Much shattered, yet much is spared

A mailbox left standing as the house is ripped off its foundation

April 30, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - It wasn't only the horror of the dozens of leveled or splintered buildings that struck visitors yesterday, the day after Maryland's worst-ever tornado careened through thetown.

It was also the mystery of those things that somehow remained intact, untouched by the mayhem.

The platter of fried chicken still waiting behind the counter of the fast-food restaurant with two missing walls and no roof. The red toy firefighter's helmet lying in the cinder blocks and twisted metal of what was once a downtown preschool.

It was Rasik Savalia's perfectly intact Mazda, and the rented video that Ronald Johnson failed to return, and Larry Norton's mailbox left standing as his two-story house was rocked clear off its foundation.

These remnants of the mundane seemed strangely out of place in a town so shattered.

There was no explaining how the front-yard mailbox - "The Nortons," it said cheerfully - could have remained unharmed while, all around it, there was evidence of violence: roofs sheared off, giant maple trees uprooted, parked cars toppled.

Norton, 54, a retired telephone company employee, was shaving when the sky turned dark. Huddling with his wife in the basement, he said, he watched with a combination of horror and amazement as the white Cape Cod-style home was lifted up and then set down so that it tipped precariously backward like a rocking chair.

"It was the most terrible sound I ever heard," Norton said. "I actually watched the house move four feet over my head." He and his wife climbed to safety out through the hole made when the house rose.

The house had indeed moved. Yesterday, it sat on top of bushes that used to form a perimeter around the front.

Like the Nortons' mailbox, Savalia's 1995 automobile seemed to be some sort of eerie omission - one of the few cars among scores in a shopping center parking lot that weren't damaged. He smiled gleefully as he pointed to the car yesterday, covered only with wet green leaves.

But that wasn't the best piece of good luck that graced the Indian immigrant. The liquor store he owns - it's at the end of the strip of shops - was undamaged, apparently because the tornado took a turn around the store's corner before racing east across Route 301.

Savalia bought the store in November. He is living in a nearby motel that suffered major roof damage, but - true to his good luck - not in the portion that he leases from month to month.

The liquor store is adjacent to a brick Safeway that had a gaping hole ripped out of its back wall, leaving shelves of deli goods exposed when the sun rose yesterday.

On Sunday night, the store was packed with shoppers - all eight of the checkout aisles were in use - when the tornado hit. "It came through the back of the store, so it was like it was chasing them out of the store," said store manager Jim Ross. "The groceries are still in there, bagged up. It looks like a ghost town."

Savalia was taking a cigarette break outside when the wind whipped up: "I seen the funnel and everything coming from behind the Safeway. I just called to people in the parking lot, `Get in here, get in here!'"

The funnel seemed to be hopping around so much that he couldn't help but fear the worst - that even after it was past him, it would reverse course and decimate his store, his car, him.

"The funnel was up there for three or four seconds, and I was thinking that it was going to come back and take out everything, but it didn't," he said.

Instead, it swept past the liquor store and moved across the street.

There, Lee Johnson, 19, was eating dinner at a Burger King. "I guess I just ran into a closet," he said. "It was a dark room and employees were in there."

Portions of the restaurant collapsed, but Johnson was unhurt and quickly out the door, racing a quarter-mile to make sure his home and parents were OK.

He found that the 100-year-old, four-bedroom wood-frame house he had lived in all his life was wrecked. One side had been peeled away, allowing a view into a bedroom with posters on the wall and into a bathroom with a tub. The floor of a second-story addition had been flung into the front yard.

But his parents, Ronald and Patty, were unhurt.

Ronald Johnson, a carpenter, had crawled under a workbench in the garage when the winds struck. His wife had been working at Civista Medical Center, where she is an X-ray technologist. Like her son, she had quickly dashed home in a panic. "I was climbing over wires and around trees," she said.

As the family dug out yesterday - trying to salvage clothes, records, photographs - they came across two videos. One needed to be returned to the local video store, but the Johnsons didn't know when they'd find the time. They owned the other video: Twister.

"Hey, look at this," Lee Johnson said when he found the thriller about killer tornadoes.

His mother just smiled.

The Johnsons, like other families around town, talked yesterday about what happened with a combination of bewilderment and relief that more lives weren't lost.

At the partially collapsed United Methodist Church, a concrete slab lay across the desk of the Rev. Ed Vorhaar, who wasn't in the church when the tornado hit. "If the minister had been here, we would have lost him," said Linda Dent-Brown, the church organist.

A week ago, she said, there had been a Sunday concert in the church at exactly the time when the tornado struck.

But if Dent-Brown was also dismayed. Hymn books, bibles, photographs and some stained glass were salvageable, but the pipe organ had been damaged.

And the wing of the church housing a preschool - the one that had contained the toy fire hat - was in ruins.

Shelves of construction paper and a colorful sign were visible from beyond the preschool's collapsed wall.

"Say `Please' and `Thank You,'" the sign read.

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