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Jack and Sarah Bullins left a hurricane shelter and returned to their first-floor apartment just two blocks from the ocean at Myrtle Beach.
Hurricane Florence was battering the N.C. coastline with 70 mph winds, causing a storm surge that inundated homes and swept away cars. The projections showed Myrtle Beach was next in line, and Jack and Sarah were in the most vulnerable zone.
They knew it was a risk to leave the shelter. But they had faith they could get through anything together.
As the storm marched toward South Carolina late Friday afternoon, the couple returned to their vulnerable home and sat side-by-side in cushioned armchairs, carefully tracking the storm’s progress on TV.
Then: “We are watching what is now Tropical Storm Florence,” a broadcaster said, indicating that the storm was no longer classified as a hurricane.
Jack and Sarah instantly turned to one another, slapped a high-five and said, “Praise the Lord!”
When the once-fearsome storm finally arrived in Myrtle Beach late Friday, it brought less wind and rain than anticipated. Two storm-related deaths would later be confirmed in Horry County as well as flooded homes and property damage.
But overall, many Grand Strand residents sighed with relief. Florence had done far less damage than anticipated. And Jack and Sarah were completely unscathed by the storm, just as they knew they would be.
“When my husband prays, he prays with faith and belief,” Sarah said. Hurricane Florence “went from a (Category) 4 to a 1.
“And now we’re getting tropical storm weather.”
Jack, 56, and Sarah, 38, have been married for two years. They are used to weathering storms.
Both were abused and molested as children, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and spent time behind bars. They met in 2012 and formed an unlikely friendship. They found God, cleaned themselves up and fell in love.
It’s an incredible story of hardship and despair so relentless that it begs belief. But court records, family members and acquaintances confirm the details.
For them, Florence’s fizzle is just the latest example of the importance of faith.
“You go through storms in your life, all the time,” Jack said. “When you finally reach out to the Lord and he accepts you, he prepares you for a lot of things.”
‘I just didn’t care anymore.’
As he sat in his living room Friday night, Jack took his index finger and rubbed the two tear-drop tattoos on the left side of his face.
“I call these my time pieces,” he said. Each represented 10 years in prison.
Growing up in North Carolina, Jack said he was regularly beaten and molested by a family member.
“I thought it was something I had done,” he said. “For some reason, everybody just hated me, so it made me hate.”
Jack acted out, got into fights and stirred up trouble. He was sent to reform school when he was 8 and “learned to get a little meaner.” That was the start of his long trip through the justice system.
Jack was a fighter, and often used weapons. If someone crossed him, they were going to pay, he said. Known as Bulldog to his friends, Jack had a catchphrase anytime he got into a fight — “It’s time for you to go down to Hell and meet Satan.”
Records show he spent the next 20 years in and out of jails and prisons — once for stabbing a man in the gut, he said, and another time for firing into a house after he caught his wife with another man.
He served three years for the shooting and was released in 1989. That’s when he met his second wife, who gave birth to the third of his seven children.
But Jack was ready for the drinking and drug use to end, and his decision ended the relationship. His wife left with the children, he said.
In 1995, with nowhere else to turn, Jack first asked God to be his Savior.
“I went into my sister’s closet and asked Jesus to forgive me of all my sins and everything I had ever done,” he said. “I walked out of that closet with complete smiles. Happy. … It was the greatest feeling in the world.”
The Holy Spirit was coursing through his body, he said. It was time to get his children, and he did — against his wife’s wishes.
He wound up with his children in a motel room in Winston-Salem, N.C. The plan was for Jack’s father to drive him and the children to Florida to live with an aunt until he could get on his feet.
But, ultimately, his father talked him out of it. This is kidnapping, his father told him. Law enforcement would take his children and throw him back in prison. He might never see them again.
Jack’s spirit was broken, he said. He gave up, turned the children over to police and returned to his old ways.
“I backslid for 20 more years,” he said. “I just didn’t care anymore. I stayed at the bars, drinking and drinking.”
He was also using drugs — snorting methamphetamine and cocaine, and swallowing any pills he could get his hands on.
He drew the line at marijuana, though. It made him feel stupid, he said.
Four years later, he wound up back in prison for allegedly selling a Xanax to an undercover officer. He said it wasn’t a sale.
“I believe I got put back in prison to save my life, because I was on that crystal meth so bad,” he said.
Jack was released in 2006. Looking for a fresh start, he moved to Myrtle Beach. He had kicked the meth habit, but alcohol and cocaine still had a strong hold.
