- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. Last Sunday was the day the Lancasters finally got around to some of those projects around the house that have a way of being put off.George Lancaster and his son, Philip, were remulching around the trees and flowers at the end of their driveway.
"We've been here 19 years, and this was the year we were going to plant the foundations and watch them grow," Mr. Lancaster said.
Though it was a bit muggy, Elaine Lancaster spent the day taking down wallpaper in an upstairs bedroom in their two-story home, which sits on Route 6 less than a mile from the heart of La Plata.
It was like many other Sundays in the small, 5-square-mile town in Southern Maryland.
Christ Episcopal Church on East Charles Street was serving coffee at its post-service fellowship hour.
At Sacred Heart Church on St. Mary's Avenue, participants rehearsed for the Confirmation Mass they would be celebrating the next night.
Striped bass season had opened the weekend before for anglers who wanted to get out on the Patuxent River.
It was a day to enjoy before the workweek rolled around again.
But by Monday, the comfortable ebb and flow of everyday life for La Plata's 6,500 residents along with much of the town was wiped out, swept away by a tornado that hit with unmatched ferocity.
Those who switched on the television to check the forecast last Sunday might have caught news of a storm front that had pummeled the Midwest.
Perhaps they saw the familiar-yet-unimaginable images of destruction: the houses reduced to kindling, the overturned trucks and naked foundations, the wads of insulation scattered about, the brave faces of the souls grateful to have survived.
Earlier that day from southeast Missouri to Pennsylvania and from the Great Lakes to the Tennessee Valley thunderstorms had cracked, winds had lashed, snow had blanketed, hail had pounded. And tornadoes had roared from the sky.
A 12-year-old Missouri boy attending a sleepover was killed when a twister hurled him 50 feet. In Breckinridge County, Ky., a 52-year-old man died after being thrown 200 feet from his mobile home. Another mobile-home resident, a 69-year-old woman, was found dead outside her home in Dongola, Ill.
But in La Plata it was, as Mrs. Lancaster said, just a bit muggy.

In harm's way
The storm front that had torn up areas to the west was moving east. Strong thunderstorms moved over West Virginia and Virginia. At 4:37 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Rockingham County, Va.
Back in La Plata, about 35 miles south of Washington, Sister Jane Duke and Sister Helene Fee were returning home to the Sacred Heart Convent at about 5 p.m. after spending the weekend in Scranton, Pa. The convent is next to the Archbishop Neale School, where Sister Fee is the principal.
"We were just settling in," said Sister Duke, who has lived at the convent for four years and works at Sacred Heart Church in La Plata and at the Patuxent River Air Naval Station.
The news was on, but she and Sister Fee were too busy unpacking to pay it much attention.
"The live Doppler whatever-you-call-it was on, and it showed the storm in Virginia, so I didn't worry about it," Sister Duke recalled.
Yet the column of severe weather was sweeping across western and Northern Virginia, and between 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. a funnel cloud was spotted south of Dale City in Prince William County.
At 6:30 p.m., State Trooper Brian Tucker pulled into a parking lot off U.S. Highway 301 in Waldorf, Md., five miles north of La Plata, to wait out what he thought would be a "quick and serious rain." A second trooper was in another car next to his.
After about 20 minutes, the rain hadn't stopped. Instead, it had turned into a hail, rifling on the roof of the cruiser, Trooper Tucker said.
"It was suddenly very dark, and marble-sized hail was coming down," the 29-year-old trooper said.

The ground was all white
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 6:45 p.m. for Charles County, where La Plata is the county seat. It issued a second warning at 7 p.m.
At the La Plata Volunteer Fire Department, a dozen or so of its 55 firefighters were gathered as they often are after work at department headquarters, about a half-mile east of the intersection of U.S. 301 and Route 6.
What started as a typically humid afternoon in La Plata had turned into a dark and blustery evening. In the minutes after 7 p.m., some firefighters noted, the chips of hail that were falling instead of raindrops were quickly growing bigger alarmingly bigger.
Along Route 6 at the Lancasters' house, Mrs. Lancaster wanted to inspect the work her husband and son had done at the end of the 250-foot-long driveway. It was about five minutes after seven.
Mr. Lancaster and Philip had settled onto the couch for some well-earned downtime: Mr. Lancaster channel surfing, Philip searching for a videotape.
Then, Mr. Lancaster said, the television popped off, and the hail began to hammer down.
"I was wondering who was pounding baseballs up against the house," he said.
"I remember looking outside," Philip said. "The ground had turned all white, and all I see is my mom running towards the house through it all."
Mrs. Lancaster was at the end of the driveway.
"I looked towards the town of La Plata, and I saw a roof flying and all kinds of debris whirling about, and I thought to myself: 'I am in trouble, I am really in trouble,'" she said. "I just started running."

'I'll never forget that sound'
It was just past 7 p.m. when Ronnie Spittle, assistant chief of the La Plata Volunteer Fire Department, walked into his home not far from the department's headquarters.
Chief Spittle said that's when he heard the noise. "I'll never forget that sound. It was a scary sound, I'll tell you that. I heard it like the roar of a jet coming that's what I heard."
Chief Spittle quickly walked out his door and saw in the distance, over the tree tops, the funnel.
"It was a bunch of clouds reaching down in the shape of a V at first," said Chief Spittle, 44. "Then it started twisting. I ran back inside and got my wife and the kids and put them in the truck and came straight" to the headquarters.
At 7:05 p.m., the tornado spiraled into downtown La Plata.
Volunteer firefighters Clyde Coffey, 23, and Tadd Soderberg, 22, had pulled the department's brush truck off U.S. 301, about a half-mile north of Route 6.
"We were parked in front of Wal-Mart on 301," Mr. Coffey said. "When we first saw the funnel, it was clear. I mean, you could see through it."
The two quickly pulled back onto the road and began heading south on U.S. 301, in the direction of the twister. As they approached the Route 6 intersection, Mr. Coffey said, the funnel became bigger and darker.
"It was coming in behind the Safeway," he said. "It was black and thick, and you could see all kinds of debris in it, and it was dark."
The two then watched, slack-jawed, as the twister barreled through the Safeway, crossed the parking lot and consumed the KFC restaurant, then rolled across U.S. 301 spraying, like bricks, several dozen cars across the road.
At 7:07 p.m., a call crackled over the radio from an ambulance near the hospital, which is between the volunteer fire department headquarters and U.S. 301.
"They said they were transporting someone to the hospital and a tornado has struck down," Deputy Chief John Latimer said.

Debris was everywhere
Initially, Sister Duke and Sister Fee heard the winds, then the hail pounding the roof.
Sister Duke was on the third floor, Sister Fee on the second.
"At first it sounded like a helicopter, then a train and finally as if a locomotive were coming straight through the convent itself," Sister Duke said.
The two started calling to each other. Sister Duke made it down one flight, but the two could not reach the ground floor.
Glass was flying about inside the century-old convent, which had begun to shake. The women huddled in the hallway and prayed.
"I really did think I was going to die," said Sister Duke, still visibly shaken days later.
When Trooper Tucker and the other officer got the call about the tornado in La Plata, both cruisers pulled out into the pounding hail and began racing south on U.S. 301 toward the town's by-then decimated business district.
"We pulled up about a minute after [the twister] passed over Route 301, and you couldn't drive down the road because it was blocked by debris," Trooper Tucker said. "There were bricks and cars overturned and trees bigger than my car lying in the street."
At the volunteer fire department, firefighters scrambled in response to the call from the ambulance. Several of the men gathered together to listen as Mr. Coffey's voice came over the radio, echoing the call seconds earlier from the ambulance.
Within minutes, Mike Gilroy was riding with three other firefighters on Engine 12, the first firetruck to arrive at Route 6 and U.S. 301.
"When we got there, we could still see [the twister] heading up the hill behind us with tree limbs and pieces of roof spinning in it," said Mr. Gilroy, 21. "You could see a couple hundred feet up in the air, chunks of debris spinning every which way."
At 6 and 301, downtown La Plata's ground zero, firefighters found chaos.
The Engine 12 firefighters freed two persons trapped in a minivan that had been crushed by the bricks from the destroyed United Methodist Church.
Dozens of other firefighters arrived to help. There were "people walking around bleeding, people carrying each other," said Deputy Chief Latimer, 31. "It was terrible, total devastation to the town."
In the minutes afterward, the violent weather gave way to an unsettling calm.
"The crazy, eerie part about it was that right after the tornado went across Route 301, the clouds broke and the sun came out," Deputy Chief Latimer said.
"It was never hard wind after the funnel cloud passed through," Chief Spittle said. "Whatever wind it took to rip through and destroy that area, it took just 30 seconds, then everything was quiet."

