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Annika Prindle doesn't know that her little brother died in Hugo's tornado in May, or that her parents buried him the day before her fifth birthday.

Her mother, Christina, doesn't know how 2-year-old Nate died. She doesn't want to know, not yet.

It's enough to tend to Annika, who faces a long recovery.

"She suffered a severe brain injury," Christina said quietly Thursday during an interview in Annika's room at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul.

To celebrate her birthday, Annika had wanted a mermaid swimming party with all of her friends. Instead, birthday cards and balloons decorate her hospital room. She wore a pink Barbie dress adorned with blue butterflies, her long red hair knotted behind her. When her mother lifted her into bed from a wheelchair she whimpered in pain.

"Her brain didn't have oxygen for a long period of time," Christina said. "That's put her in a condition where she's not quite with us all of the time."

Until recently, Christina couldn't look at a photograph of Nate. "It's just really hard because it makes it real, knowing he's not with us," she said. "He's in heaven. That's what I have to keep telling myself every time I think of him."

Christina and Jerry Prindle spoke publicly for the first time since the tornado when they invited the Star Tribune for an interview. They wanted to thank the hundreds of people who have helped them.

Sirens, silence, then wind

Five seconds. That's all it took to churn a Hugo family's happy life into heartbreak and bewilderment.

Late on the afternoon of May 25, Christina Prindle was dressing to attend a friend's wedding after pulling weeds outside. Her husband, Jerry, was playing downstairs with their Nate and Annika. Tornado sirens sounded, then ended. The wind came up.

Jerry noticed that it first whipped the trees one direction, then another. Christina, remembering that the garage door stood open, looked outside. She saw debris swirling in the street. It took all of her strength to force the inside door shut as a tornado roared straight toward their house.

"I don't know that I got even two steps from the door when everything hit me from behind," she recalled. "I started screaming, 'Let me live! Let me live!' over and over again as it pushed me over and the house moved."

Jerry Prindle knew something was terribly wrong when he looked out the window seconds before the tornado hit. "I turned to shoo my daughter toward my wife and yelled, 'Basement!'" he said. He felt the house collapsing. The roar of cracking wood filled his ears. He reached in vain for Nate. Then it was over. Jerry was pinned under debris, his right leg twisted at an odd angle.

Nearby, Annika was pinned under Christina, who was unable to move because of debris on top of her. Neighbors came running. Annika was wet with Christina's blood. Somebody freed Annika and placed her on a door on the ground and tried to resuscitate her. Jerry and Christina called for Nate.

"It was just so surreal looking around," Christina said. "It happened in seconds from having this family to having the house totally gone."

Five seconds.

Rescuers came, people in Hugo they know and trust. Jerry and Christina were moved to the garage floor, then into an ambulance. Hail bigger than golf balls hammered the top of the ambulance.

"There was a lot of chaos going on about where the kids were being sent to," Christina said. "Then we were at Regions [Hospital] and it was kind of a blur."

Nate was found behind the Prindles' house. They buried him in Withrow Cemetery in Washington County, eight days after the tornado, near tracks where trains pass at least once a day. Nate-Nate, as his family called him, loved trains.

"I think we tried our best to represent who he was," Christina said of the funeral.

As Christina and Jerry cope with Nate's loss, they find hope in Annika's recovery. Her condition has improved to the point that her eyes are open, and she's now fed with a tube into her stomach instead of through her nose. It might take a year for her vision to return, but she can stick out her tongue and recognize her parents' voices. She cries and gets mad to express pain. She can move her head a bit but can't lift it. Before the tornado Annika sang songs she made up herself.

"Her brain's going to have to rewire," Jerry said.

Jerry and Christina don't know when she'll be well enough to be discharged from the hospital, or what the future will bring. They hope to enroll Annika in kindergarten this fall at Oneka Elementary School in Hugo.

"As a mom I want her to wake up in the morning and open her eyes and say, 'I love you Mommy, I love you Daddy,' " Christina said quietly.

"We pray all the time for restoration," Jerry added.

'Almost superhuman' help

The very week the tornado hit, the Prindles had talked about moving. They had wanted to be closer to their work and their Lino Lakes church. They're renting a townhouse in Hugo for six months and then will move to Shoreview or Arden Hills in the north metro.

They've been back to the remains of their house a few times, where Jerry's brother erected a tiny wooden cross at the curb. "I was able to get a better feel for the destruction and strength of the storm," Christina said. "How my safe little neighborhood, our perfect house, could be destroyed so quickly."

Jerry said people should be aware of siren protocols and practice tornado drills at home. "A lot of neighbors thought like we did, that when the sirens stop it's all clear," he said.

'A greater faith in people'

Their religious faith, they said, gives them strength. They don't blame God for their losses, or even the tornado, and they said they've witnessed the power of prayer. People were "guided to help," Jerry said, and their "almost superhuman" response has helped the family through the dark days.

The Prindles thanked all the people who helped them, particularly neighbors and Hugo firefighters who came to their rescue. They've heard from wellwishers from all over the world, including a woman in Germany who sent handmade dolls and an Army officer who sent a flag.

"The how-can-we-help is so pervasive it's humbling," Jerry said. "It's given me such a greater faith in people."

They're doing all they can for Annika, trying to bring back the girl who loves to sing and dance. And they think of Nate.

"Even now it doesn't seem real," Christina said. "It couldn't be our family."

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

HOW TO HELP

Donations can be made to the Gerard Prindle Family Fund at any US Bank.