Storm Chaser Volunteers to Build House for Mississippi Family He Rescued: 'Kind of a Miracle'
"I've been building houses my whole life, and this is my calling," says Jonny Gabel, a carpenter and storm chaser who helped a family to safety following Friday's deadly tornados in Mississippi
A storm chaser is helping a Rolling Fork, Miss. family start a new life after rescuing them from a deadly tornado that destroyed their home.
Jonny Gabel, a Chicago area carpenter who's been chasing storms since 2018, tells PEOPLE that staying in touch with the family after helping them out of the rubble has been "the most rewarding thing I've ever experienced," and now he's using his platform to help them rebuild.
"I want to build them a new house. I've been building houses my whole life, and this is my calling. This is how I can make an even bigger difference in this world," says Gabel, 35, adding: "They've been saying I'm an angel."
Related:At Least 6 People Dead Due to Severe Storms and Tornadoes in Alabama
As of Sunday, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) reports 25 fatalities and dozens of injuries in the wave of deadly tornadoes that tore through the state on Friday, as search and rescue efforts continue. The storms claimed at least one other life in Alabama.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration for federal aid to assist in Mississippi's recovery efforts.
The most impacted areas have been rural towns like Rolling Fork and Silver City, where survivor William Barnes' home was completely destroyed. "Everything is gone. It's all gone," he tells PEOPLE.
After arriving in Jackson on Thursday, Gabel and his group began following the storm until it materialized into a confirmed tornado about a half mile away from them. On Friday, they heard about the devastation to hit the Mississippi Delta.
"We stopped chasing the storm, and we just went straight into Rolling Fork to help with taking people out, search and rescue," he recalls.
Upon arriving in the town, he saw a "really eerie scene" of exposed electrical wires and a long row of trees snapped in half, lining the path of the tornado. That's when Gabel heard someone yelling from their house, "I need help! Help! Please come help me!"
Related:Tornadoes in 3 States Leave 1 Dead and Nearly a Dozen Injured: 'Praying for Oklahomans Impacted'
"So that was the first thing we did. We went straight over to that house. And those were the first people that we helped," he says.
Gabel then found an elderly woman, noting that "the strangest thing" was her reaction as she was sitting in bed, "almost like nothing happened."
"She was very calm, very collected. She wasn't upset or wasn't panicking," says Gabel, adding: "I think she was in shock."
The woman recalled to Gabel that the tornado "just kind of came out of nowhere," tearing the roof and wall off her home in one swift motion, right in front of her.
"But the thing that's just so strange, she didn't get injured," he continues, noting that she only had a cut on her thumb. Everyone else in the home, he added, was miraculously left "all unscathed."
As another man came to help and laid down what appeared to be a large piece of wall for them to have a flat surface to walk over the rubble, Gabel saw a decal that read "Thankful."
"And it just blew my mind," says Gabel. "I just said, 'Thank God you all survived. This is kind of a miracle.' Because just a hundred yards away, the Dollar General was just completely destroyed."
Gabel recounts pulling more people, dead and alive, out of the rubble at the nearby store. "That's where the real heartbreak, heartache is," he says.
Although Gabel did not record footage in the store "for reasons of respect," his TikTok video of their rescue at the family's home has surpassed 150,000 views and helped him get in touch with one of their relatives in order to stay in touch and work on building them a house.
He's offering his construction services for free and looking for an accountant to help manage donations, noting that $1 from each of his nearly 50,000 followers would "help in mighty ways" to reach their goal. "Few things have ever been this important to me," he says.
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Gabel, who is neurodivergent and has complex PTSD, says his "passion is helping people," adding: "Put them all together and you get a person that's calm and collected during traumatic events."
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"I'm the one who isn't afraid to light up the darkness. I've existed in darkness for half of my life," Gabel explains. "I don't live in it anymore, but I'm not afraid to be in it. So I'm the one who stands up in the darkness and holds the light up, so others aren't so scared. That's what I have to offer to this world."
He has since set up a GoFundMe page to cover supplies for the home.
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