Pennsylvanians pick up the pieces after worst tornado in memory

Residents, utility crews return to survey damage

July 16, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

CAMPBELLTOWN, Pa. - On the day after James Machinga pulled one of his 3-year-old twins out from under the collapsed ceiling of his dream house here, he gazed into the remains of his home through the blown-off back wall and got a bit of good news.

His wife, Nicole, had found the small stuffed dog that the Machingas' still-rattled son was crying for.

"That's the only thing she was really worried about, his favorite dog," James Machinga, 40, said.

Machinga and other residents of this town of about 2,500 people 16 miles east of Harrisburg struggled yesterday to salvage possessions and regain their calm after a tornado smashed their subdivision Wednesday afternoon and left gutted houses, stripped roofs, uprooted trees, downed electric lines and scattered debris in its wake.

Sixteen people were injured, said Jamie A. Wolgemuth, spokesman for the Lebanon County Emergency Management Agency. One woman, Jody Lenington, remained in critical condition yesterday at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

The tornado was rated F3 on the Fujita scale, a measure of storm intensity, Wolgemuth said. Winds that ripped through South Londonberry Township about 3 p.m. Wednesday spun at speeds of 175 to 200 mph.

Called by some the worst tornado ever to hit the state, the tornado cut a seven-mile path of destruction that was at times a half-mile wide, Wolgemuth said.

The storm destroyed 37 houses and damaged 100 countywide, forcing 160 people to seek shelter at the Campbelltown volunteer firehouse.

The tornado also tore up more than 500 acres of farmland and damaged nine farm buildings. The only eastbound road out of town was still blocked yesterday by 20 downed utility poles.

Hit hardest were 80 houses in the Machingas' County Squire Estates subdivision.

"It was just devastating," James Machinga said. He pointed to one house that had been leveled; others nearby were relatively unscathed. "It was like a pinball game. You can see what it chose to destroy and what it left."

Emergency teams evacuated Machinga and other residents three hours after the tornado, when a thunderstorm dumped sheets of rain. They allowed residents and utility crews to return to the 20-year-old development yesterday.

"This is indescribable," said Machinga's neighbor, Dale Pells, 37. He said he'll have to replace the entire second floor of his home of 10 years. "The fact that you know your neighbors makes it even worse."

Down the road, Machinga's aluminum canoe was wrapped around the trunk of a tree already adorned with a neighbor's large black bearskin. Baby baskets, a ski bag and part of a toy truck belonging to Machinga's twins were strewn among planks from the house.

A builder by trade, Machinga said he'd have to start from scratch to complete his dream house, where he had begun adding a landscaped garden and pond recently.

Machinga moved his family here nine months ago so they could spread out in a two-story, five-bedroom brick Colonial for the same price they paid for a small two-bedroom cottage in Kingston, N.J.

But though he was here only a short time, Machinga volunteers as paramedic. That's the kind of thing they do in Campbelltown.

"The town still has a rural character, and people tend to help," Township Supervisor Dr. Rugh Henderson said.

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