Marissa Ortega fastened a cellphone charger into a makeshift leash for her dog, Ellie, before she walked into the emergency room.
She’d already lost two animals in the tornado.
The 23-year-old wasn’t going to let go of the only pet that came out of the rubble with her.
Ortega, her roommate, her two dogs and cat were at their home in downtown Mayfield when tornadoes ravaged Western Kentucky on Dec. 10 and 11. The two women hid under a mattress in the hallway as the gusts pulled Ortega four feet up from the ground. If her roommate, Kaylee Perry, hadn’t been there to grab her arm and pull her back down, she says she wouldn't have survived.
More survivor stories: 'There's no place to go': Kentucky tornado survivors cling together at park turned refuge
Ellie, a German Shepard-Labrador mix, never left her side, but when the storm finally quieted she realized her orange cat and Pomeranian-Shih Tzu were missing.
Ortega cried as she called out for them. Pumpkin didn’t “meow” and Cub didn’t whine. She had to leave them behind and find shelter in case another storm came.
“At that time (I thought) I’m going to have to accept that they may be gone, and we need to get out of here,” she recalled. “We couldn’t move a whole house.”
Since the tornados hit in December, The Courier Journal has shared dozens of miraculous survival stories like Ortega’s, but the bravery and resourcefulness go well beyond humankind.
David Spalding, the board president for the Mayfield-Graves County Animal Shelter, says about 150 pets have come to the shelter through search and rescue efforts, animal control, law enforcement and Good Samaritans since Dec. 11.
So many – Pumpkin and Cub, included — have found their way home, even though their owners don’t necessarily have houses of their own to bring them back to.
After the tornado, Ellie sniffed around the property seemingly looking for Pumpkin and Cub, but she never strayed far. As the trio began walking toward emergency lights in the distance, Ellie followed along dutifully with them, even though she’d never been off leash before. They only had the flashlights on their cellphones to guide them over the tangled powerlines and debris that was once Ortega's hometown. She'd spent her whole life in Mayfield, and she’d been inside every restaurant and every shop.
Now everything was gone.
Eventually, they met a downtown business owner, who offered them that cord for Ellie's leash and a ride to the emergency room. Ortega had glass in her foot and Perry had a gash in her leg. Once they arrived at the Jackson Purchase Medical Center, though, they saw so many people who were in far worse shape.
She was clutching that phone cord leash when the first load of survivors arrived from the local candle factory where the tornado killed nine people.
There weren't enough doctors to treat everyone, so her sister's boyfriend picked them up, and took them to a storm shelter at a family friend's home to wait out the rest of the tornado watch.
Once it lifted, they drove to her mother's house in nearby Golo, and that was the first time her adrenaline calmed. She could finally rest, but it wouldn't last long. She'd only been asleep for about an hour when her landlord called around 7 a.m. with news that brought her to tears.
Firefighters had pulled her usually sassy 10-pound Cub from beneath the house. His eyes were so bruised he couldn’t open them, but beyond that, it sounded like he was going to be OK.
More from Western Kentucky: The Bloom Company before and after tornadoes hit Mayfield, Kentucky Dec. 10, 2021.
Ortega's car had been totaled in the storm, so a friend picked the dog up and brought him to Golo. When she called out his name, his tail gave the smallest little wag. He couldn’t see her, but he knew she was there.
Later that day, Ortega went back to Mayfield hoping to find her sweet and social Pumpkin. The orange cat and Cub were unlikely best friends, and they always slept together at the end of her bed. Before their whole world changed, you rarely saw one without the other.
They searched what was left of her house and checked social media for sightings of orange cats, but there was no sign of Pumpkin.
Three days later, though, armed with cat food treats, she caught another ride back to town and tried again.
She didn't have to shake the bag long before an orange cat appeared near some trees. Hopeful this was Pumpkin, Ortega picked it up, but when she turned toward the house, he darted out of her arms, frightened.
When they finally spotted the cat a second time, it was purring. She scooped it up again, and this time tucked it into a backpack. The orange cat didn't scratch or even cry. Back in the car, Pumpkin poked his little orange head out of the bag, and Cub licked his best friend’s face.
“I knew it was Pumpkin because Cub knew who it was,” she said.
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A whole month has passed since this joyful reunion. Ortega and the dogs have been staying with her mom for the past few weeks and a friend has been watching Pumpkin for her until she can get a place of her own.
Suddenly that feels much more in reach than it did the night her house was destroyed.
Ortega finally went back to her job caring for the elderly this past week, and she found a house in nearby Murray that she and Perry can move into. They tracked down some donated furniture to fill it with.
She knows it's going to take a while for things to feel normal, but she’s optimistic.
Finding Cub and Pumpkin has been an incredible reminder of hope.
“God definitely blessed us with this,” she said. “Everyone came out alive out of the rubble of what was once our house.”
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at email@example.com or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Mayfield woman's dogs, cat survived KY tornado and made it home