Skip to main content

March tornadoes: One day there was a town; the next day it was gone

By Susan Candiotti and Moni Basu, CNN
updated 11:44 PM EST, Sat March 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The family of a toddler found in a field are dead, a hospital spokesman says
  • The tornado that hit southern Indiana had winds between 166 and 200 mph
  • The storm demolished a school campus, but no one there was seriously hurt
  • Henryville residents mourned what they lost and gave thanks for what they still had

Are you there? Send us photos and video. Check out CNN affiliates WLEX, WTHR, WISH, WHNT, WAFF, KTVI, WLKY, WDRB and WHAS on the latest on the storms in the South and the Midwest. Find out how to help storm victims with Impact Your World.

Henryville, Indiana (CNN) -- Big news in Henryville, Indiana, had been that the coach of the high school boys' basketball team was stepping down at the end of the season. The Hornets are the pride of this small Indiana town a few miles up Interstate 65 from Louisville.

That was before Friday when killer storms ripped through the area. One day there was a community here. The next, there was none.

"What we know is we've got complete destruction. We're going to deal with it the best we can," Sgt. Jerry Goodin of the Indiana State Police told CNN affiliate WISH-TV.

Goodin was sure the community would rally, come together and claw its way back to what it once knew to be normal.

Reporter: 'This was time to take shelter'
Indiana Gov.: 'Lucky it wasn't worse'
Deadly tornado intensifies in Indiana
'The baby got ripped out of her arms'

Saturday, as rescuers still scoured for survivors, the stunned people of Henryville mourned what they lost and gave thanks for what they still had.

Steve Kloepfer lives in Chelsea, just east of Henryville. Friday, he watched on television as the storms drew near.

"I saw it from the radar it was getting close, so I walked down the driveway and saw it coming through the woods," Kloepfer told CNN affiliate WHAS.

He got in his truck and drove south about a mile to "let it blow through."

He returned to a new, grim reality. A tornado destroyed his house and the the home shared by his aunt and uncle, Terry and Carol Jackson. They were missing along with their 4-year-old grandchild.

Later, their bodies were discovered in a field, covered in debris.

They were among the 14 who died in Indiana.

Dozens killed in waves of storms

About 2,000 people live in Henryville, known as the birthplace of Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Many in this town know each other through the high school and elementary school, housed on one campus.

Friday afternoon, not all the students were able to leave because their parents were not at home. Elementary School Principal Glenn Riggs huddled with 40 students in the offices. And prayed.

Saturday morning, a girder jutted skyward from the wreckage of the school. Across the street, a yellow school bus that only hours ago had taken children home lay off its chassis, slammed into a building as though it were a toy tossed by a child.

Considering the damage, people at the school should have been hurt, Riggs figured.

"It's a blessing. We praise God," he said.

Aerial images of Henryville Saturday were devastating: the guts spilled out from buildings, debris littering open fields and trees felled like dominoes.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels got up in the sky to survey the misery himself. Lucky it wasn't worse, he thought.

"We're not unfamiliar with Mother Nature's wrath out here in Indiana," he said. "But this about as serious as we've seen it in the years I've been in this job."

Joe Sullivan, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the tornado that swept through the area was an EF-4 -- meaning it had sustained winds of between 166 and 200 mph, putting it in the top 2% of all tornadoes in terms of strength. It went for 52 miles and was roughly 150 yards wide, he added.

People driving on Indiana Highway 60 Friday got a perfect view of the monster twister barreling through town.

Lawrence Smith, a reporter with WDRB, saw the tornado hurtling straight toward him. The video his station was able to get was incredible, he said. So was the experience.

Smith ran into a convenience store for cover as the funnel drew closer.

"We waited for it. The building shook, the lights went off. The noise was incredible," he said. "It passed right by in front of us."

A gas station across street was leveled, as was a nearby apartment complex.

Chad Hinton captured the tornado from his truck as he drove home to nearby Borden.

He had never quite seen anything like it. Adrenaline pulsed through his veins.

"It was a huge powerful force," he said, recalling the thundering noise. The hail and rain bore down on his truck. He felt lucky to be what he estimated as two miles off the twister's track. He thought about the people who were right in the middle of it.

In Salem, another town near Henryville, a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes was found alone in a field. No one knew how she had gotten there; they just knew she needed help.

The 20-month-old toddler was taken to hospital and intubated to help her breathe, said Clark County Sheriff's Department Maj. Chuck Adams said.

She was later flown about 35 miles southeast to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was in critical condition Saturday night, said Brian Rublein, a spokesman for Kosair.

Someone had called to identify the girl, and by Saturday night several extended family members were on hand. But her immediate family -- her parents, 3-year-old brother and 2-month-old sister -- were all killed in the storm, according to Rublein.

As uncertain as the toddler's fate was, she was a glimmer of good news amid the sorrow. Another child, a 9-year-old boy from Henryville, is missing.

Adams said that the boy's whereabouts have been unknown since twisters hit. With power out, authorities relied on thermal radar imaging and search-and-rescue dogs to try to find him.

Others waited for loved ones at Henryville's St. Francis Xavier Church, which became a meeting point for frantic residents looking for loved ones.

The message on the church's answering machine summed up the community's fears:

"Hello, this is Father Steve. I'm sorry to let you know we do not have any detailed information ourselves on people. They are consolidating information at the fire station. However, there is no way of contacting the fire department through normal channels because the phone lines are down. All I can say is pray for your friends and family."

CNN's Susan Candiotti reported from Henryville, Indiana, and Moni Basu reported from Atlanta.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT