Tornado kills two UM students

Storm hits campus, spins north, leaving more than 50 hurt

September 25, 2001|By Michael Dresser and Alec MacGillis | Michael Dresser and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - A tornado blazed a 10-mile-long path of destruction through Central Maryland at rush hour yesterday afternoon, killing two students and injuring dozens of people while ripping the roofs off buildings and flinging cars through the air.

The storm - whose winds were clocked as high as 206 mph - touched down in College Park at about 5:20 p.m. and tore north into Beltsville, Laurel and Savage, flipping trucks off of roads, shredding trees and twisting the goal-posts at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.

The tornado displaced 3,000 students from Maryland dorms and left at least 16,300 resident, mostly in Howard and Prince George's counties, without power last night.

FOR THE RECORD - Based on information supplied by Maryland emergency management officials, an article about tornado damage in Tuesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported that the storm caused a fertilizer leak at The Behnke Nurseries Co. in Beltsville. While initial reports were for a problem at the nursery, hazardous material crews actually responded to the nearby Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. The Sun regrets the error.

"It started out like it was going to be a strong thunder-storm and then you heard the wind start howling like I've never heard it before," said College Park Home Depot manager Eric Ziolkowski who had about 100 employees and customers with him in the store when the storm hit, taking off the roof. 'You could then start hearing and seeing the skylights start shattering, and then the front windows started blowing in."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a state of emergency in Prince George's and Howard counties last night, calling the storm the worst natural disaster he has seen since taking office seven years ago.

"It is far more extensive than I think was initially reported," he said. University President C.D. Mote Jr. canceled today's classes, saying, "We're in no position to conduct business as usual."

Two students were killed instantaneously when the storm picked up their car near the Easton Hall dormitory on the University of Maryland campus and threw it into a tree in a parking area, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire and EMS.

Jason Gleeber, 19, a student from Elkton and volunteer emergency medical technician, raced outside the Easton dormitory to see if anyone was hurt. He saw the car about 75 feet above his head, he said.

"I saw the car flying in the air. I could see the bottom of it," Gleeber said. "It dropped. It just hit the ground."

University officials said last night that the victims were Maryland students but did not identify them.

The storm touched down at the northern end of campus, near the football stadium and the dormitories where many freshmen live.

It destroyed several trailers used by the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute outside the university's new performing arts center, trapping five people who were pulled out with minor injuries, Prince George's County fire spokesman Chauncey Bowers said.

The seven people in the trailer learned of the storm when one employee received a report of a tornado in Hyattsville on her pager. Two minutes later, they heard the wind, and everyone dove under the tables.

Ann Davidson, the institute's director of administration, grabbed a nearby desk.

"The rest of me was airborne," she said. "Clearly anybody who survives this kind of devastation feels kind of lucky and blessed."

Davidson's 12-year-old daughter. Imogen Davidson White, was temporarily trapped under the strewn rubble and the desk she used for cover.

Toby Wilson, a copy specialist, was the only one thrown from the building.

He spotted a branch whipping by the window as the storm approached and "then the whole trailer shifted," he said. "The next thing I knew, I was out here about 75 [feet] to 80 feet away" in the mud, he said. "I've had better days."

Still, he came away with only cuts and bruises.

Bowers, of the Prince George's County fire department, said at least 50 people were injured in the storm. At least 15 of them were being treated last night at area hospitals.

The storm also shattered windows at the arts center, damaged the north campus dining hall and toppled the steeple of the Pentecostal Holiness Church on Route 193, whose entire side was caved in. Up U.S. 1 in Beltsville, the storm caused a fertilizer leak at Behnke's nursery, which was being investigated last night.

Last night, about 3,000 students were evacuated from their dorms and moved into temporary overnight quarters as investigators checked on propane leaks caused by the storm. "There's a lot of damage, a lot of debris," university spokesman George Cathcart said. "We're still trying to sort things out."

About 50 cars were upended in College Park, with dozens more reported in the area, fire officials said, including a tractor trailer traveling on the Capital Beltway north of U.S. 1.

The Beltway remained open, but U.S. 1 was closed in both directions in College Park while workers cleared damaged cars, downed power lines and trees.

Witnesses described the storm as a sudden, violent maelstrom that was all the more terrifying because it summoned still-raw images of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

Jason Yellin, 27, of Columbia was driving home on Route 193 near the Stadium Drive intersection in College Park when the skies grew black, the wind started gusting, and branches flew off trees.

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