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Twister stuns Marengo

Twister stuns Marengo
Twister stuns Marengo
English Fire Dept. volunteer firefighters Aaron Bye, Jeremy Keith and Joseph Keith make their way through destroyed homes Sunday evening. Volunteer rescue workers came from all over Southern Indiana to help tornado victims. (Photo by Randy West)

While waiting for the power to be turned off so he could begin a second search for victims throughout town, an exasperated Marengo-Liberty volunteer firefighter Kevin Batman said the destruction from Sunday afternoon’s deadly tornado in Marengo was unlike anything he had ever seen in the small town he’s called home his entire life.
‘There’s nothing to compare this to, not in my lifetime,’ Batman said.
Howard Lincoln’s house on East Elm Street, across from Marengo Elementary School, was one of 50 to 60 destroyed by the twister whose destructive path began in the southwest corner of town, around Cedar Street, and ripped along Main Street and across S.R. 64 near the entrance to Marengo Cave.
‘I’m just numb. I don’t know what I feel yet,’ said Lincoln. He had tried to videotape the tornado before it got too close and forced him to take cover by his SUV.
‘I started videotaping and tried to get to the house. I made it to the Bronco. It was coming across the top of the trees,’ he said. ‘It was swirling and came right into a power line. It was roaring like crazy. It was a whitish gray.’
Lincoln, like many of Marengo’s 800 residents, lost his home, but he considers himself lucky that nobody in his family was badly hurt.
‘Everybody in the house is OK,’ he said.
The tornado claimed the life of John H. Laswell, 83, when it picked up his trailer on Murphy Street and flipped it over.
Gov. Joe Kernan visited the town Monday afternoon and ordered National Guard troops to help restore order. They arrived yesterday.
Larry Jenkins, who lives across the street, didn’t know the twister was coming. ‘I didn’t see anything ’til I was standing there and a two-by-four came through the back of my trailer, and one came through the side window,’ he said.
‘The trailer was shaking. It was just roaring. That sucker was moving, too. It didn’t stick around long.’
The destruction and mood throughout Marengo seemed like a war zone and got worse toward the town’s center. Residents walked slowly in a state of shock from place to place, checking on neighbors and saying very little as they tried to comprehend utter devastation.
Volunteers and rescue workers quickly arrived with chainsaws and excavating equipment. They cleared streets of trees, downed power lines and other debris so ambulances and other emergency personnel could go from house to house. Helicopters from TV television stations circled overhead, giving viewers an overhead look at massive destruction.
Danny and Rita Stevens, who live on South Short Street, near where the tornado first touched down, were watching TV reports of a twister in Jeffersonville. They had little warning that one was coming their way. Rita said the couple’s daughter and her boyfriend came in from outside and yelled to them to go to the basement.
Rita made it to the top step, and Danny didn’t make it that far before the tornado roared through their neighborhood. The Stevens sustained only minor roof damage and several downed trees, but a vacant trailer next door was demolished.
‘It’s just unreal,’ Rita said.
Although TV reports didn’t offer much warning, those who were listening to the emergency scanner had time to take cover.
‘It was about 15 minutes before it hit, so they did a good job,’ said Peggy Bullington, who lives in a mobile home in Old Town Marengo.
Bullington ‘ who is Crawford County’s auditor and signed off on the county commissioners’ order to declare a state of emergency ‘ said she, her husband, Dave, and her daughter, Ricki Hawkins, who was visiting, went to a storm cellar.
‘Never want to see it again,’ Hawkins said. ‘The scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Hawkins, who lives on Goodman Ridge Road west of town, said her house was unscathed, but her step-sister, Susie Bullington, who lives in Village Apartments in the center of town, wasn’t so lucky.
The tornado ripped off the roof of the two-story brick building, allowing people on the street to see into the apartments on the top floor.
An old two-story house converted into two apartments across Main Street had considerable damage on its upper level, as an exterior stairway and porch were ripped off. The upstairs tenants were not home during the storm, said Beth Marshall, who lives downstairs.
Marshall said she, her boyfriend, Jim Jones, and their three-year-old daughter, Payton, huddled in a closet after hearing a warning on the scanner that a tornado had been spotted near the auction barn on Goodman Ridge Road, southwest of town.
‘We just got in the closet, and this is all that’s left,’ Marshall said, looking at the debris as Jones and his mother, Lois Byrn, attempted to repair a broken window.
It could have been worse, she said, pointing to the unrecognizable remains of what used to be two trailers on both sides of the house.
Marshall said her daughter screamed the whole time they were in the closet. She, too, wasn’t sure they would survive.
‘It didn’t feel like it was safe, but we were,’ Marshall said. ‘It felt like it (the house) was trying to raise up, but it never did.’
