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Published: Monday, 11/11/2002

Swift evacuation of Van Wert theater prevents additional deaths in county

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

VAN WERT, Ohio - It was a warm, but rainy Sunday and the Van Wert Cinema complex on Lincoln Highway just west of here was crowded with people enjoying the afternoon matinees.

Suddenly, Van Wert County emergency officials received word from the National Weather Service that a severe line of storms spawning possible tornadoes was bearing down on the county from the southwest. The tornadoes were only eight minutes west of the county's border with Indiana and just 20 minutes from Van Wert.

Warnings went out throughout the county. The cinema's operators, upon learning of the danger, immediately evacuated the theater complex.

Only minutes later, about 3:30 p.m., a tornado flattened the cinema, ripping off the roof. A car was tossed upside down atop the empty seats inside.

Miraculously, no one at the movie theater was injured, county officials said.

“They heeded the warning and got people out,” Jack Snyder, a spokesman for the Van Wert County Emergency Management Agency, said in praising the theater's operators.

“The warning time was critical,” said Rick McCoy, county EMA director. “Fortunately, the National Weather Service was able to tell us it was strengthening. Many, many young people and adults got out ahead of time. It could have been a serious, serious catastrophe. We're thankful we didn't lose a lot more.”

As it was, two people were killed and at least 17 people in Van Wert County were injured by the four tornadoes that touched down, officials said.

Mr. McCoy said the tornadoes started near Wilshire 15 miles southwest of Van Wert and tore through the county in a northeasterly direction.

The two fatalities occurred in Pleasant Township just west of Van Wert and included a motorist who was ejected from a vehicle caught up in the storm. Officials declined last night to identify either of the victims or where the other fatality occurred.

Mr. Snyder said at least 17 injured people were taken to Van Wert County Hospital. Several of those were transferred by medical helicopter to Fort Wayne, Ind., 35 miles to the west. Their identities and conditions were unavailable.

One of the injured was a man trapped in a building that collapsed at the Vision Industrial Park on Production Drive near John Brown Road in North Van Wert, Fire Chief Jim Steele said. The unidentified man was flown to a Fort Wayne hospital, where he was in critical condition.

A half-dozen buildings at the industrial park were destroyed or damaged.

“I'd say of those six [buildings] we have one that's gone, two that are collapsed and three that are damaged,” Chief Steele said.

Van Wert Mayor Stephen Gehres said the destruction at the industrial park will likely put 300 people out of work temporarily, if not permanently.

“I'd like to have everybody pray for the people that have been injured and for the fatalities and their families,” Mayor Gehres said.

Officials said several houses were destroyed or heavily damaged north and east of the industrial park.

Mr. McCoy said National Weather Service officials from Webster, Ind., would be in Van Wert today to assess the damage and determine how strong the tornadoes were.

“This actually is the worst tornado to hit Van Wert County since the Palm Sunday tornado in 1965,” he said.

Power lines were down throughout much of the city, and firefighters were checking for natural gas and propane gas leaks, the chief said.

About a mile east of the wreckage at the industrial park, Tom Rupert and his son, Robert, stood at Blaine Street and Bonnewitz Avenue in the early evening darkness, patrolling the intersection with flashlights. They had volunteered to help police keep curiosity seekers away from the damage zone.

Robert Rupert said he and his father had been driving north of town when they saw the storm approaching. The sky was a reddish-gray, Mr. Rupert said.

“It was dark, windy, rainy,” he said. “It was pretty spooky. When we got home, we ran right into the house.”

Jim Lambert, a friend of the Ruperts who lives on Blaine, said neighbors jammed into his basement, one of the only ones in the area, as the storm blew in.

He said he was waiting in his backyard for his niece and her boyfriend and saw a funnel cloud. “I saw a big cloud of debris and then the power transformers lighting up like Roman Candles,” he said.

“My niece's boyfriend said, `Is that what it looks like?' I turned around and said, `Let's go.' So we ran into the basement.”

Mayor Gehres urged people to make donations to assist victims through a local food bank at the Trinity Friendship Church at 419-238-2788, ext. 115.



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