Tornado kills at least 7 in North Carolina

Dawn storm crushes homes, flips vehicles

November 17, 2006|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIEGELWOOD, N.C. -- A tornado ripped through this Cape Fear River crossroads at dawn yesterday, killing at least seven residents and crushing more than 30 trailers and brick homes as residents were waking for jobs and school.

More than 20 people were hospitalized, officials said, four of them children.

A dark brown funnel cloud roared past the white double-wide trailer of Cissy Kennedy as she brushed her teeth at daybreak. She watched as the twister flattened two double-wide trailers and a single-width trailer next door, killing five of her neighbors but leaving her trailer untouched.

"I can't believe I'm still alive," Kennedy said yesterday afternoon as she stood amid the debris that had once been her neighbors' trailers.

The twister continued down muddy Pretty Branch Road, skipped past the rest of the Old Farm mobile home park and tore through a stand of longleaf pines.

It pulverized the red-brick ranch home of Martin Brown on Old Stage Road as he hid under his kitchen table, having lost his grip on his refrigerator when the appliance flew through a rear wall.

"I'm blessed. I had a wall fall on me and all I got was a couple of bruises," Brown said, poking through the soggy remains of his home to retrieve a rain-soaked armload of clothes.

The tornado struck at 6:44 a.m., 15 minutes after the National Weather Service posted a tornado warning for Riegelwood, a rural community dominated by a paper plant. It flipped cars and pickups into ditches and left the trailer park and surrounding forest littered with insulation, window frames, kitchen chairs and children's toys.

At least one of the dead was a child, state officials said.

"It's a major catastrophe," said Chris Batten, the Columbus County sheriff. As he spoke, search and rescue teams led dogs through wrecked homes and down footpaths, searching for bodies and trapped survivors.

Batten said he knew of no specific people who were missing but that it was possible not all residents had been accounted for.

"We're covering every inch of the area," he said.

Emergency authorities set up a shelter for people whose homes were destroyed. At dusk, they maintained a staging area at Acme Presbyterian Church, where relief workers bought provisions.

County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs described stepping across bodies as he helped rescue workers work their way through heavy debris to reach victims in the trailer park.

The tornado was spun off by thunderstorms that swept across the Southeast Wednesday night and yesterday morning.

A 43-year-old man was killed when a tornado demolished his trailer in Louisiana.

Two deaths in traffic accidents during downpours in North Carolina also were blamed on the storm.

David Zucchino writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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