‘The good Lord gives you only what you can handle.’
Sarah’s world was flipped upside down when she turned 15. That’s when she met her mother for the first time, and discovered the people she grew up knowing as her parents were actually her grandparents, she said.
She ran away from home and started hanging with the wrong crowd. She wound up getting arrested for burglary and was sent through the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Sarah was released at 17. Two family members were there to pick her up.
What followed was years of sexual abuse at the hands of people she loved and trusted, Sarah said.
She tried to escape, running off with a man and later marrying him. But that didn’t last long, and she wound up back with her abusers, she said.
“Because of all that,” Sarah said, “I felt like I wasted my life and I was worthless.”
At the time, she was taking 16 medications for various mental and physical ailments, she said. One night, she downed them all with a bottle of Jägermeister liquor.
She was found unconscious and wound up on life support for about a month, she said. That experience deeply affected her long- and short-term memory, she said. But in a way, it’s a gift. She has too many bad memories.
“The good Lord gives you only what you can handle,” she said.
Sarah recovered and felt more spiritual than ever. She immediately forgave her abusers, and moved to Myrtle Beach. That’s where she met her third husband, and the two of them moved into the motel where Jack was staying.
‘God let me walk again.’
Jack’s drink of choice had always been whiskey — specifically Canadian Mist.
Every night after work, he went home and drank anywhere between a liter and a half gallon, or until he blacked out — whichever came first, he said.
One night in December 2012, he was more than a liter deep into his Canadian Mist when he heard a commotion outside. A man was screaming at a couple nearby. The husband was doing nothing to protect his wife.
Jack was enraged, he said.
He tried to intervene, but the man’s wife told him to go back to his room. As Jack turned to walk away, the man who had started the commotion punched him in the back of the head. Jack fell face-first, hitting his head on the concrete.
Jack refused to go to the hospital, “like an idiot,” he said.
His brain was bleeding. After he awoke the next morning, he had a stroke.
Doctors said he wouldn’t walk normally again or use his left arm. Recovery was difficult, but the husband and wife he had tried to help took him in and cared for him.
It was Sarah and her then-husband.
Jack said he couldn’t stand Sarah at first. She was a pain to be around. Meth was all over the house, people were coming and going, and Sarah fought with her husband daily.
Jack lived with them for “four horrible months,” he said, before moving in with his cousin in Columbia.
But it wasn’t long until Jack started thinking about Sarah, he said. Something told him to reach out to her. They set up a platonic meeting, and quickly became friends. They were both legally married but had been separated from their partners, and the idea of them dating hadn’t crossed their mind.
Much of their friendship revolved around the use of drugs and alcohol, they said.
Jack was still struggling to walk, and Sarah helped him get the medical attention he needed. He was outfitted with a brace and was quickly able to walk again.
They fell in love, filed for divorces and began dating.
Eventually, they both realized they needed to make a change.
“We just drank, popped pills and lay in bed — just worthless,” Jack said. “I just got up one morning, threw everything away and said, ‘This is it. This is over.’ ”
He said he got down on his knees and asked for one more chance.
“I gave my life to God for real this time. No more turning back,” he said.
Jack and Sarah got married in 2016 and have been clean of drugs and alcohol ever since, they say. Their faith in God helps them both weather any storm, they said.
More storms ahead
Gov. Henry McMaster issued the mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday. That same night, Jack and Sarah followed directions and went to the shelter at Palmetto Bays Elementary School.
They spent three days spreading the word of God with dozens of strangers, helping to bring peace and calm to a stressful situation.
But when Red Cross officials announced they would lock the doors ahead of the storm and not let anyone leave until it passed, Jack and Sarah were both uncomfortable. It reminded them of their time in jail, they said. That’s what ultimately helped them decide to leave.
“If we lose everything, God will provide,” Sarah said. “He always has.”
And come Saturday morning, all was fine on Myrtle Beach.
“I told you, man. God is good,” Jack said.
But while Florence may have spared them, Jack knows there is at least one more storm ahead. He has seven children, but none of them have had a stable father. He knows he has grandchildren, but doesn’t know how many. And he hopes to change that.
“That’s probably the most shameful thing of my life,” he said with his voice cracking and tears filling his eyes. “I didn’t straighten up when they were small. I took the coward’s way out and hid in a bottle.”
Jack hopes to move out of his motel room so his teenage daughter, who has children of her own, can live with him and Sarah.
“I have a daughter who needs me right now,” he said.