Relatives who were with the New Jersey family killed in a tornado in Virginia while camping last month recalled the terrifying few seconds of destruction that ended with their beloved aunt and uncle dead, their cousin unconscious and their own bodies punctured and battered by felled trees.
Jelyn Ortega-Fallarme arrived at Jersey City Medical Center Monday after spending 25 days at a hospital in Virginia being treated for a broken pelvic bone and injuries to the shoulder.
Ortega-Fallarme and her husband Niccolo Fallarme had accompanied Ortega-Fallarme's uncle and aunt, Lord Balatbat and Lolibeth Ortega, and their cousins to Cherrystone Campground along Chesapeake Bay for an annual camping trip when disaster struck.
"I still feel lucky that I'm alive," said Ortega-Fallarme, who only arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines recently.
Ortega-Fallarme said the family had no warning before the tornado swept through July 23, blackening the skies, whipping and breaking trees, and dumping heavy hail on the campsite.
By the time it was over, "I was next to my uncle and my cousin, I saw them, and they're bleeding a lot," she said in tears. "And they're not awake, you know."
Tree branches had pierced her leg and chest. Her husband, after regaining consciousness, helped free her from under a tree, and she was able to crawl under a table to protect herself from the still-falling branches and hail. Her husband went on to try to rescue their other family members.
Niccolo Fallarme said he'd passed out and when he came to, he tended to his wife and then saw Lord Balatbat laying on a rice cooker. He believes Balatbat had been trying to save him.
"When I looked in there, I was like, 'Best friend, don't leave me,'" Fallarme said. He then heard Balatbat's two daughters crying for help, and he rushed to rescue them.
One of the girls saw her mother get killed, Fallarme said as he choked up.
The tornado itself was over in a matter of seconds, in a "snap," according to Ortega-Fallarme.
"When I woke up, I lost my family," she said.
Balatbat, a manager at a Walgreens drugstore in Jersey City, and Ortega, a lab technician, both died after a tree fell on their tent. Their 13-year-old son, Lheandrew Balatbat, had been in the hospital in a coma since the tornado, and died last week.
The couple's 11-year-old and 6-year-old daughters were injured, but not critically.
Ortega-Fallarme said she's trying to be strong for the two girls.
"I love them so much," she said. "And my aunt and uncle really trusted me for their kids. Wherever I go, they always go with me."
The girls are being watched closely by relatives in New Jersey and are getting ready for school to start, according to another cousin.
"They're good knowing that their parents and their brother is in a better place and they have angels watching over them," said Lori Zaragoza.
Ortega-Fallarme held onto a rosary as she spoke from Jersey City Medical Center. She said it had been given to her by her aunt.
"I was holding it all the days in the hospital, trying to be strong because I know they're still with me," she said. "I keep on praying and praying and I know there are lots of people praying in support for me."
She hopes to start walking in the next months.
"There are lot of people who are helping us," she said. "That's why I'm so grateful."
-- Danielle Elias contributed to this report.