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Published: Wednesday, 4/30/2008

Tornadoes savaged Virginia but spared lives

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Residents and rescue personnel survey damage to an antiques store in Driver, Va. Six tornadoes roared through Virginia on Monday, injuring 200. All of the victims are expected to survive. Residents and rescue personnel survey damage to an antiques store in Driver, Va. Six tornadoes roared through Virginia on Monday, injuring 200. All of the victims are expected to survive.
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SUFFOLK, Va. - It was a scene of haphazard destruction that stretched for 25 miles: Row upon row of homes reduced to splintered lumber, shopping centers stripped to bare metal, parking lots turned into junkyards.

Yet no one died.

"The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed," Fire Chief Mark Outlaw said.

As residents and rescuers returned yesterday to survey the wreckage from six tornadoes, they were amazed by both the scope of the damage and their good fortune.

Even among the 200 people who were injured, most suffered only cuts and scrapes.

Authorities said people in the storms' path had plenty of warning and were fortunate that the strongest of the twisters struck in the late afternoon, rather than at night, when most residents would have been sleeping.

The extra few minutes provided enough time for people to huddle in bathrooms or crouch in the back of stores as the tornado zigzagged for 10 miles. The twister, along with the storm that spawned it, left a 25-mile swath of damage across central and southeast Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas, said about 145 homes were severely damaged in Suffolk, a city of 80,000 people west of Norfolk.

Most of the injured had been released from hospitals.

"It is kind of amazing there weren't more significant injuries," Mr. Kaine said on WTOP radio in Washington. "You are talking about 145 homes; that is probably 5 to 600 people directly affected by this tornado."

As he toured damaged neighborhoods later, Mr. Kaine said the number of people hurt or killed would have been much higher had the tornado struck a few hours later.

"There's definitely a miraculous quality to this," he said.

At least three people were hospitalized in fair condition as of last evening, said Dana Woodson, spokesman for the city of Suffolk.

The tornado that hit Suffolk touched down repeatedly between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Monday, when many people were still at work or on their way home.

"I'm not lucky, I'm blessed," said Brenda Williams, 43, who was pulled Monday from the rubble of a manicure shop where the ceiling had collapsed.

Ms. Williams said she wasn't sure how long she'd been trapped. She had a gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. "I'm fine. I'm here," she said. "I'm in the land of the living."

She went back to the shopping center yesterday to retrieve possessions from her car, which was flipped onto its roof in the parking lot.

The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes also hit Brunswick County, about 60 miles west, and Colonial Heights, about 60 miles northwest. Three other twisters hit in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, and along the line separating Gloucester and Mathews counties, all in southeast Virginia.

The other tornadoes caused far less damage than the twister that ravaged Suffolk.



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