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The House Is 'Like Someone Stole It'

Residents of a small Florida town recall how a deadly tornado obliterated their homes.

September 18, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — All day, at a funereal pace, people drove past the site of the Blountstown tornado, where the homes of four families had vanished.

Four people died here when a tornado tangled three mobile homes and a wooden house together and exploded them away, scattering the families' shredded belongings over a half-mile area. Clothing hung from tree limbs, photographs were strewn across a wet pasture, frozen chicken breasts thawed on the grass, sofas were turned inside-out and deposited on the other side of the highway.

On Friday, under a brilliant blue sky, family members walked into the field of debris, their grief mixed with a feeling of unreality.

The Junod family was looking for a pair of wedding rings in a mass of wet insulation and shingles. The Gates family was looking for a green tackle box that held titles and insurance papers.

But it was hard to find anything at all.

"This house right here, it's like someone stole it," said Jessica Gates, 17, whose great-uncle, James Marshall, was killed. "It's like they just took it away."

Inspecting the site on Friday, National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Goree saw a deep scar in the forest where the tornado touched down in Blountstown, a timber town of 2,400. Hurricanes commonly spin tornadoes off their northeast outer bands -- narrow fingers that hopscotch along the ground for a few seconds and then disappear back into the cloud cover.

This tornado, and a second that destroyed homes in adjoining Jackson County, was closer to the massive twisters of the Great Plains, with a vortex a third of a mile in diameter and winds reaching 130 to 140 miles per hour. It traveled along the ground more or less unbroken for five miles.

On the day of the storm, while most hurricane watchers were focused on Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, the meteorologists at the National Weather Service station in Tallahassee, Fla., were gradually taking in the phenomenon of the tornadoes. Over the next day they would issue 124 tornado warnings, more than double the number they have ever issued in a 24-hour period.

Watching Doppler readings, Irv Watson, the station's science and operations officer, was startled by the rotations churning over Calhoun County, where Blountstown is located.

"It got my attention. Let's say it reached out and slapped me across the face on our displays," he said. "It was a major event."

As the tornado approached the homes on Parrish Road, people heard a roar -- loud and deep, like an explosion -- and some felt their ears pop, the way you might in a plane. Jeff Johnson, who lives opposite the houses that were destroyed, picked up his kids and ran into a bathroom just in time to hear windows begin to implode.

Eric Lee, a volunteer firefighter, was driving by the mobile homes when he saw one of them begin to spin. Then his truck began spinning. The tornado deposited him, with one tire torn off his truck, at the top of a hill.

The tornado lifted the three mobile homes off their foundations. The first, inhabited by five members of the Terry family, flew about 30 yards and landed on a wooden house, crushing it and trapping its inhabitants, who were later rescued. Melvin Terry and his daughter Donna Lawrence died at the scene; three family members remain hospitalized.

Inside a second home, James and Mary Marshall were preparing to start their shift at a correctional facility; they were killed, thrown outside about 400 yards.

A third mobile home, which was empty, bounced and then exploded. Its foundations are wrapped around a tree.

Rescuers arrived that night in blinding rain, with hurricane-force winds bearing down on them.

"It was total catastrophe," said Steve Mears, a deputy sheriff who realized, a few minutes into the search, that two of the missing were his friends. The tornado had torn through the area like "a wood-chipper ... just grinding everything up."

On Friday, family members ranged over the site, looking for something to save before a county crew came in to remove the debris. But it was hard to know where to start. Near the pile of rubble where her brother, Melvin Terry, had died, Joleata Hand, 45, was trying to flatten out family photographs on the hood of a truck.

Hand said only one family member had talked about the experience. A nephew who hid in the bathroom when the tornado approached the home described a "spinning sensation, and then the toilet flying by," Hand said. Frances Terry, Melvin's wife, remains in critical condition with a punctured lung, and has not been told that her husband and daughter died, she said.

As the storm receded, many neighbors were shaking their heads at the dangers of mobile homes. Cindy Edenfield remembered chatting with the Terrys about the coming storm; Melvin said it was headed for Mobile and that he had decided to stay in his house.

"We're not used to anything that destructive," Edenfield said.

Cars slowly passed the site all day. David Jemison was filming a video to send to his sister-in-law in Dallas. Ouida O'Bryan, 70, was taking photographs of the site with a disposable camera. A friend of the Marshalls', she began weeping when asked why she had come.

"God may be trying to show us something," she said. "He certainly has shown us his wrath."

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