Restaurant worker called ‘unsung hero’ after tornadoes

“Everything just collapsed on us.”

Tyon Gillis can't sleep at night.

He vividly remembers the moment the door at the back of the Donatos Pizza — one of two restaurants he works at 9.8 miles apart on Ohio 48 — flung open and banged hard against the building.

>> PHOTOS: Restaurant worker called unsung hero for helping others during Memorial Day tornadoes

Horrific winds from the approaching tornado partly sucked Gillis’ coworker, a dishwasher, out through the doorway.

“I was glad I was right by him,” Gillis, a 22-year-old known as ‘Red,’ said. “(I) grabbed him a little bit, shut the door. Tried to get in safe. Everything just collapsed on us.”

The nonprofit Shoes 4 the Shoeless shared Gillis’ story to help his co-workers on its Facebook page on Monday, June 3.

The post received nearly 6,000 likes and loves by Tuesday.

Shoes 4 the Shoeless Executive Director Kris Horlacher said Gillis' heroics did not stop with him helping the dishwasher.

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After helping coworkers out of the building, an injured Gillis ran over to the nearby Wendy’s to help people there.

“He didn’t tell me about Wendy’s,” Horlacher said. “Other people came to me and said did you know he went to Wendy’s.”

Horlacher met Gillis about five years ago through the Dayton Urban Young Life Christian teen mentoring program.

They have remained in touch.

“He is so kind. He is so caring. He is so gentle,”  she said. “He’s this big guy. He’ll just do anything for anybody.  I just love him so much.”

>> STORY OF SURVIVAL: Northridge couple huddled under kitchen table

Life has not been easy for Gillis, but he is not complaining.

He currently bounces from his parents’ homes in Dayton to friends’ sofas.

He lost most of his clothing when a tree hit his father’s home during the tornadoes.

He was looking for a place of his own when the tornadoes hit. Now he says he’ll put the search on hold because other people impacted by the tornadoes need houses more.

“I am cool,” he said.


Like many of the houses, restaurants and businesses around it, the Donatos at 5120 N. Main St. in Harrison Twp. is now a twisted collection of metal, insulation, roofing materials and drywall.

The buzzing you hear is from tree companies and homeowners with chainsaws or workers removing debris or working on utilities.

Children offer free water to those who pass by,  and good Samaritans steadily come by with free food.


That scene is a far cry from that near Barry Bagels, Gillis’ other job at 4313 Far Hills Ave. in Kettering.

There, things go on as usual and businesses near the bagel shop is buzzing.

Just looking, one would have no way of knowing that on the same road 10 miles away, a three-fifths-of-a-mile-wide tornado wreaked havoc on Memorial Day.

That monster of a storm was one of 15 confirmed tornadoes in the Dayton area on Monday, May 27.

>> Stories of Survival: Dayton gives back to restaurant owner after loss of son, home

Gillis, who relies on the bus to get him to work, hopes to increase his hours at the bagel shop.

He doesn’t know if he’ll ever go back to Donatos because of the memories of the night the tornadoes hit.

“I know people are going to need (the job) far more than me,” he said. “I just can’t stop thinking about it. It is hard for me to go to sleep.”

Gillis got an alert on his phone to take cover moments before the tornado hit the Donatos.

He instead went outside where a shrub and other debris flew by as rain fell.

The Dunbar High School grad was inside the restaurant telling his manager they needed to take cover when the lights flickered off and the howling winds started.

Gillis said he, the dishwasher and a manager (she didn’t want to talk to this news organization) barely made it to Donatos’ pantry area when the the tornado hit.

Something big hit Gillis on his left side and he was knocked down.

At some point, he looked up.

“I could see the roof getting pulled back,” he recalled. “God low-key told me to close my eyes.”

>> STORY OF SURVIVAL: Dayton man holds onto front porch as tornado hits

Gillis said he remained calm as the building fell down all around him and wreckage was flying.

He covered his head with his arms the way he learned in school.

Gillis clawed his way out of the rubble and helped his co-workers do the same.

“I was just hearing people screaming,” Gillis said.

After calling his mother, and with his adrenaline high, he ran across the street to help people at the nearby Wendy’s restaurant.


Like others at the Donatos, Gillis was treated at the hospital for injures he suffered when the building collapsed.

Helping other people is just the right thing to do, he said.

“I want to be a hero,” he said. “I want to be a role model.”

Horlacher’s nonprofit distributed about 310 shoes to adults and children. Many were barefoot when the tornadoes hit.

The Shoes for the Shoeless vehicle was then used to distribute water and other supplies to those in need.

Locally based, Shoes for the Shoeless responded to disasters in Joplin, Mo.; Houston and other communities.

The Dayton community’s response to the Memorial Day tornadoes has been amazing in comparison, Horlacher said.

"The tornado damage I am seeing, I've never seen before. It is staggering," she said. 
 "I've never seen the community rally so quickly in abundance."

Gillis is an example of the selflessness people have exhibited, Horlacher said

“They are the unsung heroes — the people behind the scenes who you don’t hear about. Sometimes it is the people who have lost the most who are giving the most,” she said. “You should never give up hope.”

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