Thanking their luck
At her home on Route 6, Mrs. Lancaster had made it back to the house, and the family raced to the basement.
"I just kept thinking, 'I hope the house stands' and how fortunate I was to get in the house," Mrs. Lancaster said.
After what seemed like a "lifetime," the three emerged.
They had lost part of the roof, a large amount of insulation and a Rhode Island Red chicken that Mr. Lancaster kept in the back yard to support the local 4-H, he said.
Also lost was Emmie's tree, a large oak the Lancasters' 21-year-old daughter had claimed for herself as a child. She is a junior at Ball State University in Indiana and wasn't in La Plata last Sunday.
Both their cars were destroyed: Mrs. Lancaster's Mitsubishi when the carport collapsed on it and Mr. Lancaster's Ford Escort when full paint cans from a hardware store several miles away landed on it, shattering the front-quarter panels.
The living room, on the first floor in the front of the house, had a modest crack in the foundation, and the window was smashed.
Despite their losses, the Lancasters keep coming back to their good luck.
A grandfather clock that has been in Mr. Lancaster's family for nearly 170 years stands next to the crack in the living room wall. It was untouched.
"That is something that simply could not have been replaced, no matter what," Mrs. Lancaster said, marveling at the quietly ticking clock.
In Sacred Heart Convent after the tornado swept past, "it was a deafening calm. Everything was now so silent and quiet," Sister Duke said.
At her feet was a frame that hung on one of the walls. The glass was broken, but the picture of Jesus inside was undamaged.
The same couldn't be said of the 75-year-old Archbishop Neale School next door: The school where Sister Fee had spent 24 of the last 27 years was gone.
Almost immediately neighbors and parents came to Sacred Heart to check on the two women. A third nun who lives there was away.
The convent sustained structural damage, and the foundation might have shifted. No decision on the building, or the nuns' living arrangements, has been made.
"No matter what has happened in my life, God is always faithful, and He always provides," Sister Fee said. With a smile, she quickly added, "He's a little hard on the nerves, once in a while."

Taking stock
When dazed, frightened residents began to assess the damage, it was staggering.
The casualties were blessedly low: Five persons died, and about 100 others were injured.
William G. Erickson Jr., 51, died when his house collapsed. A second man, Donald Hammonds, 54, was found in a car on U.S. 301.
A second tornado, which touched down in Prince Frederick in Calvert County, killed Margaret Alvey, 78, whose house was torn from its foundation. George Alvey, her 68-year-old husband, died of his injuries Friday at Washington Hospital Center.
A 72-year-old Waldorf woman who had a heart attack while watching television reports of the tornado died at Fort Washington Hospital on Wednesday.
The woman, whose name was not released by the Prince George's County hospital, was watching television news of Sunday's tornado from her home when she had an asthmatic attack and then a heart attack. She was transported to the hospital by ambulance Sunday and died at about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The property damage was crippling. President Bush declared Charles, Calvert and Dorchester counties federal disaster areas, making residents and business owners there eligible for federal assistance.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency assessed about 900 homes in the region and found that 85 were destroyed and that 167 sustained major damage from the tornado. The twister was the strongest in state history: Winds were in excess of 260 mph and it was rated F5 on the Fujita tornado scale, the highest possible rating.
The state's preliminary reports noted damage of about $100 million in Calvert, Charles and Dorchester counties, which some have called a conservative estimate.
Like so many in La Plata, the Lancasters say community spirit has been a source of strength.
Mr. Lancaster put a huge sign on their front fence, clearly visible to anyone who travels along Route 6. "Survived F5 God Bless USA," reads the black-on-white sign, which stands between an American flag and a Maryland flag at the end of their driveway.
"In the movie 'Twister,' there was a similar-type sign, and I just wanted everyone to know that we survived, too, and that we were grateful," he said.

Ellen Sorokin contributed to this report.

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