By Dena O'DellNovember 21, 2008
Fort Riley, Kan. - As the dust settled and the moving vans rolled out of Chapman, Kan., Nov. 18, one could only imagine what the 1,500 residents of the small Kansas town were thinking.
The previous seven days were a whirlwind of activity to say the least with more than 3,000 volunteers, 70 cast and crew members from the ABC reality television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and thousands of spectators descending on the town to build the Tutwiler Family a new home.
This was the second time this year Chapman was thrust into the national spotlight - the first time was when an EF-3 tornado wiped out more than half the town five months ago. When the episode airs Jan. 25, volunteers and residents alike are hoping Chapman will continue on its path to recovery.
"It's a great opportunity for Chapman, our community and our school district," said Chapman school district superintendent Tony Frieze. "I think the publicity from Extreme Makeover is going to be great, and it's nice to have good things happen after a disaster. I think it's really going to be beneficial for our whole district and our community."
Production began on the show Nov. 11 - Veteran's Day - in the Burnside Heights neighborhood on Custer Hill at Fort Riley, with an announcement to Patrick Tutwiler, a Soldier with the Warrior Transition Battalion, his wife, Crystal, four children and nephew that they were the Family selected to have a home rebuilt for them in Chapman, as well as receive an all-expense paid Disney cruise to the Bahamas, courtesy of the show. It had been a rough last couple of years for the Family. Crystal has been diagnosed with two types of cancer; Patrick was severely injured when he was shot in the neck by a sniper in Iraq; and the Family's Chapman home was wiped off its foundation during the June tornado. Additionally, Patrick was getting ready to be medically discharged from the Army, and the Family didn't know where they would go.
Veteran's Day was chosen as the day to start filming, not only because Patrick Tutwiler was a veteran, but also because it was the five-month anniversary of the tornado, said Diane Korman, senior producer of marketing and public relations for Extreme.
If you build it, they will come
When the Extreme producers first heard about Chapman and the Tutwiler Family's plight, they wanted to do something, but weren't sure if they could pull it off, Korman said.
"Then we got a little letter from Doug Thompson, the city attorney. Doug said, 'We have an amazing community here. There are three churches who have been putting together this town. They will help you. We have builders from all over the region. They will come together. It is a leap of faith, but trust us, come here and we will build a house,'" Diane recalled. "We were scared. When we drove in for our first meeting a little over five weeks ago, we didn't know if there would be five people in the room or if there would be Doug Thompson in the room. But we pulled up and in the room were 50 people - builders, city council, volunteers and Judy Blixt, who bakes really good brownies and who happens to be a developer."
At the time of the meeting, Korman said, city officials only had one request. If the show was going to film in Chapman, they would need to do more than just build one house for the community.
Extreme cast and crew members came up with the idea to build a community safe house in downtown Chapman, which would provide 100 residents with shelter if another tornado ever came through the town. But construction would not stop there. Trees would be planted, landscaping would be done near the community house, and, two other Families - the Irvine and the Bair Families - would receive needed repairs to their homes.
After the initial announcement they were receiving a new home, the Tutwiler Family was swept away in a tour bus by Extreme host Ty Pennington to Chapman, where a frenzy of television and print journalists, as well as onlookers awaited their arrival. Following the press conference with the media, the Family was off to the Bahamas for a much-needed vacation, one the Family had never had, Patrick said.
The next day, volunteers in red and blue-clad Extreme Makeover T-shirts, as well as 1st Infantry Division Soldiers from Fort Riley, gathered in the city's downtown park to participate in what the show calls its "Braveheart March," while spectators arrived across the street from where the Tutwiler Family home once stood to watch the scene play out. The Braveheart March is where volunteers, led by Pennington, are filmed marching down the street to start the demolition process. In this case, there was no house to demolish. After several retakes of the scene, which lasted throughout the morning, it was time to start the clock in a race to build the home.
