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Hunter Survives Tornado

The violent tornado that swept through Putnam County Nov. 22, 1992 left a trail of devastation. Caught in its fury was a deer hunter. This incredible story of his fight for survival, and the man who heroically saved his life.

Daryl Kirby | December 15, 1992

Marty James (right) and Lynn Stanford met five days after Marty was pulled from tornado-ravaged woods in Putnam County.

A weekend deer hunt on the Oconee National Forest in Putnam County turned into a nightmare for Marty James, of Lilburn, when a killer tornado tore through the woods and trapped him under a massive oak tree for more than four hours. 

Marty James and two friends, Paul Taylor and his son Doug, both of Buford, had camped out Saturday night after hunting that afternoon, with plans to hunt again on Sunday morning, but by 11 a.m. the rain had diminished to just a light drizzle. The hunters didn’t have a radio and had no idea that the strongest storm Georgia has seen in decades was sweeping toward them.

That afternoon Marty headed about a mile and a half into the woods from the camp, which was located off Highway 129 (Gray Highway) on Folds Road, just north of Murder Creek. Marty was hunting in a swamp that was full of mature hardwoods, huge trees a man couldn’t reach around.

At about 5 p.m., Marty decided to head back toward camp. It was starting to get dark, and he still had a long trek to make through the woods.

What Marty didn’t know was that an incredible tornado had already touched down, first near Rum Creek WMA in Monroe County. The twister then tore through Piedmont NWR, destroying an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 acres of forest.

Before this tornado would finally lift off the ground and put an end to its devastating journey, it would cut a swath up to a half mile wide from Rum Creek all the way to the community of White Plains in southern Greene County. Along its path hundreds of homes were destroyed and four people were killed, including three people along the shores of Lake Oconee in Putnam County.

As Marty James began his walk back to camp, the wind suddenly began to pick up.

“It sounded like a high wind coming,” said Marty.

When a large hardwood tree snapped about 6 feet off the ground and lifted into the air, Marty knew this was no ordinary wind.

“I realized a tornado was on top of me. There was a loud roar and huge trees started popping and flying up into the air. I started running, dodging trees that were falling around me,” said Marty. 

Marty braced himself against a large tree, then he saw a ditch. He was about to dive into the low spot when the tree above him snapped, twisting down toward the ground. As Marty tried to dodge the giant log, another tree uprooted from the ground behind him crashed down on his back.

Laying face down Marty was pinned by the tree. Three feet in diameter, the huge tree lay across Marty’s back from the base of his neck to his waist.

Marty could hear the sounds of trees snapping as the tornado continued on. As the tornado passed and the woods quieted, Marty lay crushed under the giant tree. Unable to help himself, he knew he would have to be found or he wouldn’t make it out of the woods. He didn’t think he would survive. It was 5:15 p.m.

Meanwhile, Paul and Doug Taylor were spared by the twister and were waiting for Marty back at Folds Road where Marty had entered the woods. They knew their hunting buddy was in the center of the area where the tornado had passed on. When Marty didn’t show, they knew they needed help.

Harry Luke, the Area Manager of B.F. Grant WMA, was nearby on the Oconee National Forest when the tornado ripped through the woods.

“It wasn’t a typical funnel. It looked like a huge black wall steam-rolling through the woods,” said Harry.

Harry jumped in his truck and headed toward the area, but he couldn’t get through. Trees were strewn across the blacktop.

At this point, the chances of Marty being rescued were remote. Putnam County had been reduced to a disaster area, and people all over the county needed help.

The sequence of events during the next several hours that led to Marty James being found can only be described as a miracle.

Lynn Stanford, a Putnam County Deputy Sheriff, has just finished watching the Falcons get whipped by the Bills when the weather turned nasty near his Eatonton home. Lynn turned on his police radio and heard the overwhelming sounds of calls for help from all over the county.

“Everybody in the county with a radio was trying to talk,” said Lynn.

