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Salisbury residents relive trauma of tornadoes

Wednesday, June 03, 1998

By Tom Gibb and Vicki Rock

A second band of tornadoes hit Somerset County last night, trapping four people inside a house in Scullton and sending residents of Salisbury, which had been devastated by a tornado days earlier, back to emergency shelters.

By 7:30 last night, about 150 people crammed into the cafeteria of the Salisbury-Elk Lick Elementary School after firemen and state police drove the streets and announced over public address systems that a tornado was headed toward them.

A series of funnel clouds were spotted throughout the county in such towns as Jennerstown, Jerome, Bakersville, Scullton, Trent, Stoystown, Coal Run and Salisbury.

On King's Mountain Road in Scullton, the four people who were trapped were not injured, firefighters said, but they could not leave their basement because of debris left behind when the house collapsed.

Late last night, New Centerville fire crews were still on the scene.

About 800 Somerset County customers lost power, and crews were expected to work through the morning to restore electricity.

Earlier in the night, inside the school in Salisbury, people were silent and tense as state police reported the funnel clouds were heading in the general direction of the school.

Albert and Ellen Thomas put their children, Danny, 10; Amy, 9; and Ashley, 4, under one of the cafeteria tables for added safety then sat quietly in a room where police had ordered all scanners silent so people wouldn't be alarmed at reports of approaching storms.

It was simply a trauma replayed, according to Ellen Thomas.

During the first storm Sunday, Amy was yelling, 'I don't want to die. I don't want to die."

As the evening wore on, and police renewed warning after warning and ordered people not to leave the shelter or stand near windows, the shelter -- devoid of all power except for enough electricity from portable generators to run weak lights -- grew hotter as the temperature in the lunch room turned nearly tropical.

But at a table where she sat alone, white-haired Sarah Tice sat with her hands folded, her Mennonite cap covering her white hair.

"I'm not afraid," she said. "I trust the Lord to take care of us."

There was lightning, high winds, hail and heavy rain. Fire departments around the county were put on standby. And senior citizens were being evacuated from the top floors of high rises as a precaution.

In Bakersville, a large tree and downed utility wires blocked Bakersville-Edie Road around 7 p.m.

Bakersville firefighter Wilbert Walker was walking down Bakersville-Edie Road when the tree fell.

"That was close," he said to an onlooker with a wry smile.

A large number of Bakersville residents wandered out in the street to look at the damage. But the almost festive mood changed when more dark clouds approached and firefighters asked everyone to go back into their homes.

No one argued.

Back in Salisbury, school Superintendent Peter Miller, four school directors and about eight teachers had spent the afternoon patching the schoolhouse roof.

Salisbury-Elk Lick High School graduates its senior class of 37 Sunday.

But this week's earlier tornado that stormed through this southern Somerset County town ripped into the school roof, allowing water to pour into the combination gymnasium and auditorium.

Students were hoping it could be repaired in time for Sunday's ceremonies.

"The kids want this graduation to be in their own school and it might be nice for the community to have this chance to get together," Miller said as he stood in shorts and well-worn loafers spattered with tar.

Inside the gymnasium yesterday afternoon, the roof was sagging and water was still dripping. It was unclear whether last night's storm had caused any additional damage to the roof.

Before the latest storms hit, the town of 734 was trying to regroup.

It was like the slogan that somebody had spray-painted onto a standing wall of a destroyed church turned antique warehouse: "Salisbury has spirit."

Yet there were some who were predicting the spirit will fade.

"About a week from now, we'll realize what happened and all have a nervous breakdown," said Leon Kline, of Salisbury, whose home was battered by Sunday's tornado.

"You see a lot of action and people cleaning up and everything is upbeat," said Jack Kemerer, who was awaiting word on whether the 2 1/2-story frame house he's lived in since 1958, when he was 7 years old, could be salvaged.

"But everybody's got to go through the normal process with loss and grief. It's like a death in the family, the loss of a home."

Gov. Ridge is scheduled to visit here this morning, and yesterday, he had declared emergencies in Somerset and eight other counties.

But already, an army of help was here.

Forty PennDOT workers used four loaders yesterday to dump fallen trees and debris into 16 trucks.

The Maryland State Highway Administration sent eight trucks and two loaders of its own two miles across the state line to help out.

The army included scores of individual recruits, roaming the town helping out.

Local native Jamie Hoover came back from his home in Herndon, Va., to help, saw Marvin Yoder clearing a back yard hip deep in cinder blocks and roofing tin and pitched in.

It wasn't Yoder's back yard. He just came from St. Paul, three miles up the road.

Across town, at the Salisbury Sportswear plant, Sunday's tornado had charged through, cut away part of the roof, buckled windows, ruined office machinery, but spared the scores of sewing machines that the 55 employees use.

Amid it all, owner Herb Margulis, of New York City, planned to reopen, saying that was the Salisbury way.

"That's what made this town: spirit," he said.

And some parts of life just couldn't stop.

The three stories above it were a mix of crumbling walls, torn-away roof and broken-out windows. But Walker's Tavern was open, no light, its beer cooled on ice.

William Walker, the owner's husband said, "I figure they can't drink the water, so they drink beer," as seven people sat at the bar and a few more filed in.

"In this heat, you know, some people thirst up."

Tom Gibb is a Post-Gazette staff writer. Vicki Rock is a Somerset County free-lance writer.

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