'A whoosh wind, and that was it' Injuries are minor, but Frostburg tornado destroys 11 homes

$5 million in damage

Fire chief credits quick response to weather warning

June 04, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ernest F. Imhoff contributed to this article.

FROSTBURG -- When word of tornadoes crackled across police scanners in this small town tucked in the hills of Western Maryland, Dwayne Bittner did not hesitate. He gathered his wife and two children and ran to the basement.

They made it with no time to spare.

Before they reached the bottom of the stairs, a twister struck their three-bedroom home. It lifted the house from its foundation, tore off a mud room and sent a pair of French doors flying through the house and out the front windows.

"It sounded like a whoosh wind," Bittner said, swinging his arms to emphasize the point. "And that was it."

But not for the rest of Frostburg. The tornado Tuesday at 9: 45 p.m. would destroy 10 other homes, damage 70 more and cause an estimated $5 million in damages. The twister traveled with enough force to peel roofs off homes, pull a minivan out of a garage and warp the steel flagpole at Frost Elementary School.

About 15 people had minor cuts and bruises, but none was hospitalized, authorities said.

Frostburg fire chief Ron Dugan credited the town's quick response to the early warning is- sued by the National Weather Service and broadcast over police scanners.

"It's a small, tight-knit community," he said, noting that most residents have scanners in their homes to stay in touch with the town's goings-on.

Still, the warning was five minutes at most. Leaving a path like footprints of a giant, the twister traveled at least 15 miles from southwestern Pennsylvania before hitting Frostburg.

Pennsylvania was hardest hit by the storm. The National Weather Service said 14 tornadoes hit there, spawned by a storm system that brought high winds, heavy rain and softball-sized hail to communities from upstate New York to North Carolina.

An elderly woman and a middle-aged man died when winds flattened their mobile home in Lake Carey, Pa.

Most damage

In Frostburg, the eastern and western edge of town saw the most damage. Richard M. Goldsworthy, who lives in a western neighborhood, was trying to salvage what he could yesterday. The tornado pulled apart the top floor of his home, tearing sinks from the walls and dumping most of his belongings into the back yard and beyond.

"I walked outside last night and thought 'I still have my life,' " he said. "You would not want to go through something like this twice."

Goldsworthy said that when he took shelter in his basement, he had to hold on to the bathroom door to keep it from flying off in the wind.

Because most residents are insured, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he did not expect that the area would receive federal disaster aid.

Little miracles

"There were houses destroyed, terribly flattened," Glendening said after an aerial tour of the damage yesterday morning. "And all this destruction, not one person lost a life," he said. "There were a lot of little miracles."

Small miracles like the one experienced by Marriane Dugan, who took shelter in the basement of her two-story home and watched the entire house lift off its foundation and scatter in pieces across the back lawn.

"I did not want to cry. I wanted to be a rock," Dugan said, recalling how she held her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter in the basement. The tornado pulled the Dugans' minivan out of the garage and threw it into the back yard with the rest of the debris.

Undaunted

"We're fine. That's all that counts," she said. Dugan surveyed her back yard littered with drywall, mattresses, closet doors and clothing and remained undaunted. "We'd love to build here again. Look at that view," she said, gesturing to her unobstructed view of the town's hillsides.

Nathan Metz, 19, said he did not have the scanner on Tuesday night but was overcome with a feeling that he should seek shelter. "It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. It was crazy," he said.

Metz and his sister, Amanda, were home alone and huddling in the basement when the twister tore the roof off their house.

"I felt like I was doing to die. This is the end, I thought," said Amanda, 14.

Dwayne Bittner and his family were trapped in their basement for two hours Tuesday night. When rescuers arrived, he found the walls and door frames of his home bent. His dog, Hershey, and the dog's house were missing, and he thought the tornado had taken them.

But yesterday morning, Bittner returned to his home to begin sifting through the rubble and found Hershey on the front porch. "He was just wagging his tail," Bittner said.

"I don't know if I'm going to build or buy, but it's not going to be

here," he said.

The disaster was the first full-scale opportunity for a new Baltimore-based food service by the joint efforts of Meals on Wheels and the American Red Cross.

A Red Cross truck yesterday brought scores of "E-Meals" (for emergency meals) to Frostburg for people displaced from homes. The food replaced vouchers for fast-food restaurants or bags of groceries formerly offered to victims.

L The town was doing its best to get back to normal yesterday.

Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus said he was pleased that after hearing the sound of chain saws cutting up fallen trees he has finally heard the sound of circular saws cutting boards for repairs.

Bambacus said he has asked city crews to work overtime to pull all the debris out of damaged neighborhoods. "I want to make sure this is a memory in a hurry," he said.

This little town has a lot to forget. Two years ago, Frostburg was hit with three hundred-year floods in a span of 18 months. Then a fire hit historic Main Street. And now a tornado.

"What's next?" Bambacus said.

Help for victims

The American Red Cross is among agencies offering health services, emotional support, food and other help to victims of the tornado in Western Maryland. The relief is free. People who wish to make contributions to help victims of this and other disasters may call 410-764-4644 or mail a check to American Red Cross, P.O. Box Disaster Relief, Baltimore 21263-0550.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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