On March 3, Eric Johnson was asleep when the family’s six-year-old miniature Australian shepherd, Bella, woke him up. Bella was acting erratically, giving Johnson the sense that “something just didn’t feel right.” Bella sensed danger, and alerted the family to the tornado that soon destroyed their home.
When Johnson woke up, he turned on the TV and found out that a tornado was headed toward their town of Cookeville, Tennessee. He quickly grabbed his wife and their three children and him them in the bathtub. Nearly 45 minutes later, around 2:00 am, the tornado hit and destroyed the house. Johnson was thrown into the backyard.
Johnson said, “Bella was hiding under our bed when the tornado hit our house. She was thrown into our yard and survived and was missing after that. It was hard for us knowing she had survived but we couldn’t find her. She was the piece of our family that was missing.” The furious 175 mph twister destroyed everything in its path. The Johnsons would not have survived if not for Bella.
Johnson suffered a head injury and his wife had broken ribs, but they soon set about searching for their beloved heroic dog. They left pieces of clothing around the destroyed neighborhood, hoping that Bella would recognize the scent and find her way back home. Church friend and dog tracker Sarah Lang Romeyn also pitched in.
She borrowed cameras from a local animal rescue group and set them up in areas where people reported seeing her. She also worked with other dog trackers and even sought tips from residents with the help of the Putnam County Police Department.
When leads dried up, the Johnsons and Romeyn pressed on. “I was still finding time searching in parking lots, but it was tough. Because nobody had found a body, in rescue you can’t give up until you know you don’t have a positive outcome. And I hadn’t given up,” Romeyn said.
In time, they found a glimmer of hope when Romeyn got a call from friend Karen Ritacco, who said that Bella was behind her shop. Ritacco said, “Two of my employees were leaving for the night, and Bella was just standing there looking at them. “One of the girls knew and said, ‘That’s the tornado dog.’ When I went out, she had run through a really narrow alleyway. I went in and called Sarah right away.”
Romeyn came with cameras and food and immediately worked on building trust with the traumatized dog. When she found a way to catch Bella, she thought that it was time to tell to the Johnsons that she had found their dog.
Almost two months after the tornado that had destroyed their community, the Johnsons were beginning to lose hope of finding the dog that saved their lives. But 54 days since the Bella alerted them to the tornado, the Johnsons were told that Bella was in an alley just 4 miles from home.
Romeyn enlisted the help of her husband, their pastor, and Eric Johnson to get Bella. She shared, “We made out plan. … Eric and Pastor Paul went to the wider end [of the alleyway] where the gate was. I went to the smaller end since I knew that I could lock that myself. They blocked off the crawl space underneath the gate.”
When the team had Bella trapped in the enclosed space, the poor dog began to panic, until Johnson called out to her. Romeyn said, “It was heartbreaking. You could kind of see her stop, and you could see the wheels turning. There was something so familiar.” Then something clicked, and she recognized Johnson. Bella was home.
Romeyn was happy to play a part in the rescue, but also credits the community for their help. “I feel like our whole community had a part in bringing Bella back. I give it all to God. So many things had to come together to make this happen.”
Now that Bella is back, the Johnsons are focusing on moving forward and plan to rebuild on their property. The tornado may have destroyed all of their possessions, but Johnson is just grateful that their family is together again.
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