In Laurel, high school roof ripped away

Football players scamper for safety

many trees felled

September 25, 2001|By Michael Scarcella and Lisa Goldberg | Michael Scarcella and Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Duck and run was not in the playbook, but Laurel High School's Spartans football team did just that last night when a tornado lifted the roof off part of a school building where they were huddling over the video of their weekend game.

Players and coaches found themselves running the halls and then taking refuge inside a restroom of Laurel High's annex building - a former elementary school where six classrooms were heavily damaged.

"It sounded like a train coming through the school," said Raymond L. Spriggs, assistant varsity coach. "The roof was totally ripped off above the classrooms.

"A lot of the stuff inside the classrooms is outside."

Widespread damage

The tornado - moving northeastward and wreaking destruction from College Park to portions of eastern Howard County - caused widespread damage in the Laurel area.

Town Mayor Frank P. Casula declared a state of emergency. "I am encouraging people to stay in houses," he said.

"Power lines are down and there are trees down everywhere."

Trees were uprooted in what appeared to be a mile-long swath into Laurel, according to Jim Collins, town spokesman.

He said the funnel cloud touched down near the high school, and the path of destruction was about four blocks wide.

Historic buildings collapse

Two buildings in historic Laurel collapsed, he said, spilling bricks into the street.

But unlike College Park, where two people were killed, only a few minor injuries were reported in Laurel.

In Beltsville, about five miles to the south, damage ranged from blown-off shingles to homes left smashed by fallen trees. Some cars sported broken windows; others were smashed.

The neighborhood surrounding Beltsville Elementary was littered with downed trees, many of them split in half and making streets impassable.

Trees with trunks as large as three feet in diameter were uprooted.

Maren Mayhew, 52, who lives on Cedar Lane, wandered through her neighborhood with a flashlight in disbelief.

A resident of Beltsville for about 50 years, she pointed to a vacant area where a row of pine trees stood an hour earlier.

While her house escaped damage, she lost about 20 trees - each 50 years or older.

As the storm bore down on Beltsville, Martha Jones, 89, was literally swept off her feet - by son-in-law Donald Wolfe, minutes before a tree split and sliced into the first floor of her home on Prince Georges Avenue.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Jones, a resident of Beltsville since 1942.

"And I have lived through a lot."

A pungent pine odor hung in the air as residents wandered about the area, surveying the damage amid a buzz of chainsaws. Some people used axes to hack away at trees that were blocking roads.

Whole new game

At Laurel High, Spriggs and Coach Mike Rudden had been reviewing a game video with the varsity and junior varsity football players of a Friday night loss to Beltsville's High Point High School Eagles when the storm hit.

Spriggs said lights in the building started flashing, and halls filled with debris as the players and coaches ran for cover.

"People wanted to run outside but we told them to stay on the ground," Spriggs said.

A group of players sought refuge inside a windowless annex restroom, he said, while others remained in a brick-wall hallway.

"It was quick, but I tell you what: it seemed to be several minutes," said Rudden said. "It was utter chaos."

The annex, connected to the main portion of the school by a tunnel, houses locker rooms, weight rooms, the foreign language department and social studies wing.

Six of its 10 classrooms were left too damaged for use, according to Principal Martin J. Martirano.

A group of social studies teachers assembled after the tornado, hoping to examine the damage to their rooms. Pat Flynn, a social studies teacher there for 30 years, said the roof over his room was gone.

The room's contents had been blown around or were simply missing, he said: "I have no idea if anything is salvageable."

Athletic director Terry Parfitt was inside the school's stadium press box, watching a girls soccer game before the tornado blew through. He said he saw a green tint to the sky before it hit.

He got out before the tornado blew away the roof.

Emanuel Livingston, a custodian, said classrooms inside the annex were left littered with debris.

"You could hear it coming," he said of the storm. "You know when the tornado's gone."

School will be open

The main portion of the school escaped damage, said the principal, who decided that the school would be open today because the main building is "structurally sound."

By nightfall, darkness and lightly falling mist concealed the extent of damage around Laurel.

"We won't know until [today] how bad the damage is," said Collins, the town spokesman.

Staff writers Julie Bykowicz and Caitlyn Francke contributed to this article.

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