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Tragedies bond man and dog, inspire book

Matt Deighton wrote a book about how he and Molly survived an EF-5 tornado.

Courtesy of Matt Deighton

Matt Deighton wrote a book about how he and Molly survived an EF-5 tornado.

Matt Deighton stared at the clear water in his brother's pool. It still seems so hard to believe, that on the first day of 2006 the family lost little Bishop. He was only 3.

"This is where it begins,'' Deighton said, "with the baby in the pool. This is where my inner faith developed. I'm not sure I realized it then, but I sure know it now.''

Time has dulled some of the pain, but Deighton has chilling memories of the call he got that day from his older brother Mike in New Port Richey. Mike had been watching his grandson but got distracted by friends wishing him well for the new year. He thinks the family dog might have knocked the boy in the pool.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about it,'' Mike Deighton, 63, said this week. "Especially every New Year's Day. You can never repair the hole in my heart.''

In the hours that followed the tragedy, Matt headed out from his home in tiny Greensburg, Kan. He picked up his elderly parents in Texas and drove to Florida. Two days after the funeral, his dad felt severe chest pains. "We thought it was the stress,'' Matt said. "It turned out to be advanced cancer.''

His father lasted eight months and his mother developed severe dementia. Matt had run successful restaurants in Texas before moving back to his boyhood home, a rural farming community of 1,500 in south central Kansas. He had once operated the movie projector in the town's only theater. He had graduated from its high school.

And on May 7, 2007, he watched — or heard — it disappear.

• • •

Early that day, Deighton ran an errand in Dodge City 45 miles from Greensburg. By the time he returned, storm chasers lined the highway, waiting for the predictions to come true. Conditions were perfect for a big tornado, maybe several.

Sirens went off at 9:40 p.m. Deighton collected his mother's medications and some other personal items. He picked up his pet Dalmatian, Molly, and they retreated to a neighbor's basement across the street. All together, the refuge held 11 people, three dogs, four turtles and a parakeet.

The EF-5 tornado struck with a fierceness that set the people in the basement to holding hands and praying. It hovered above them for more than eight minutes. And when the storm finally passed, they pushed open the door to the outside.

"We could see the tornado heading out of town,'' Deighton said. "Big as Dallas.''

His house was gone, along with 95 percent of Greensburg. Deighton and his friends pulled 35 people from rubble. Nine neighbors died.

"People were walking around in a daze,'' he recalled. "As it sunk in that our town was gone, people asked, 'Are you staying?' Some thought we should just dig a big trench and bury all the debris, start a new Greensburg someplace else.''

Deighton not only elected to stay, but he became coordinator of more than 14,000 volunteers who came from around the country to rebuild the town. With Molly constantly at his side, Deighton helped oversee the construction of 75 homes.

In September, 16 months after the tornado, New York firefighters and others who survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center converged on Greensburg to rebuild the 14,000-square-foot main pavilion at the county fairgrounds, which had been the cultural heart of the community.

The New York Says Thank You foundation was formed after the 2001 attacks as a way to pay back all the volunteers who supported the city. Many of the workers who came to Greensburg had witnessed similar natural disasters and received aid from the foundation. More than 200 children brightened the desolate landscape with wood stars they painted with inspiring messages.

Deighton traveled to other devastated communities to help with more Stars for Hope projects and provide testimony and inspiration about the rebuilding of his town. Molly often accompanied him, wearing her service dog vest.

"She just had a way about her, a way to make children feel better,'' offered Deighton, who has placed the stars as far away as the Fukushima region in Japan devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami .

Molly inspired Deighton, now 50 and a bachelor, to write a children's book about their experience with the disaster. He hired illustrator Jason Nocera and self-published the book in South Korea. Its title: Molly and the Tornado.

In December, Deighton and Molly visited Moore, Okla., where an EF-5 tornado killed 24 people on May 20, 2013, including seven children huddled in their elementary school. Deighton and Molly met with some of their classmates, now in the fourth grade.

"Molly could hardly walk,'' Deighton said. "She was 14 and had all kinds of old-age problems. But when I put that vest on her and she met the children, she put on her game face. She was alert. The kids hugged her. We all talked about surviving a tornado.''

Four days after that trip, on Dec. 9, Molly died in Deighton's arms.

• • •

Matt Deighton returned to his brother's house the other day for the first time since the drowning. He carried Molly's collar and tags in his suitcase, along with copies of the book Molly signed with a paw print.

"I think about Bishop all the time,'' he said. "We all need healing, and that's where this began for me. Molly and I helped people heal. I'm proud of that. The process doesn't end.''

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Tragedies bond man and dog, inspire book 01/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 1:41pm]
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