As tornado hit, first fear, then into the rubble for rescue operations

Two officers recall night unlike any other on job; 'I could see this dark thing spreading'

November 20, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police officers Cornelia Baines and Edson Musema parked their patrol car on Touchstone Court, doing routine background checks on criminal offenders in the Dutch Village apartment complex early Wednesday.

It suddenly got warm. Then it rained. And then the wind came. The street lights went out.

Leaves, tree branches and other debris flew toward the cruiser's windshield, plastering the front bumper. Baines watched a roof fly off a house. Parked cars spun.

"I could see this dark thing spreading," Musema said. "It was coming toward us."

Added his partner, Baines: "I just wanted to get out of there. I was scared. I'm not going to lie."

When it was done and the damage revealed, Baines radioed a dispatcher and said she had just been in a tornado.

Several blocks away, out of the storm's destructive path on Northern Parkway, Baines' supervisor couldn't believe what he had just heard. He turned his cruiser toward Dutch Village, hoping to find Baines and "give her a hard time" for being a tad overexcited.

Then 911 calls flooded the airwaves. One after the other, frantic residents were reporting collapsed buildings, missing roofs and people trapped. Sgt. Michael Nicholl, a 17-year veteran, said to himself, "I think Baines might be right."

The officer of four years was indeed right. A tornado with winds up to 100 mph and 175 yards wide plowed through a one-tenth of a mile section of Northeast Baltimore, part of a powerful storm that did damage from Morgan State University in the city to Gunpowder State Park in Baltimore County.

The tornado was on the ground for less than a minute, but that was long enough for Baines and Musema, along with hundreds of residents who lost homes and property. Only three people were injured, a testament to luck and the quick actions of area firefighters, police officers and emergency officials.

By the time Nicholl maneuvered around downed trees and power lines and reached the devastated area, his officers were already inside collapsing houses, helping firefighters pull people from the rubble and get them to the safety of shelters.

A Fire Department spokesman said firefighters who responded to the damage were not available for interviews.

Without protective gear and helmets, officers forced their way inside buildings. Nicholl said one of his officers used a cinder block to break down the front door of a house, a strange sight, he said, given that the roof of the house had vanished "and we were looking up at the sky."

Inside a back room, he said, the officer found a woman lying on her bed, a brick on top of her head. "I thought she had died. She wasn't saying anything."

Nicholl, 40, remembers the vacant look on the faces of people jolted from their sleep by the violent storm. "They were dazed and justifiably so," the sergeant said. "I mean, you wake up and your roof is no longer there."

Officers Baines and Musema are relatively new to the force, having served four and three years, respectively. Both are in the Army Reserves. Baines has done tours in Iraq and Kuwait; Musema's first overseas assignment was delayed by another natural disaster — the city needed him to stay to help out with this winter's snowstorms.

While a tornado is a unique experience for both, and an unusual one for the city, one officer has seen a war zone and the other grew up in one. Musema, who is 31, was 16 when war broke out in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His father worked for its leader, who was overthrown by rebel forces, and his family fled to Canada and the United States.

Baines, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she had always wanted to be a police officer; Musema said he decided a few years ago, when he saw an Eastern District cop and liked the uniform and patrol car. Now, both are assigned to the Northeastern District.

On Wednesday, they teamed up in the same cruiser to patrol what is known as Post 424, which, on the midnight shifts, triples in size from the more busy daytime and evening hours. Musema and Baines handled calls from Harford Road to Perring Parkway, and from Evergreen Avenue to the Baltimore County line.

The Dutch Village apartment complex is just off Northern Parkway, in front of the old Northern High School, in a mini-maze of small streets with strange names — Moonflower, Snowberry and Touchstone courts.

As the storm hit, "I asked myself, 'Why this place?'" Musema said.

The officers spent half an hour describing an ordeal that lasted less than 60 seconds, but one that they'll remember for a long time. Sitting in the roll-call room at the beginning of their midnight shift Friday, Baines and Musema demonstrated how they cowered in their car, wondering if they should drive away from buildings that were breaking apart or stay put.

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