Payton lost her two kittens in the storm, but she and her parents were uninjured. ‘I’ll get her some new kittens,’ Byrn said.
The twister respected little in town, including houses of worship. After knocking a tree onto Marengo Christian Church, the tornado ripped apart Cedar Street Baptist Church, built in the 1800s, three blocks up the street, and damaged the roof of Marengo Wesleyan Church.
‘I didn’t think a tornado was going to hit us, but it did,’ said Kyle Sammons, a Cedar Street Baptist member who came to help clean up shortly after the storm. ‘I came outside and the clouds were swirling.
‘My brother said the church was gone, and I didn’t believe him, so I ran through the hallway to look at the church. I opened the doors, and I could see the sky. We just got done Friday (putting a new roof on).’
The National Weather Service classified the tornado as an F-3, meaning its winds were likely between 158 and 206 mph. It gained girth and ferocity by the time it hit Marengo Elementary School.
It busted most of the school’s windows and damaged its roof. The worst destruction is on the school’s East Elm Street side: there is now a hole large enough to drive a car into one of the classrooms.
‘There was a funnel cloud coming across the school roof, and you could see the school roof just lift up,’ said Glenn Smith, who lives nearby. ‘I stayed in the house and went down to the basement. We were in the basement, in the stairwell. It was sucking us up off the bed.’
Structures on the other side of East Elm, including Lincoln’s house, were hit much harder; many were shredded.
Jason Jones, who lives on Van Meter Street in southwest Marengo, said he saw the funnel cloud which hit his garage but spared his mobile home.
‘It scared me to death,’ he said. ‘I never saw one that close. I never want to again.’
Gil Sloan, whose roof was sheared from his Bedford stone house, said he was watching the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on television in the basement when the electricity went off, followed by ‘dead silence.’ He heard his wife, Stephanie, upstairs start yelling at the children, ‘Get downstairs now!’
She had heard that tornadoes always sound like a train, and suddenly ‘the wind was really blowin’,’ Gil said.
Their two boys, Falon, 10, and Tyson, 8, and a great-niece, Lakeisha Jones, 10, went to the basement. Gil ran upstairs to get his wife, who was trying to shut a door. He looked outside and saw a pine tree ‘whipped sideways.’
‘Forget the door,’ Gil told Stephanie. ‘Get downstairs.’ She did, covered the kids behind a couch with a down comforter and laid on top of them. Gil laid on top of her.
Twenty seconds later, the roof of their house was gone. Gil doesn’t know where it went, maybe northeast across S.R. 64 into the trees above Marengo Cave.
No one was hurt in the Sloan household, although Gil could feel glass hit him in the back.
Their two dogs, a bassett hound and a lab, were outside in a pen, not far from the house. After the tornado hit, both dogs appeared, wagging their tails, although their pen was in dissaray. An outbuilding next to the pen was blown away, although the contents, children’s toys, were intact. A backyard trampoline was blown onto a utility wire 200 yards away.
The Sloans’ neighbors covered the house with a tarpaulin to protect the interior, which was largely undamaged, Gil said. Outside, no neighbors appeared to be hurt, but houses all around them were severely damaged.
Randall Meriwether said he and his family huddled in a corner after he realized a tornado was on its way.
‘It sounded like a Boeing 707 getting ready to take off,’ he said. ‘It lasted three to five seconds. It was real quick.’
Becky Smith was house-sitting with an elderly lady when the tornado hit.
‘She’s 85, and she was on her walker. I was trying to get her down the stairs. About the time it hit, it sucked out the windows in the basement. She started going back, and I just jerked her back,’ Smith said.
‘It just sucked every bit of your air out of you. Your lungs felt like they were collapsing.’
John H. Laswell died at 3:45 p.m. He was a native of Frankfort, Ky., born Sept. 23, 1920, the son of the late Logan and Grace Wright Laswell.
Besides his parents, he was preceded in death by a son, three brothers and four sisters.
Survivors include four sons, Henry (Buck) and Wayne Laswell, both of English, and Timothy and ‘Hot Rod’ Laswell, both of Marengo; three daughters, Agnes Ridner of West Fork, Henrietta Crowe of Indianapolis and Lorna Davis of Marengo; a sister, Amzel Smith of West Fork, three brothers, Ray Laswell of West Fork, Wayne Laswell of Paoli and Novie Laswell of English, 15 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
Visitation was yesterday and will be today (Wednesday) after 9 a.m. at Denbo Funeral Home in Marengo.
The funeral will be today at 1 p.m. (slow time) at the funeral home with burial in Bloom-Riddle Cemetery. The Rev. Steve Lock will officiate.
(Information for this story was also gathered by Wade Bell and Randy West.)