Terror in College Park

Tornado: Tragic deaths, incredible damage at university keep nature on the list of dangers we face.

September 27, 2001

LONG BEFORE humanity invented gunpowder, humans crouched in terror at the furies of nature. For all the advances in climate control and shelter, nature remains untamed and able to remind us of it.

Tornadoes have visited Maryland occasionally, never in profusion and rarely with great damage. Marylanders think of them as something in distant Kansas wheat fields.

While Maryland and the nation sought spiritual recovery Monday from the human terrorism Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, the storm including an F3 tornado moved like a shot from Stafford, Va., to Laurel, Md.

The havoc at the University of Maryland, College Park was a reminder that no law of man or nature restricts a tornado to rural areas away from crowded cities or vital facilities.

The destruction of the 71-year-old Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), many of whose staff and alumni had just returned from duty in lower Manhattan, would appear deliberately wreaked -- if we did not know that such things cannot be.

Maryland will not soon recover from the cruelties visited on the Marlatt family of Clarksville in Howard County. These included the sudden deaths, in a car tossed like a football, of fleeing students Colleen Marlatt, 23, and her sister Erin, 20, the survivor of a recent brain tumor and surgery. Their father, F. Patrick Marlatt, fire chief in Clarksville and deputy director of MFRI, was trapped in its rubble and injured.

Another victim of the storm, indirectly, was Clarence Kreitzer, a 78-year-old volunteer firefighter from Bowie. He went to help search-and-rescue efforts at College Park, as volunteer firefighters do, and died in a traffic accident afterward for which a heart attack is the suspected cause.

The toll in Laurel includes the historic Harrison-Beard building, a former city hall that had to be demolished, and damage to Laurel High School. At the University of Maryland campus in College Park, a dozen buildings were damaged and some 700 students were made temporarily homeless.

The shock to the university, its tree-lined aspect destroyed and programs disrupted, carries many financial and emotional costs. The consolation, at best, will be a heightened sense of community, shared experience and help, often lacking at a university so large and diverse.

The burden on a state government of depleted funds and an overstretched Federal Emergency Management Agency is considerable. The damage must be made whole. Institutions must revive.

Some natural disasters have human complicity, as when a hurricane harms a residential tower built on shifting coastal sandbars. There is none here. The human spirit must defy the worst that a terrorist nature can hurl, because there will always be more.

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