Killer storms moved too swiftly for many in NC

AP News
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Posted: Apr 18, 2011 6:57 PM
Killer storms moved too swiftly for many in NC

They aren't used to tornadoes in North Carolina, let alone 60 of them.

When a deadly storm system that had already unleashed twisters across the South was about to arrive, residents were out doing yard work, making plans for the Easter holiday or just gazing at the darkening skies.

Over four hours, they learned that a hurricane is not the only force of nature that can strike their state.

"The sky looks funny," Jean Burkett recalled saying, as she looked out of her window around dinner time on Saturday night.

Then she called out to her husband, Richard.

"Honey, come here," she said. "You've never seen this before."

Staring out her window, she saw a large tornado approaching her neighborhood in hardest-hit Bertie County. It would largely leave her home untouched, but demolished nearby houses and killed 11 people, Burkett's longtime friend among them.

At least 21 people died across the state, more than 130 were seriously injured and more than 800 homes were destroyed or damaged. At least 45 died across the South.

The conditions that created the deadly weather systems may appear once or twice a year in the tornado-prone Great Plains, but almost never in North Carolina.

"Saturday's event will go down in history in North Carolina," said Matthew Parker, an associate professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.

Initial reports said 60 tornadoes were spawned by the storm system. The worst of it was between roughly 2:53 p.m., when the first fatal twister touched down on the edge of Moore County in the central part of the state, and 6:55 p.m., when a tornado hit Bertie.

The first moved rapidly into a busy shopping and industrial area of Sanford, a town of nearly 25,000 about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh. It ripped the roof off a tractor supply store and flattened the front of a Lowe's home improvement store, but no one was killed.

The storm continued losing and gaining strength as it cut a path to the northeast, entering Raleigh 10 minutes before 4 p.m.

Again, luck or providence or planning kept people safe.

The twister whipped through crowded neighborhoods, felling trees, smashing crypts in a downtown cemetery and causing so much damage to Shaw University that the school canceled the remaining two weeks of its spring semester.

When the storm hit a trailer park about five miles north of downtown, it killed several people.

Cousins Daniel Nino, 9, and Osvaldo Coronado, 8, died along with Osvaldo's 3-year-old brother, Kevin, when a tree fell on a mobile home where they were huddled together.

A woman who had been in the trailer with the children raced around, screaming.

"Help me! Help me! I still have three boys in the house," park resident Tommy McCainzie, 39, remembered the woman calling.

McCainzie started going door to door looking for children, and a friend crawled into the trailer, but couldn't find the children. The children died in the closet where they had sought safety.

"One kid just had a party two weeks ago for his birthday," McCainzie said.

As the tornado was slamming into the Raleigh mobile home, another trailer park roughly 100 miles to the south was about 20 minutes from being smashed by a second storm.

Larry Tanner had heard the warnings on TV. At home with his wife and two of his three children, he looked outside and it was sunny. But his son, a volunteer firefighter, came home to alert him that a tornado had touched down nearby.

Tanner walked outside and spotted a funnel cloud headed toward the house. It plowed into a building that houses his auto workshop. Inside were several cars, including a classic Camaro.

Tanner was knocked on his back and watched as the winds ripped the roof off the house.

In 30 seconds, it was over.

The storm moved toward nearby Ammon, where, around 4:25 p.m., it hit a small group of mobile homes, killing three. Among the dead were 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony.

The last time Mary Avery, 52, saw her father was 1 p.m. on Saturday. She hugged him and said, "I'll see you tomorrow," before leaving the home. The sun was shining. A little humid.

She looked at the sky and thought: "This is tornado weather."

While Bladen County was being raked by the storm, Jarod Thompson and his family were at his brother's house in Colerain, more than 150 miles to the northeast, making party plans for Easter Sunday.

The National Weather Service tornado warning for the county was issued at 6:35 p.m., about 20 minutes before it touched down.

Thompson got a phone call telling him the storm his family had seen on the news would be over the house within 10 minutes.

"Glass started busting out the windows and everything," he said. "So everybody had hit the floor."

Eight adults and a small child eventually huddled together in a small bathroom, waiting out the storm. No one was hurt, but when they emerged to check on the neighbors, they found one nearby house completely gone, as if sucked into the air.

The owner was dead, found face down in a field nearby.

"It's just by the blessing of God that we're still here," Thompson said.

Seeing the devastation her nearby neighbors experienced, Jean Burkett, too, said she felt fortunate to have made it through the storm alive.

A stranger drove a small car straight into the storm after work, saw the Burkett house and ran for her life in search of shelter in it.

"(She) ran into my house and just grabbed me _ never seen me before _ and just hugged me and held me. She said, `I'm so scared, I am so scared.' She stayed with us probably for an hour," Burkett said.

"It's a wonder that it didn't take her away from here. It's just a miracle."

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Weiss reported from Ammon. Associated Press writers Tom Breen, Martha Waggoner and Mike Baker in Raleigh, and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.