Tornadoes and thunderstorms kill at least 35 in five states
November 11, 2002
MOSSY GROVE, Tenn. — Searchers and dazed survivors went from one shattered home to another Monday, picking through splintered lumber and torn sheet metal for any sign of the missing, after twisters and thunderstorms killed at least 35 people in five states.
More than 70 reported tornadoes cut a path of destruction from Louisiana to Pennsylvania over the weekend and into Monday. Sixteen deaths were reported in Tennessee, 12 in Alabama, five in Ohio and one each in Mississippi and Pennsylvania. More than 200 people were injured.
“Yesterday, we had a nice brick house and four vehicles. Today, we don’t own a toothbrush,” said Susan Henry of Mossy Grove, where seven people were killed and at least 40 were still unaccounted for as of midafternoon.
The tiny community 40 miles west of Knoxville was nearly wiped off the map, with about a dozen of the 20 or so homes reduced to concrete foundations and piles of rubble a few feet high.
The tornado — estimated by the National Weather Service as being between 200- and 300-yards wide — cut a five-mile path across Morgan County.
Henry, her husband and two children survived after taking shelter in the basement of a neighbor’s home that collapsed around them.
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“It was just deafening it was so loud,” said 17-year-old Tabatha Henry. “You could hear the wood pop in the house, and that was it. Then all you could hear was the screaming and praying.”
Daylight brought a picture of destruction. In Mossy Grove, clothes fluttered from tree limbs. Power lines dangled from poles. Cars lay crumpled after being tossed like toys. About the only sound was the bleating of a battery-operated smoke alarm buried deep in the rubble.
Searchers believed that most of the missing in and around Mossy Grove were OK and had simply been unable to get in touch with family members, said Steven Hamby, Morgan County director of emergency medical services. The storm knocked out telephone service and blocked roads.
No bodies had been found since early Monday, but Hamby said digging out could take weeks.
“We’re hoping that we’re past the bad stuff,” he said.
In Carbon Hill, Ala., 70 miles northwest of Birmingham, seven people were killed by nighttime storms that sent giant hardwood trees crashing down on houses and mobile homes.
Sheryl Wakefield cowered in her concrete storm shelter and listened to a twister roar down the country road where her extended family lives in six homes. Her sister and niece were killed when their doublewide mobile home was thrown across the street, its metal frame twisted around a tree.
“Everybody’s house is just totally gone. My son doesn’t even know where his house is,” she said through tears. “It’s gone. It’s just gone.”
At the now roofless Carbon Hill Elementary School, fourth-grader Johnny Rosales looked through a window into the rubble that was once his classroom. It was only five months ago that the town’s high school burned down, and the boy said he does not know where he will go to school now.
“I’ll guess they’ll bulldoze it like they did the high school,” he said.
Dan McCarthy of the federal Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said unseasonably warm weather Sunday in the 80s, followed by a cold front, made conditions ripe for the rash of twisters, some of which were estimated to be at least in the F-3 category, with winds ranging from 158 mph to 206 mph.
It was the nation’s biggest swarm of tornadoes from a single weather system since more than 70 twisters — some topping 300 mph — killed 50 people in Oklahoma and Kansas in May 1999.
Broadcast storm warnings preceded twisters in the most hard-hit areas. In Alabama, National Weather Service forecaster Ken Graham said 46 tornado warnings were issued in an 11Y-hour period, and everywhere that had damage was under a tornado warning at the time.
“We’re very proud of that,” Graham said. “We think we saved some lives last night.”
The stormy weather continued into Monday, with tornado warnings posted in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Thousands lost power in the Carolinas and possible tornadoes damaged homes in Louisiana and South Carolina.
In northwestern Ohio’s farm country, two twisters split into four Sunday outside Van Wert, cutting a 100-mile swath of destruction.
One of those twisters hurled three cars into a movie theater that had just been filled with children watching “The Santa Clause 2.” Manager Scott Shaffer was credited with saving the lives of some 50 moviegoers by herding them into the bathrooms and a brick hallway.
“For a few seconds, it got ear-piercing,” said Shaffer, the blue seats of his theater now exposed to the cloudy skies. “I was too scared to panic.”
Associated Press reporters Jay Reeves, John Seewer and Allen G. Breed contributed this report.
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