`I thank God ... I'm alive'

Survivor: For Irene B. Wood, Sunday rekindled memories of La Plata's other savage storm, which killed 17 - including her sister and 13 of her classmates - in 1926.

April 30, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Irene B. Wood couldn't believe that it was happening again.

A lifelong La Plata resident, Wood, 86, was watching TV in her home on Oak Avenue early Sunday evening when the sky began to grow dark.

She got up from her chair to make her way to the basement after seeing a storm warning broadcast.

"I looked at the clock. It was six minutes after 7," she said. "I was on my way to the basement when it came, and I only got as far as the dining room. I sort of froze there." She never got downstairs. Instead, she witnessed the ferocity of the winds.

"I kept hearing something hit the side of the house. As the widows cracked and broke, I just prayed. I lost electricity, phone, and my home was damaged," said Wood, who had been hospitalized in recent weeks for congestive heart failure. "But I thank God that I'm alive. I still get emotional when I think about it."

For Wood, Sunday's tornado was especially disturbing, rekindling memories of La Plata's other devastating storm -- that of Nov. 9, 1926, which killed 17, including her sister and 13 of her classmates.

"Whenever I hear of tornado warnings in November, it comes to mind very quickly," said Wood in a telephone interview yesterday from her daughter's home in nearby Spring Hill.

Wood was 9 years old when she attended the two-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of La Plata. She recalled that day more than 75 years ago as being unseasonably warm for November.

"I was not in school that afternoon. I had left earlier to go to the dentist for an appointment. His office was in his home, and when we heard the wind roar, his wife took me to the window and said that the noise was that of a large airship passing overhead," she said.

A little after 2 p.m., the savage storm raced up from the Potomac River and struck the community, creating a path of destruction 18 miles long and 140 yards wide.

The schoolhouse that stood in its path held 56 students and two teachers. It was ripped from its foundation by the howling winds and dropped into a grove of trees about 50 feet away.

Several children were carried 500 feet away by the swirling winds, and the naked body of a child was found in the top of a tree about 300 feet from where the school had stood.

Beneath tons of splintered wood and debris came cries for help as residents feverishly tried to extricate those who were trapped.

The storm zigzagged on to Prince George's and Calvert counties. A piece of the schoolhouse landed in Upper Marlboro, 25 miles away. A page ripped from a school ledger was found 36 miles away in Bowie.

"It was horrible," said Wood. As injured children were taken to the porch of a nearby doctor where they waited for medical treatment, news came that her 7-year-old sister, Mary Ellen Bowie, was severely injured.

"We didn't have fire or rescue squads in La Plata in those days, and someone put Mary Ellen in their car. She was so badly mangled and died on the way to Washington. It was a blessing," said Wood, who recalled that the entire town turned out for the funerals of the children.

In Sunday's storm, Wood's brick home lost all its windows, several holes were torn in the roof and a porch column collapsed.

"It's eerie. There is glass everywhere but not a thing out of place in the house," said Betty Carney, her daughter. She attributes the house's survival to sound construction by her father, Harry F. Wood, who built it in 1937.

"Nothing moved or broke in the house, not one knickknack or piece of furniture moved during the storm," she said. "It's the way it's always been."

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