— 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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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.