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What Took 130 Years to Build Is Ripped Away in 15 Seconds

Residents of a small Missouri town were caught off guard. Their once-familiar streets now look 'like Bosnia after a cluster bomb.'

May 06, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

PIERCE CITY, Mo. — The old brick building on Commercial Street had lasted a century, first as a small-town newspaper office, then as an antique gallery. In just a few seconds, it was gone, ripped apart by a wind that let nothing stand in its way.

More than a block from the small mountain of bricks that remained, antique dealer Ron Bertalotto found an old metal sign that once hung from the building's exterior. It read, "1884," the year it was built.

Bertalotto, 49, tossed the sign into the back of his truck. It fell atop a mound of rubble.

"It took 130 years to build this town and 15 seconds to destroy it," he said.

All day Monday, the residents of this town of 1,400 trudged through unfamiliar streets lined with the wreckage of what had been their homes, businesses and lives. Most everything lay in pieces, scattered by a swirling gray wall of wind that roared down from the sky Sunday night.

"It didn't seem like it lasted much more than a minute," said Thomas Majors, a town councilman. But in those few seconds, the tornado's keening winds sheared off miles of treetops and power lines, sucked the roofs off scores of buildings and killed at least six people in the area.

Some victims were trying to reach shelter. Others were inside their homes but had no basements where they could hide. In Lawrence County, two people died trying to reach the National Guard Armory here where several dozen others had sought safety. Two died in the neighboring town of Monett and two others were killed in adjacent counties.

All day long, police rescue teams combed through the armory's rubble, driven by reports that as many as eight others could have been caught outside when the tornado struck. But no bodies were found by day's end, convincing the town's exhausted police chief, Mike Abramovitz, that there were no other victims.

"I think all the missing are accounted for," he said.

Despite ample warning from tornado sirens, witnesses said that some people were still standing outside the armory when the storm barreled in, unable to get inside the armory in time.

The fruitless search for victims Monday left those accounts in doubt, Abramovitz said. But he, too, noticed how quickly the tornado came in on Sunday night.

"It did not get dark," he said. "The only way I could tell is that the clouds started spinning almost vertically." Retreating to his storm cellar, he listened as he heard the winds hurtling debris above ground.

"It sounded like someone hitting nails on a tin roof," he said.

Harold David, 66, said he was watching the local news on television when a tornado warning plotted the approaching storm at a nearby bend in the road.

"That's Pierce City," he hollered. "I gotta get the hell out of here!"

He ran outside to free his two dogs, a German shepherd named Deedee and a husky named Maxie. Then he ran to his storm cellar. But as he tried to open the door, the wind kept jamming it back.

David kept tugging, unable to lift it, until a tree fell just several feet away. "I got the strength real fast," he recalled, throwing the door open and tumbling inside.

"It happened too fast for me to be scared," he said. He listened for several minutes to the banging of tree limbs. When it grew quiet, he cracked the door open.

"I poked my head out and it looked like Bosnia after a cluster bomb," David said.

Most of his neighbors' houses were leveled, flattened into the earth. His own house still stood, but 10 windows had been blown out, glass strewn everywhere.

The winds were just as capricious with the rest of the town. Most of Commercial Street was obliterated. But the tornado did make a few allowances.

At the Thompson Family Drug Store, the windows were all blown out. But a greeting card display inside sat untouched, the cards still in their racks. At American Legion Post 65, the walls were bent and windows gone, but two rows of 20 U.S. flags still hung on the walls, fluttering faintly.

David and the others shuffled through the strange landscape, shaking their heads at the devastation, marveling at what still stood.

It was hard to reconcile the ruins of their town with what it used to looked like -- harder still to imagine what it would look like rebuilt.

All David knew was that the town he had lived in for more than two decades was gone. "This town," he said, "is history."


Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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