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Roaring Tornado Kills 22

The late-season twister -- the deadliest in Indiana in 31 years -- shreds a mobile home park, where 17 die. At least 200 are injured.

November 07, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

KNIGHT TOWNSHIP, Ind. — Amy Lamastus and Ryan Belwood were awakened just before 2 a.m. Sunday by an awful, ominous rumble that grew louder and louder at their mobile home.

When the tornado roared in, "it was if someone had reached down with a giant hand on top of the trailer," Belwood said, "and we started rocking back and forth."

The couple ran hand-in-hand to their bathroom and crouched in the tub, with Belwood shielding Lamastus. Neither could hear the other, and the pressure on their ears was almost unbearable. But each sensed in the squeeze of the other's hand some sheer gratitude: Their sons, 7 and 5, were spending the night away from the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park at their grandparents'.

When the rocking was over, the tornado had left a miles-long swath of destruction from northwestern Kentucky to southwestern Indiana, killing at least 22 people and injuring at least 200 others, officials said. Brad Ellsworth, Vanderburgh County sheriff, said at least 17 people died at the mobile home park about 8 miles southeast of downtown Evansville. The dead ranged from toddlers to elderly retirees, authorities said.

The other deaths were reported in Warrick County, just east of Evansville, where the tornado hit Newburgh.

At Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, the trailer where Belwood and Lamastus lived was torn off its foundations, and when they returned Sunday afternoon, their home was no longer habitable. As they grabbed the few clothes they could find and threw them into a plastic garbage bag, they recalled the nightmarish scene of hours before.

"We could hear people screaming for help, screaming that they were trapped," said Lamastus, 27, a customer service representative for a credit card company.

Added Belwood, 26, a factory press operator: "You started smelling the gas. It was so thick you couldn't breathe.... You could hear the gas hissing out, like a broken fire hose."

About 140 mobile homes at the park were damaged or destroyed. The scene was an odd mixture of rescue workers gingerly searching through the debris and the beeping of bulldozers and other equipment that sorted the rubble into piles.

Twelve hours after the twister struck, emergency crews found an 8-year-old boy, dressed only in Jockey shorts, alive under layers of debris.

"He was a small kid" but a tough one, said Jerry Bulger, chief of the Perry Township Volunteer Fire Department, who was leading a rescue crew. "We heard this voice crying out for help. He kept asking us to get him out of there. He said he was thirsty; he really wanted something to drink."

The boy, whose name was not released, had cuts and other injuries and was taken to a hospital. He was "conscious and talking" throughout, Perry said. "The kid was in good spirits when he left my sights."

Just a mile or so from where the twister touched down, the maple trees were showing brilliant autumn foliage. But just beyond the mobile home park, strands of pink and yellow insulation hung in the trees, giving them the look of spectral, frosted Christmas trees.

The tornado was the deadliest in Indiana since April 3, 1974, state officials said. On that day, a series of twisters killed 47 people and destroyed about 2,000 homes.

The tornado that hit Sunday was notable not only for its deadly force, but for its highly unusual strike this late in the year. Tornadoes are most common in spring.

Sirens went off a short time before the tornado hit, and some people who were awake said they had seen warnings on television.

National Weather Service officials said the tornado was touched off in part because of the collision of a cold front moving into the Ohio River Valley with unusually mild, humid weather of recent days.

Ryan Presley, a meteorologist with the weather service in Paducah, Ky., said the tornado touched down near Smith Mills, in northwestern Kentucky, then jumped the Ohio River and cut a 15- to 20-mile path through Indiana's Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. Top wind speeds were above 158 mph, he said.

At Ellis Park, a horse racing track in Henderson County, Ky., the tornado damaged half of the grandstand. Three horses were killed, a track spokesman said.

About 18,000 homes lost electric power because of the storm, which was gradually restored throughout the day. Utility officials said power had been restored by Sunday night to all but about 4,000.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who toured the areas struck by the tornado, described the storm's action as "brutal" and "highly random."

"There's incredible devastation next to apparently unscathed properties," the governor said.

Debra Jorden, a secretary who lived in the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, appeared dazed Sunday afternoon, walking out of the park with a roller suitcase that contained the few clothes she could salvage, as well as a small car carrier. It housed her orange Persian cat, Samson, who rode out the storm under a bed, refusing her pleas to come out before Jorden left for her mother's house, when she sensed a bad storm coming.

Jorden said she left just before the tornado hit, but was still on the road when the full force hit.

"I could barely see. Stuff was hitting my car. All I was hearing was a really bad wind."

Coming back made her realize just how horrible a scene she had evaded.

"I'm so afraid," she said, "because I don't know where any of my neighbors are at, and this is a close community, mostly retirees and young families.

"There were so many kids who lived here," Jorden added. "No one knows who's dead and who's alive."

*

Huffstutter reported from Knight Township, Ind., and Verhovek from Seattle. Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.

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