Frieda and Michael Mueller left their Mililani home of 21 years in February 2010, and their retirement house in a peaceful wooded valley in Alabama was nearly complete when a tornado tore into it yesterday.
The couple, both 64, and their son Christopher, 38, were inside the house with mere seconds to act before the twister made a direct hit on their Shoal Creek Valley house.
"You hear people say, ‘It sounds like a freight train,’" Frieda Mueller said. "It does. I saw this black cloud coming right at us. It just started whirling," picking up a pile of scrap lumber, which "just started flying out into the woods."
The family was standing in the living room when they saw it coming and quickly took cover in the hallway.
"We stood in the hallway and watched it," Mueller said. "When it sucked the wall out, we ran into the bathroom."
The insulation was snatched out of the walls, with the first living room wall "sticking out about four feet from the house," and the opposite wall about six inches, she said.
"One house was completely blown away."
The toll so far is 11 deaths in the little valley where it seems everyone is related, Mueller said.
She lost at least one family member — her cousin Nett Wolf and her husband, Charlie, "were both sucked out of their house," she said. "Charlie was dead when they found him. They flew Nett out to Birmingham. I don’t know if she’s alive.
"This valley has never been hit like that," she said. "It came straight down our valley."
As for the damage to their new house, Mueller said, "It blew the ends of our house out … but from the front and back, it didn’t look like it got hit. It hit us right smack-dab on the one side."
If they had opened the windows, the house probably wouldn’t have sustained as much damage, but there was no time, she said.
The Muellers had built their home "on 25 acres of standing timber of oaks and hickories," she said. "Now it’s pretty well flattened," and they have "wood for the next 100 winters."
A large tree fell on their mobile home, but its large limbs prevented it from crashing through it and doing irreparable damage.
"People from a little town came over the hill to help," removing trees from their driveway, Mueller said. They also helped remove wood off their backhoe, which will be used to help others.
"Everybody is helping everybody," she said.
Since the Muellers hadn’t moved in yet, they didn’t lose much inside the house. Tools remained untouched while a glove and a blouse were sucked out.
Their valuables remain in storage in another town, and their personal belongings were in the mobile home.
Frieda Mueller, originally from Richland, Wash., worked for the state, and Michael, from Seattle, worked for Island Ready Mix concrete as a mechanic.
But Frieda Mueller wanted to settle in the valley where her parents were born and raised and where she has fond memories.
"I’ve loved it from when I was a little girl," she said. "I just always wanted to live here."
They sold their Mililani townhouse for about $469,000 and moved to Ashville, Ala., where Frieda had inherited five acres, got her sister’s five and bought her aunt and uncle’s adjoining 15 acres for $10,000 20 years ago.
They had the house framed for $65,000 and put in six months’ work on it themselves and had just finished putting up the sheetrock when the tornado hit.
Despite the devastation, the family has no plans to leave.
"I’m not going to leave here," she said. "We may be building a storm shelter, though."