The clock starts
Despite the "Hollywood" version depicting the home being built in seven days, the actual time lapse for completion is 106 hours, Korman said, noting that the record for the fastest Extreme house built was in Detroit, Mich., in 53 hours and 54 minutes.
The secret to the show's success of completing a home within the allotted time frame is by stacking 200 to 500 workers on the house at the same time for six days straight, she said.
In this instance, a builders coalition consisting of five local construction companies - American Dream Development of Junction City, Blixt Construction and Harris Custom Homes LLC, both of Chapman, and Ponton Construction, Inc. and A.F.MC. Construction and Remodeling, Inc., both of Salina, took control of the project, donating all of the materials and labor for the home.
For some of the builders like Jeff Blixt of Blixt Construction, building the Tutwiler home took on a very personal meaning. Blixt's own home was in the path of the tornado June 11 and suffered extensive damage. The home had to be demolished and the family is still in the process of building a new home. But it was because of the help they received after their own home was destroyed that Blixt said he wanted to help others.
"After our disaster, we had a lot of people who stepped up and helped us - volunteers, friends and family. The help we had was overwhelming," he said. "That's why we're here today, to help someone else out - paying it forward."
Jeff Burton, owner of American Dream Development Construction Company, said when the opportunity to help the Tutwiler Family came along, his company jumped at the chance.
"About 90 percent of our cliental are Soldiers," Burton said. "We've always had the dream to give one house away to a needy Family. When this opportunity came about, we we're like, 'Yes, this is what we want to do.'"
Volunteers come out of the woodwork
More than 3,000 volunteers signed up to help rebuild the Tutwiler home, the city's downtown park and help with other projects around Chapman. Many of the volunteers were Soldiers - some from Tutwiler's unit - who said they felt a sense of pride helping out their fellow Soldier.
"We were sent to put together furniture and put it into the house. We're excited. Spc. Tutwiler is actually in my company," said 2nd Lt. Elizabeth Hill, a member of the WTB cadre. "It's a good way to help him out and show him we care about his service to our country. I think he is going to feel such a sense of relief because he won't have to worry about where he's going to live once he gets out of the Army. I think he served our country well, and he definitely deserves this and his Family deserves this."
"It's a real good opportunity. We are not just taking care of our own, we're taking care of an entire community," added Staff Sgt. Ryan Morse, also a WTB cadre member. "It shows in a small area like this that everyone's willing to pull together and do something unique and is willing to step up and show they care.
"This happened in June and here we are staring down the barrel of December almost," said Morse. "You can still look around and see this town looks like it was just hit by a tornado. It's one of those things where Greensburg got a lot of attention, Manhattan got a lot of attention, but in this town here, they had a fatality, there was a lot of damage, the schools are still mangled. People still have smiles on their faces, but there's still some issues going on here."
Many of the Soldiers, which included several units on post, worked throughout the week, helping wherever they could, in the construction, building and moving process. Finally Nov. 17, it was time to move in furniture. The Family would be home the next day and the house was complete.
Move that bus!
In the early morning hours of Nov. 18, thousands of spectators began gathering across the street from the Tutwiler's new home to await their arrival, participate in the show's segment of "Move that bus" and catch a glimpse of the designers including Pennington, Paige Hemmis, Ed Sanders, Michael Moloney and Paul DiMeo.
The revealing was scheduled for 11:30 a.m., but it was close to 2:30 p.m. before the crowd yelled for the last time "Move that bus!" and the Family saw their home for the first time.
Although most of the crowd only caught a glimpse of the Family's reaction from behind, an emotional Crystal Tutwiler was seen crying and hugging designers and crew members.
The family was then led into the house and the crowd was led to the downtown park, where Gavin Rossdale, the former front man for the band Bush, was scheduled to perform later that evening.
About the entire event, long-time resident Bob Diehl described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"I think it's something they'll never see in their life again. It's one of those things that is just a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Diehl said. "For a small town in Kansas, that's pretty remarkable. The whole world is going to know about Chapman, Kan., and that makes us proud. We're the Fighting Irish. This is wonderful."