The one word that he could pick out of the garbled mess was tornado. Lynn was off duty at the time, but he knew he was needed. The procedure is for officers to wait until they are called, but Lynn had a gut feeling.

“My wife asked if I had better stay and wait. I know this sounds corny, but it’s true, as I was heading out the door I turned and told my wife, ‘This might be the day I save someone’s life.’”

The fact that Lynn headed out when he did was the first in a string of events that led to the rescue of Marty James. Any break in that string and Marty wouldn’t be alive today.

Lynn jumped into his 4WD truck and headed south down Highway 129. The direction he drove was the second link that saved Marty. Had Lynn headed in any other direction, he would have found someone else to help. The devastation in Putnam County was incredible.

Meanwhile, Harry Luke put out a call on his radio that he couldn’t et through on the road. Lynn heard the call and was heading toward his friend to help. Then he heard an officer saying that two deer hunters had a friend missing off Folds Road and that the officer had to leave the hunters to help out in another part of the county. Lynn had passed their location so he turned around, but when he got to Folds Road, he found the road littered with fallen trees.

“There was no way to get through on the road, so I just put it in 4WD and drove up through the woods around the debris,” said Lynn.

Had Lynn taken his patrol car instead of his 4WD truck, he wouldn’t have been able to get to the deer hunters and their missing buddy.

“When I found the hunters the officer had left, they were standing in the road,” Lynn said. “They were scared to death. They weren’t hurt, but they had been in the woods when the storm hit.”

In the fading light, Lynn looked around at the devastation. An entire hillside of trees were gone. Huge trees were broken in two. Lynn couldn’t even recognize where he was, despite a lifetime of working these roads and hunting these woods.

“I talked to the hunters and asked where was their friend’s stand. When they said he wasn’t in a stand and that he was walking, I thought ‘oh-no, is is the worst possible scenario.’”

As Lynn started off down a grown-up logging road where Marty had gone into the woods, it was beginning to get dark. Lynn didn’t have a flashlight, and worse, he had no idea where Marty was hunting.

The logging road ended in some thick planed pines. Lynn decided to try to keep walking in a straight line, so he found a star through breaks in the clouds to keep his bearing. Lynn began to stop and yell every 50 yards or so, hoping the lost hunter would hear him and respond. By that time, the residents of Putnam County were beginning to dig themselves out of the destruction. Lynn could hear chainsaws and people yelling way off in the distance.

“My dad was a logger so I’ve been around people when they are trying to yell over the sound of chainsaws,” Lynn said. “I was pretty sure that’s what I was hearing, but I didn’t want to take the chance of it being the hunter, so I kept going in the direction of the yelling.”

By 7 p.m., Marty had been pinned under the huge oak tree for nearly two hours. Conscious the entire time, he was in intense pain, but he couldn’t feel anything in his legs. It was now raining again.

“I was about to give up,” Marty said. “I knew if someone didn’t find me quick, I wasn’t going to make it.”

Fearing he wouldn’t make it out of the woods alive, Marty tried to write a message in the mud, but the rain washed it away.

The pressure on his chest was intense, making it very difficult to breath. About every 15 minutes Marty could work up the breath and energy to feebly yell for help. Incredibly, one of those yells was heard by Lynn Stanford, who has stopped about 50 yards away.

At this point, Lynn didn’t know what to expect. Twenty-two years as a police officer and a tour in Vietnam didn’t prepare him for what he would find.

Lynn ran over and saw the tree laying across Marty’s back. Marty was face down in the mud, but his feet were pointed up. Lynn pinched one of his legs, but Marty couldn’t feel it. In desperation, Lynn grabbed a stick and tried to dig under Marty enough to pull him out from under the tree, but to no avail. Lynn realized he wasn’t going to be able to get him out alone.

“When I found him and saw the state he was in, I knew he was in trouble,” said Lynn. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I told him I was going to have to leave him to get more help.”

