Golden Band

In La Plata, caring strangers dig for an injured woman's treasures in a tornado-leveled home.

May 04, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - It was just a charm bracelet. What did it cost, anyway? Why all the digging and volunteers and donated bottled water and work gloves? No one had even met the lady.

In one disaster area in La Plata - the two-story rental home that stood at 7 Maple Ave. as of last Saturday - volunteers this week descended on the rubble left as of Sunday's tornado. Was it #7? Hard to tell. Nothing was upright, so the official types had to plant a board on which to post a "This Property is Condemned" sign. Condemned? No, the home was squashed.

A woman named Charlotte Smith was inside Sunday when the tornado bulldozed through. She was in her second-floor apartment when the floor collapsed. Neighbors dug her out. Conscious but seriously lacerated, she was flown to a trauma center in Prince George's County. (No broken bones. Alive. Lucky, in that way.) But somewhere under the circuit breakers, walls, kitchen, dressers - somewhere amid the gold and red Christmas stick-on bows, Jell-O snack packs, Maxwell House cans and Mary Kay compacts - a charm bracelet lay buried and a wedding band, too.

A stranger to Charlotte Smith, Debbie Beall of nearby White Plains had heard of Smith's plight through a church, friend-of-a-friend connection. A member of Grace Brethren Church in Waldorf, Beall had organized a salvage effort on Monday. By Tuesday, she and a few friends from her church hadn't found the jewelry. The word from Smith's grown son, Gil Smith, was that the jewelry was in a plastic bag on or near his mother's bureau.

"For all we know," as Beall said, "the jewelry is in the Chesapeake."

On Wednesday - with the weather dandy - Beall & Co. went back to work at the site. That's where we spotted her and learned - to no one's shock - that she's a flight attendant: Her single-mindedness, organization and peppiness gave her away. Friends Debbie Hopkins, Elaine Cooper and Diane Holcomb were also digging and sorting. "Look for glitter! Look for glitter!" became the mantra. Soon, the knot of volunteers grew to a Double Windsor, with quiet, visored men with sledgehammers aiming to lift a fallen wall. Underneath, Beall believed, a shattered bureau held the charm bracelet and wedding band.

As a National Geographic photographer loaded and clicked, the search dragged on until Wednesday afternoon. Black and brown heeled shoes, scarves, good dishes and family photographs were lifted and separated from the uncollectibles - a Zebco fishing reel, Santa's beard, French's mustard and a faded fly swatter. Earlier, they had found Smith's car keys, purse, birth certificate and some savings bonds.

Beall, a mother of two young daughters, told a story about having been at the circus two weeks ago and losing her own charm bracelet - including her "World's Best Daughter" charm and her favorite, a Boeing 727 jet. At the circus, some clown had asked her to take part in some silly thing when the bracelet came off. "That's why I'm so passionate about this," she said.

There's more to it than that. Even if she hadn't lost her charm bracelet, Beall would have been out here trying to find the valuable possessions of a stranger. Anyone spending five minutes in Beall's company could see that. If disasters bring out our looting nature, they also attract unflagging generosity.

By Wednesday afternoon, Beall had become fixated on finding Smith's bracelet. (The wedding ring would almost be a bonus.) She just didn't know they had a ringer in the group from the neighborhood. Another stranger to Charlotte Smith, Lisa Cole, had joined the hunt. Looking for the jewelry "is kind of a girl's job," as Beall said, so the men hacked away at a wall until they could hoist it off the buried bureau. Cole dug right in.

"My mom always told me I had good eyes," said Cole, 37. "When I was a girl, she could drop an earring hoop, and I'd always find it."

Look for glitter.

At 1:15 p.m., Beall advised the guys to wash up with cold water tonight. "The insulation makes you itch all night long." A golf cart stopped by, with free bottled water and pizzas loaded on the back. Amish men walked by and offered a hand. Donated work gloves were dished out. Someone found a glittering ... quarter. Videos were discovered - videos from a previous owner, no doubt. The cassettes were tossed in the trash heap. "Out, sin!" Elaine Cooper said, laughing, and not before everyone in the search party peaked at the video titles.

Look for glitter.

At 1:45 p.m., Cole's hand shot up from the rubble. A woman's tennis - not charm - bracelet was found. But this was the right spot, the X on a treasure map. Cole unearthed a small, suspicious case. "I should have yelled Bingo," Cole said, as the group encircled her. Inside the dusty case, a wedding band was unharmed and glittering. "Look at me! I'm shaking!" Beall said, inspecting the ring. "Thank you, God! Thank you, God!"

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