Teams search Ind. pond for victims of tornado

Ten-year-old girl found alive near lake

her parents are among the dead

November 08, 2005|By TONYA MAXWELL | TONYA MAXWELL,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

EVANSVILLE, IND. -- It was only a 6-foot deep retention pond, but for the hundreds of people who lived at the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, it was a lake, a pleasant diversion from the straight streets, right angles and modular sameness of their trailer community.

Yesterday, the small lake on the eastern edge of Evansville provided some of the final stories of survival and death as recovery teams drained the water and raked through the mud and debris in search of victims of a deadly early morning tornado that destroyed the mobile home park. At least 22 people were killed.

After scouring the rubble this weekend, the last place to search was the lake.

The 7-acre lake - specifically the thick muck at the water's edge - probably saved the life of 10-year-old Jazmyn Rene Bingman, who was yanked from her bed by the force of the tornado.

"They found her in that pond area," said Ryan Bingman, the girl's grandfather. "She was just covered with mud. The mud probably saved her."

But yesterday, recovery teams pulled the body of Jazmyn's stepfather, Michael Holbert, from the same lake. Jazmyn's mother, Amy Holbert, was found dead on Sunday.

Officials continued winnowing a list of missing people who might have been in the mobile home park when the tornado roared through two southern Indiana counties that hug the Ohio River. Recovery workers began draining the retention pond, which was too clogged with debris to be dragged.

The list of people reported missing was six pages long by the end of Sunday, said Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth. Some people had been reported by loved ones, other names were collected based on the license plates of cars at the mobile home park, Ellsworth said.

But by last night, Ellsworth said, all those on the list had been accounted for.

"Until we account for every person, we're still concerned about the people missing," he said.

The tornado touched down about 2 a.m. Sunday with winds estimated at more than 200 mph. Most of the victims were asleep at the time. Four people - including a pregnant woman - were killed in neighboring Warrick County, east of Evansville. About 200 people were injured.

State officials said the tornado was the deadliest in Indiana since April 3, 1974, when a series of twisters killed 47 people.

"It was Mother Nature at her most insidious and sneakiest ... to come in the middle of the night in November this way," said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who declared a state of emergency yesterday and asked President Bush for federal disaster assistance.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, who toured the damaged region by helicopter and on foot yesterday, said the devastation south of Evansville looked like "toothpicks littering a field." But Skillman said she was most affected by the debris lying on the ground.

"It's just so tough to explain. You're overwhelmed. It's the remains you see, whether it's a little pink child's hanger or the doll by the car," Skillman said.

At St. Mary's Hospital in Evanston, Kathrine Pfingston, 15, sat with a lunch of mashed potatoes and carrots in front of her and family by her bedside as she chatted with a friend about her ordeal. A line of staples was just visible beneath her brown wavy hair. When the storm came, Kathrine took refuge in the bathtub, but was thrown from her home by winds.

She landed on concrete and recalled rescuers standing over her in the darkness. "The fireman said, `We've got a handicapped girl over here. We need to put a warm blanket on her so she doesn't get sick,'" said the girl, who has cerebral palsy. The rescuers put her on a door, then lifted her on the trunk of a sheriff's cruiser, slowly driving her to an ambulance.

When Pfingston coughs, her aching back sends shots of pain through her body, but she said she is more concerned about her 13-year-old brother, William, who lies in a nearby intensive care room, with a broken vertebrae. He is unconscious but his eyelids flutter lightly as his mother, Melinda Pfingston, leans into him and promises days filled with PlayStation games.

"He's better than yesterday," his mother said.

The tornado first touched down in Kentucky, but all of the deaths occurred in Indiana. The youngest victim at the trailer park was a 2-year-old boy who was killed with his 61-year old grandmother, the Vanderburgh County coroner's office said.

Ellsworth said residents of the mobile park would likely be able to return today to gather belongings, or sift through the scattered remains for personal items.

Tonya Maxwell writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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