The rain was falling hard, and the water around Marty was already 3 inches high. Lynn was afraid that Marty would drown, so he propped his head up on his hat and piled mud around his face. He put his raincoat over Marty and hung his orange safety vest on a tree.

“I stood there for a moment trying to decide which way to go. I knew there were roads in three directions, but I didn’t know which road was closest.”

The dark woods, difficult to negotiate anyway, were now a tangled mess of fallen trees. It was vital that Lynn pick a straight course that would lead him to one of the roads. If he got turned around in the woods, it could be hours before he found his way out. Lynn knew there was a metal processing plant high on a hill along the Jones County line, and he could faintly see lights that he hoped were from the plant. Lynn took off in that direction, running and climbing over fallen trees.

“I knew I had to get help or he would die,” said Lynn. “I was the only link.”

Lynn had been running through the woods for about 30 minutes when he heard a siren. Figuring the emergency vehicle was on Highway 129, he turned in that direction.

“About 15 minutes later, I was coming through a pine thicket, and I ran smack into a barbed wire fence. I knew I was close to something, and a few minutes later I broke into someone’s front yard.”

No one was home so Lynn followed the driveway out to Highway 129 and found a man who had a flat tire. Together they ran to another house and Lynn dialed 911 and got people in route to the two deer hunters where Marty had gone into the woods. Lynn walked back out to the highway and just as he got there, he saw blue lights heading his way. It was Harry Luke, who had heard the call for help and was heading to the scene.

“When Harry got there, I was in bad shape. I was bruised and bleeding from running through the woods, and I had been running so long—I’m 46 years old—that I hyperventilated.”

Back at the spot where Marty had entered the woods, rescue workers tried to talk Lynn into staying at the road, but there was no way Lynn was going to wait behind.

“I told them I was going back in, and that they were going to follow me and do what I said until we found him again, then they could take over.”

Then Jeff Wooten, a local man familiar with that part of the woods, arrived at the scene.

“I told Jeff how I went in and where I had come out, and I described the area where I had found Marty,” said Lynn.

Jeff led rescuers through a route that knocked a quarter mile off Lynn’s original route through the woods, saving critical time.

Trapped under the tree, Marty had given up hope again. His nightmare had now lasted more than three hours, and Marty began to think that death was better than having to endure the ordeal any longer.

Then he saw the magnificent sight of flashlights coming through the woods toward him. Help had arrived, but Marty’s struggle was not over yet. The tree was so large that chainsaws had to be used to cut it into sections. Then a block and tackle was used to hoist the log off of Marty.

By the time the rescuers got Marty on a stretcher and carried him back out to the road and got him in an ambulance, four hours had gone by since the tree had fallen on him. His med-section had been crushed, his pelvis smashed and broken in four places, his bladder ruptured. His chances of survival were slim. Lynn had done his part to save him, now it was up to Marty.

Marty was taken to the Macon Medical Center, where he spent three days in the intensive care unit in serious condition. Meanwhile, Lynn spent every hour of every day thinking of the episode and the man he had tried to save.

“I kept thinking, ‘Did I do enough?’ Was there something else or something different I could have done?”

Last Friday, five days after Marty was caught in the tornado’s path and Lynn made his incredible effort to save Marty’s life, the two met in Marty’s hospital room in Macon. The bond between the savior and the man he saved was evident as the two recalled their harrowing night in the tornado-ravaged woods of Putnam County.

Marty James still faces a tough road ahead. He is expected to be in the hospital for two more months, with many months of physical therapy to follow. Already getting some feeling back in his legs and able to move his toes, Marty’s spirit and mood is an inspiration.

“I’m gonna walk again,” he said matter of factly to Lynn. “And when I do, I’ll buy you a steak… just not in Putnam County.”

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Phillipky1 on December 1, 2022 at 8:48 am

    This story was referenced in the December 2022 GON “Days GON By”. This reminds us, we should always let someone know where we are going when we go outdoors and when we plan to be back, and then check in with that person when we are back. This man would be dead if not for his friends reporting him missing.

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