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Rescuers amazed six twisters caused no deaths in Virginia
SUFFOLK, Va. -- It was a scene of haphazard destruction that stretched for 25 miles: Row upon row of homes reduced to sprays of splintered lumber, shopping centers stripped to bare metal, parking lots turned into junk yards.
And yet no one died.
"The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed," fire chief Mark Outlaw said Tuesday.
As shaken residents and rescuers returned Tuesday to survey what was left, they were amazed by both the scope of the damage and their good fortune. Even among the 200 people who were injured, most suffered only cuts and scrapes.
Authorities said people in the tornado's path had plenty of warning and were fortunate that the twister struck in the late afternoon, rather than at night, when most residents would have been sleeping.
The extra few minutes provided enough time for people in the storm's path to huddle in bathrooms or crouch in the back of stores as the strongest of six twisters zigzagged for 25 miles across central and southeast Virginia.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas, said about 145 homes were severely damaged in Suffolk, a city of 80,000 people west of Norfolk. Most of the injured had been released from hospitals.
"It is kind of amazing there weren't more significant injuries," Kaine said on WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. "You are talking about 145 homes; that is probably five to six hundred people directly affected by this tornado."
At least a dozen people remained hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.
The tornado that hit Suffolk touched down repeatedly between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Monday, when many people were still at work or on their way home.
Brenda Williams, 43, had been getting a manicure at a nail shop in the strip when the lights went out and she saw debris flying in the wind around the parking lot. She rushed to the back of the shop for safety, but the ceiling collapsed, burying her.
She wasn't sure how long she was trapped.
She prayed, then hollered when she heard footsteps. A stranger pulled her out.
"I'm not lucky, I'm blessed," said Williams, who had a 2-inch gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. "I'm fine. I'm here. I'm in the land of the living."
On Tuesday, she went to a shopping center to retrieve possessions from her car, which was flipped on its roof in the parking lot. Other cars and sport utility vehicle were strewn about, some stacked on top of others.
The high winds had tossed two smashed cars inside the shopping center, which had been stripped of its facing, leaving its steel skeleton exposed. Wiring and bits of insulation hung from metal beams. Shattered glass covered the carpeting, which was soaked from the heavy rains. A lone black hiking boot lay in a parking spot.
Inside a military recruiting center at the strip mall, a phone remained in place on a desk, its cord ripped out of a wall that no longer exists.
Naomi Britt, who cares for an 87-year-old woman, was at the woman's home in a Suffolk subdivision when she heard what she thought was an 18-wheeler.
"I grabbed her by the hand and said, 'Let's go,"' said Britt, 60.
She led the woman into a bathroom just as the lights failed.
"I got down as far as I could and we just held hands and prayed," she said.
After the roar had quieted and the house had stopped quaking, Britt opened the door to find rubble around her. Nothing remained of a neighbor's house but a cinderblock foundation.
"If we hadn't been in that tub, we could have been sucked out of that attic and out of that roof, and we'd be gone," said Britt, who was at the nondenominational Open Door Church, where out-of-state relief workers were being fed and sheltered.
The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes also hit Brunswick County, about 60 miles west, and Colonial Heights, about 60 miles northwest. Three other twisters hit in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, and along the line separating Gloucester and Mathews counties, all in southeastern Virginia. The other tornadoes caused far less damage than the twister that ravaged Suffolk.
In Suffolk, some roads remained blocked Tuesday, and it was not clear when residents and business owners would be allowed to return to damaged neighborhoods. Emergency workers with search dogs combed through rubble while inspectors assessed the damage.
The Rev. Tony Peak said the storm's timing spared the city more heartbreak.
"Most people were at work. There were homes out there flattened like a bulldozer had run over them. But nobody was in them."
Retirees Joe and Ruth Silberholz jumped into a closet and slammed the door behind them as they heard the storm arrive. They emerged to find their home damaged but standing.
Their neighbors were not so lucky. The couple found a woman and her 3-year-old grandchild had been blown out of a sunroom in their house, landing 30 feet away. The woman was at the edge of a small lake, the child in its shallows.
"The house must have just exploded," Ruth Silberholz said.
The little girl was covered with blood from a cut but appeared otherwise fine. She and her grandmother had bumps and bruises.
Jon Fisher and his wife lined up with about 30 other people at the entrance to their neighborhood Tuesday, waiting for police to escort them back to their homes to retrieve pets. They said they were told they would have to leave again and not be able to take anything else with them.
"We have no idea what's going to happen next," Fisher said. "We don't know anything at all. We don't know how badly the house is damaged. We don't know where we're going to stay, where we're going to live, when the kids can go back to school."
Associated Press writers Bob Lewis in Suffolk and Larry O'Dell and Michael Felberbaum in Richmond contributed to this report.