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Stories of high drama abound as tornado rips families apart
Scripps Howard News Service


November 07, 2005

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - Moments after the tornado destroyed a portion the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, Tony Vidal was at the scene, trying to locate his mother. It was 1:59 a.m. Sunday.

She was OK, so he turned his attention to helping others.

He had no tools. Just a flashlight. He found a woman trapped beneath a blown-over trailer.

"A fireman came by, and we started jacking it up. It took over an hour," said Vidal, a volunteer medic and storm chaser who raced to the scene of the development, located along Interstate 164.

With the glow of his flashlight, he saw seven bodies, including one infant.

"They were DOA. No heartbeat. No chance. I saw extensive crush-type injuries and malformed arms and legs."

Out of frustration and desperation, he began to dig through the debris with his bare hands.

"I didn't find anything," he said, "but some of that stuff is 8 feet high, and it'll take a long time to sift through. The body count is only going to go up."

That was the grim news at the Vanderburgh County coroner's office, where deputy coroner Annie Groves said the office had 17 victims from the mobile home park. Four bodies from Warrick County were expected, including the body of a woman eight months pregnant. The death toll may rise.

Rescue workers have an especially emotionally laden task. One trailer park resident was identified with the help of a tattoo. It was the name of her child, who survived after being found in the debris of a nearby trailer.

Vanderburgh County Chief Deputy Sheriff Eric Williams and Knight Township Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Dale Naylor said the mobile home park destruction was the worst disaster they have seen in their careers.

On Saturday night, Evansville residents had gone to bed after an unusually warm November day with a high of 77, good for leaf raking and college football.

If they paid attention to the news, they knew Notre Dame had won, that a line of thunderstorms was lurking to the west and that New Orleans' 1,500-passenger steamboat Natchez was about to arrive in Evansville for several hurricane-relief cruises.

The irony of the Natchez visit wasn't lost Sunday as war zone images and damage estimates of $60 million to $100 million brought home reminders. All autumn Indiana, like the nation, had been obsessed about two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, that devastated the Gulf Coast.

But a tornado is nameless, more secretive. Its warnings come in minutes, rather than days. It hit too many by surprise.

Tornadoes in this part of the country typically strike in the afternoon or evening, but this F-3 with winds between 160 mph and 170 mph dropped out of the sky shortly before 2 a.m.

After doing some damage in Geneva, Ky., the twister crossed the Ohio River, decimated Ellis Park, a 1920s thoroughbred racing landmark along U.S. 41, then began its deadly path along the flat lowlands tucked between the Ohio River and Interstate 164.

From Eastbrook, the tornado moved northeast into Warrick County. Hot power lines wobbled to the ground, roofs blew off, vehicles flipped and shards of broken glass blew into houses. Throughout Warrick County, home foundations were gone, littered with bits of furniture, mattresses, photographs, children's toys.

The tornado dissipated after hitting tiny Degonia Springs northeast of Boonville on Indiana 62. There it played a cruel game of hopscotch across the village. Some homes weathered the tornado with scratches, others looked as if they had exploded.

Hours after the tornado ripped through Eastbrook, Ginger Raley was still waiting at the American Red Cross shelter in Evansville for news of her missing grandchildren and son-in-law.

Raley had found her daughter, Crystal Donner, injured but alive at St. Mary's Medical Center. Crystal's husband, Jesse, had fallen through the floor and had been hit by a beam as their mobile home was lifted off its foundation.

Late Sunday afternoon, Raley received word: Her son-in-law had been killed and a little girl matching the description of her 6-year-old granddaughter, Emily, was waiting to be identified at the Vanderburgh County coroner's office.

Raley was still searching for her grandson, Noah, 8.

Jennifer Kroeger and her husband, Bill, were pushing their baby in a stroller in Newburgh on Sunday morning, trying to figure out what to do.

The family had just come from Jennifer's grandparent's house, where they learned that Jennifer's sister had lost a home, her uncle was in a coma and a cousin, the uncle's 18-year-old daughter, was dead, thrown 50 feet from her home. Other family members, including Jennifer herself, had damaged homes. No family member had power.

"It's just devastating. It's so hard," she said. "You don't really understand it until it happens to you and your family," she said.

"My sister called me at 2 o'clock this morning, screaming, and said she had just been hit by a tornado, that the tornado was coming to Boonville (where Jennifer, her husband and child live) and get in the basement," Jennifer said.

The family gathered early in the morning at the grandparent's house, which was across the street from her uncle's home, which was the hardest hit, she said. For her uncle, "There's nothing there. There's no walls. There's nothing. You can't even tell where it (the home) was," she said.


Contact The Evansville Courier in Indiana at

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