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updated: 5/29/2013 11:07 AM

Schaumburg tornado survivors cherish strangers' help

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  • Video: Frank Kozak describes the tornado

  • Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak, left, talks about the experience while his son Steve sits at his side back at home in Schaumburg Tuesday. Frank's wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.

       Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak, left, talks about the experience while his son Steve sits at his side back at home in Schaumburg Tuesday. Frank's wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Family photo of Char and Frank Kozak of Schaumburg, who survived the recent Oklahoma City tornado.

      Family photo of Char and Frank Kozak of Schaumburg, who survived the recent Oklahoma City tornado.
    Photo courtesy the Kozak family

  • Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak talks about the experience during an interview in Schaumburg Tuesday. His wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.

       Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak talks about the experience during an interview in Schaumburg Tuesday. His wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak, left, talks about the experience while his son Steve sits at his side back at home in Schaumburg Tuesday. Frank's wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.

       Oklahoma City tornado survivor Frank Kozak, left, talks about the experience while his son Steve sits at his side back at home in Schaumburg Tuesday. Frank's wife Char also survived the tornado and is recovering.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • This is the water heater that may have saved Schaumburg Trustee Frank Kozak and his wife, Char, when they were in Moore, Okla., visiting Char's brother May 20.

      This is the water heater that may have saved Schaumburg Trustee Frank Kozak and his wife, Char, when they were in Moore, Okla., visiting Char's brother May 20.
    Courtesy of Steve Kozak

 
 

Schaumburg Village Trustee Frank Kozak and his wife Char survived beneath the weight of a fallen hot water tank as the rest of their relatives' Oklahoma City home -- and their own new SUV in the garage -- were torn away by last week's tornado.

Yet all Kozak remembers -- all he'll ever choose to remember -- are the brightest examples of the outreach and compassion of the human spirit he's ever experienced.

"I would just hope if it happened here, in Schaumburg, people would pull together the way that they did," Kozak said of Oklahoma City residents. "That was the true meaning of Southern hospitality. It meant a lot to me to see people reach out to other people."

This began within minutes of the tornado's departure, when people arrived to help Kozak pull his wife out of the rubble, which he hadn't been able to do on his own.

And it stretched through all the days the Kozaks and their son Steve, who drove down the night after the tornado, remained in the area.

Steve Kozak found himself among a utility vehicle convoy from Kansas during his middle-of-the night drive, on its way to help the tornado-shattered area however it could.

Other examples were endless, he said: Trucks full of bottled water and Subway sandwiches; people who forsook their own concerns to help friends, neighbors and even strangers sift through the rubble of their homes.

At one point, more than 60 people were going through the remains of the home that belonged to Char Kozak's brother, finding her wedding ring with the center stone missing among the ruins.

And that was just one of many little victories Steve Kozak saw in the neighborhood that was no longer a neighborhood. People who'd lost everything left the scene with smiles on their faces, clutching a dusty photograph of a grandchild or their own first baseball trophy.

"It's kind of cool to see. It's kind of heartwarming," Steve Kozak said.

While the more injured Char Kozak continued to recover in the hospital, her husband also returned to his in-laws' neighborhood during Memorial Day weekend.

"It was a tough thing to see it again," he said. "It helped, but it wasn't 'closure.'"

Luckily all four family members who normally lived in the house were out at work and other obligations in safer areas when the tornado struck.

Though there were about 15 minutes of warning, the Kozaks -- as visitors to the area -- didn't know what else to do with that time than hunker down at the house.

Frank Kozak pulled their SUV into the garage in the hope of at least avoiding hail damage, even as patio furniture began to fly around.

"That old saying, 'The train's a'coming' ... it's true," he said. "That thing sounded like a train when it was coming."

They threw themselves into a central closet just as all the windows of the house shattered, and pressed themselves to the ground as the roof blew.

Char Kozak was hurt worse by the falling debris, suffering an arm injury that required surgery as well as lacerations to her face. And she was still too shaken to speak publicly Tuesday -- not least of all for the loss of her brother's home and belongings.

Nevertheless, her husband already sees her taking the first steps in the long but full recovery that's expected.

"I see her getting better every day," he said. "The smile is there, the color is there."

But a sorely needed moment of calm and stability descended as they walked up their driveway in Schaumburg early Tuesday evening.

"We're home, Babe, we're home," Frank Kozak said.

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