bella's whereabouts and set up cameras on a fence between two buildings. When she spotted the missing pooch, she lured her with a cheeseburger, and trapped her in the alley.

Bella started to panic, but that's where Eric came in. He called out to Bella and she recognized him immediately. 

"She just ran up to me," Eric said. "It was a huge relief to actually see her and I could get her in my hands, because I knew if I ever got my hands on her that she was going to be be OK."

Romeyn told the Washington Post it was a group effort to reunite Bella with her family. 

"I feel like our whole community had a part in bringing Bella back," she said. "I give it all to God. So many things had to come together to make this happen."

The Johnson family was in the process of rebuilding their home when COVID-19 restrictions brought construction to a halt.

Despite the pandemic limbo, they say they can finally start to move forward now that their family is in tact.

"We are all together," Faith said, "including Bella."

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Jeanne Armstrong with files from The Associated Press. Interviews with Eric and Faith Johnson produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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