Laurel County: Survivor tells of rolling inside mobile home

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2012 

EAST BERNSTADT — Terry Fields tried to get out of his daughter's mobile home, but the killer storm slammed the door in his face, then barrel-rolled the structure and split it open, spilling him on the ground. He woke up dizzy.

Donald Rhodes got his reluctant daughter and mother-in-law into the basement just before the tornado ripped their house off the foundation and threw much of it into a neighbor's yard across the road.

Beulah Chadwell and her husband and daughter, uneasy over the potential that a powerful storm would hit the county, left their mobile home on Little Arthur Ridge.

The tornado shredded their house, flinging debris down the ridge toward a ravine below, and killed two neighbors next door.

Across northern Laurel County Saturday, survivors of the powerful tornado told stories of close calls and grieved for neighbors who were killed.

Five people died and 41 were taken to hospitals for treatment after the storm hit shortly after 7 p.m. Friday. Residents said the storm moved in quickly.

Rhodes, a disabled coal miner, said he heard an alert on weather radio and started getting his family into the basement. He got there last, carrying the dog. As his wife, Carol, prayed, the house started popping.

"Just as soon as I got down there, it hit," said Rhodes, 67. "Like a bomb falling, it just blowed it up."

A relative helped pull them from the wreckage. Their neighbors immediately across the road, Wayne and Debbie Allen, were among those killed, a testament to the ferocity of the storm at that spot. Neighbors said people searching for storm victims found the couples' bodies blown toward down the hill toward a ravine, about 100 yards from where their home had sat.

On the next ridge to the east, Fields, 58, had gone to check on his daughter's dogs, a Jack Russell terrier named Toby and a shih tzu named Tula. His daughter was worried about them with the storm coming.

The tornado hit just as Fields was heading out the door to take Toby to the car. The wind rolled the trailer more than once, tossing him around in the living room.

He was knocked unconscious and woke up lying on the ground, scratched but not hurt badly. There was no electricity and he didn't have a flashlight, so he turned his car to point the headlights into the wreckage of the trailer, Fields said.

The dogs were missing all night, but were found Saturday, Fields said.

Sam Vernon, whose house on Little Arthur Ridge was damaged, helped find the body of a neighbor. He said he had never been afraid of storms and liked to stand outside and watch them. He feels differently now.

"When they say take shelter, we will," he said.

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