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'Just time to save yourself'

May 9, 2008 12:00 am


BY KEITH EPPS, ELLEN BILTZ AND PETE CIHELKA


Jeff and Janice Leonard spent the morning of their 33rd wedding anniversary in the gym of T. Benton Gayle Middle School.

Catherine Gagnon turned 13 today not knowing when she would be able to sleep in her own bed again.

These southern Stafford County residents were among those displaced when a storm system packing howling winds passed through the Fredericksburg area last night.

Officials said dozens of homes and businesses were damaged.

But there were no reports of major injuries, officials said, and only one of a minor injury—apparently Jeff Leonard’s son, Andrew.

Jeff Leonard was asleep in the couple’s second-story bedroom at 89 Limestone Way when he was awakened by his wife. They looked out the window to see trees in their back yard bent over.

Then their windows began to flex inward and outward.

“That’s when I said, 'Get downstairs,' ” Jeff Leonard said.

“There was no time to get scared. There was just time to save yourself.”

Janice Leonard went to the basement while her husband went to warn their son, who was in his room playing computer games.

“I looked out and saw all the rain,” Andrew Leonard said. “Then the drawers in my dresser began moving in and out. I went to push them back in and that’s when [the storm] hit. Everything just started disappearing.”

The roof was blown off and the second-floor walls collapsed on the father and son. They managed to push the debris off themselves and made it downstairs to locate Janice.

Jeff was taken to Mary Washington Hospital with a gash to the back of his head that required 10 staples to close it.

This morning, all Jeff had at a shelter set up at Gayle for those displaced by storm damage were the hospital scrubs he was discharged with and two left shoes Janice managed to grab for him in the chaos.

Stafford Fire Lt. Mark Stone, one of numerous emergency workers at the scene last night, estimated that between 50 and 60 homes in that area were affected by the storm. He said about a dozen were damaged badly enough that the families could not live in them until repairs are made.

Stone said officials were hoping to get more accurate information after surveying the area today.

National Weather Service officials were in Stafford this afternoon to try to determine if the damage was caused by a tornado. Stone said he didn’t know if a twister had touched down, “but clearly it was more than a thunderstorm.”

“I’ve been to Katrina and this doesn’t compare. But it is a significant incident for Stafford County,” he said.

Uprooted lives

Like the Leonards, other area victims told stories of having their lives turned upside down in a flash as the storm system swept through the area.

About 30 minutes before the storms hit the Puentes’ home on Brushy Creek Drive in the England Run North neighborhood, 2-year-old Alina awoke from a bad dream. Her mother, Kitty, took her out of her room to comfort her.

Then a piece of a neighbor’s roof crashed through the ceiling of the child’s room and landed on her bed.

“It landed where her head would have been if she was sleeping,” Kitty Puentes said.

The child’s room and the family’s garage were destroyed, Puentes said. Their 2008 Toyota Scion was picked up and slammed into a wall of the garage.

Thelma Campbell lives along Lansdowne Road about a quarter mile from the Kaiser Compressor plant. She said she was awakened about 12:30 a.m. by the storm.

“I was just shaking like a leaf,” she said.

Her shed was been blown away and her boat is missing. Pieces of her shed have been found miles away, but there’s no sign of the boat anywhere, she said.

Campbell said the winds must have been intense to destroy the sturdy outbuilding.

“You couldn’t even drive a nail through that wood,” she said of the shed.

Cathy Gagnon and her family moved into their home on Brushy Creek Drive in December. She isn’t sure when they’ll be able to live in it again.

Gagnon said she had put her children to bed and was watching “ER” about 10:30 last night when “the sound of the wind changed.”

The initial burst passed, she said, but about 15 minutes later the wind made what Gagnon described as a “spinning type” noise.

Thinking it was a tornado, Gagnon woke up her two children, Catherine and Richard, and went to the basement. She then called her husband, who was out of town. Their daughter turned 13 today.

For the next few minutes, Gagnon said, “stuff was flying all over the place.”

Gagnon, who will be staying with relatives in the interim, initially didn’t find a lot of damage once the brunt of the storm passed. She later discovered that parts of her roof had collapsed completely and other significant damage.

“It’s trashed,” she surmised.

By about 2 a.m., officials estimated there were 30 to 40 residents using Gayle for shelter. The number had been higher, but an insurance agent let some of the evacuees know that anyone with his insurance was entitled to a motel room.

BUSINESSES HIT

Fredericksburg Fire Chief Eddie Allen said the only damage in the city was along Lansdowne Road, where it appears the possible tornado carved a direct path from the Spotsylvania County side through the city line.

Most of the damage there was limited to industrial companies.

Huntington estimates it sustained $1 million in damage—mostly from water falling on machinery. S&N Communications had an entire side of its building torn off.

In Gordonsville, Colonial Florist on Main Street was destroyed by fire around 4 a.m. Officials are checking to see if the blaze was related to the overnight storms.

On the Spotsylvania side of Landsdowne Road, Kaiser Compressor has gashes in its roof and water pouring in. Frank Mueller, Kaiser’s vice president for U.S. operations, believes a tornado came through sometime between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“It’s almost like a vacuum tried to rip the roof off, “ he said.

The building is closed today as they inspect the damage.

“This is what you have insurance for,” Mueller said. “You can’t be devastated by it.”

—Staff writer Robin Knepper contributed to this report.


Mobile kitchen offers some relief

After last night’s storm, a preteen boy in a pajamas and bathrobe foraged for breakfast. He found some—in the form of a PopTart and juice—from the Salvation Army’s canteen.

The mobile kitchen opened at 11 a.m. at the England Run subdivision in Stafford County and later moved to Gayle Middle School. The canteen mainly serves the first responders helping residents whose homes were damaged in last night’s storms.

But many residents have stopped by for lunch, coffee and tea as well, said Captain Christine Harris of the Fredericksburg Area Salvation Army. In nearly two hours, more than 40 people have eaten lunch at the canteen, she said.

She and the group’s workers are stocking the canteens shelves and serving at the same time. This emergency marks the canteen’s début, since the agency’s earlier mobile kitchen was destroyed by arson two years ago, Harris said.

- Amy Umble, The Free Lance-Star


Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.