St. Mary couple drove into path of tornado

Monday, March 13, 2006
Family members of tornado victims searched for personal items Sunday in the area where several houses and mobile homes were destroyed by a tornado. The tornado hit the Perry County area near St. Mary, Mo., late Saturday night. (Diane L. Wilson)

ST. MARY, Mo. -- Hundreds of friends and family members spent Sunday sorting through debris after a powerful tornado ripped through a rural section of St. Mary along Highway 61 late Saturday night.

The tornado injured ten St. Mary residents along Highway 61, and a married couple were killed a few hundred yards away from their St. Mary home on Highway 61.

Michael and Barbara Schaefer were driving south on Highway 61, trying to escape the tornado, said Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf. But their vehicle drove directly into the path of the tornado and was blown off the roadway and struck a large propane storage tank.

"The irony here is that their residence survived the storm, and they may have survived as well if they had stayed put," Schaaf said.

Tornadoes also ripped through Southern Illinois Saturday night, destroying homes along a path of more than 20 miles. Several people were injured as the storm system pounded the central Mississippi Valley with hailstones as big as softballs, high wind and torrential rain.

It is not immediately clear how many tornadoes struck the area straddling the Mississippi River from Missouri into Illinois and may not be known for several days, Shanklin said. The twisters were part of a long line of stormy weather that stretched from the southern Plains up the Ohio Valley.

Perry County Sheriff's Deputy Carl Manche was sitting in his vehicle near the propane tank approximately 10 minutes before the tornado ripped through the area.

"I heard over the radio that the tornado was coming from the west," Manche said. He drove 2 miles south on Highway 61, away from the propane tank, and parked his vehicle on the side of the road.

"The wind was blowing my vehicle," he said. "I looked back to the north, and every time it would lightning, I saw the funnel cloud. It was huge."

The Missouri Highway Patrol reported the tornado near St. Mary had a windspeed of 113 mph to 206 mph.

Meteorologist Rick Shanklin with the National Weather Service in Paducah said the tornado that touched down in St. Mary was an F3 -- which is a measurement on the 6-point Fujita Scale, used to rate the intensity of a tornado by examining the damage caused by the tornado. The St. Mary tornado averaged about 375 yards in width.

"It had the upper wind of a very strong tornado," he said.

Perry County emergency management director Jack Lakenan said the tornado struck at 9:41 p.m. Eleven homes were destroyed and 11 more were severely damaged, he said.

All that remains of Rick and Diane Boland's St. Mary double-wide modular home is the concrete foundation. A blue four-door car rested where the couple's bedroom once was.

Rick's shop is gone. Debris from it was scattered hundreds of yards away. Several trucks were overturned next to his former shop.

Uprooted trees were blown over near the couple's home, and sheet metal was wrapped around the limbs of trees that are still standing.

Rick Boland's father and stepmother, Bob and Lauren Boland of Fredericktown, spent Sunday morning at Perry County Memorial Hospital with Rick, where he is in stable condition.

When the tornado swept through Boland's St. Mary home, he and his 18-year-old son Craig, and two other teenagers were huddled together in the home's bathtub, said Lauren Boland.

The tornado sucked them out and carried them 50 to 75 yards away from the home.

Lauren Boland said both Rick and Craig are recovering from injuries at the hospital. The other two teenagers were treated and released Sunday morning.

"We still haven't found the bathtub," said Lauren as she stood among the debris. Rick owns a tree trimming service, which he ran out of his home. All that Lauren Boland was able to recover from his business was a business card.

"That's all that's left," she said. "His home, his business, it's all gone."

Rick told his parents he remembers being picked up by the tornado and carried through the air.

"It's a miracle they're all still alive," Lauren Boland said. "We really need to count our blessings."

St. Mary fire chief Gary Armbruster has lived in the town of approximately 380 people his entire life.

"This is the first time I can remember something like this," he said. "It's always north or south of us, but never here. Most of the people can't even believe this has happened."

Tornado victims are asked to report to the school in Brewer, Mo., or the Brewer Church Hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, said Patrick Naeger, Perry County 1st District Commissioner. He said Red Cross officials will begin assessing their needs.

Gov. Matt Blunt activated the State Emergency Management Agency today to coordinate the state storm response. SEMA has an area coordinator in Perryville working with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to help set up and manage disaster recovery resources.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

335-6611, extension 246

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