Van Wert: 10 years later

Storms’ fatal fury recast lives, seared day into memories

11/11/2012
BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
In this Blade file photo, Nick Lehmkuhle, injured in the tornado, leans on his crutches, while his sister in law, Misty Lehmkuhle looks at the lacerations on his head.
In this Blade file photo, Nick Lehmkuhle, injured in the tornado, leans on his crutches, while his sister in law, Misty Lehmkuhle looks at the lacerations on his head.

VAN WERT, Ohio — There are certain moments in each person’s life that change everything.

For Jim Boyd, that event occurred at 3:28 p.m. Nov. 10, 2002, when a violent string of storms spawned deadly tornadoes that tore through Van Wert and cut a swath of destruction through northern Ohio.

A twister leveled the five-screen cinema and nearby drive-in owned by Mr. Boyd, who was with his wife, Joyce, at his mother’s home about a mile outside Van Wert when the carnage began.

“I can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing on any day except that day 10 years ago,” said Mr. Boyd, whose house next door to the outdoor theater was destroyed. “But that day I will always remember.”

Five people were killed, including two people in Van Wert, and dozens were injured in the cruel chain of storms that Sunday afternoon on Veterans Day weekend.

The storms dropped tornadoes that cut a 100-mile swath of destruction through farmland from the Indiana line to Port Clinton, changing the lives of many people forever.

Jim Boyd's five-screen movie theater was destroyed when tornado-laden storms swept through Van Wert on Nov. 10, 2002. About 60 customers were inside.
Jim Boyd's five-screen movie theater was destroyed when tornado-laden storms swept through Van Wert on Nov. 10, 2002. About 60 customers were inside.

Little of Mr. Boyd’s movie theater complex was left intact.

Before the storm pummeled the building, the 60 or so customers — including some inside for the opening weekend of Santa Clause 2 — were herded into restrooms and the lobby by managers who thought to evacuate the screening rooms after hearing the tornado sirens that had been activated shortly after 3 p.m.

Employees’ cars that had been in the parking lot were tossed into the front-row seats where the holiday movie was being shown to a nearly packed audience.

“We did have a full house in screening room number one. That was the Santa Claus movie. That was the important picture,” Mr. Boyd said.

Six businesses in the Vision Industrial Park and a meat processing plant in the same neighborhood as the movie theater on Van Wert’s west side were destroyed.

The day is also tattooed onto the memory of Rick McCoy, who, as director of Van Wert County Emergency Management Agency, was keeping a close eye on the skies as storms approached.

Mr. McCoy said the damage laid on the county was the worst since the Palm Sunday storms in April, 1965.

“It was one of those days where you could feel the strange change in the atmosphere,” said Mr. McCoy, who has been director of the emergency management agency since 1990. “I knew it was going to be bad.”

The storms in 2002 destroyed more than 170 homes and damaged 570 others in 17 counties. The Ohio Insurance Institute estimated at least $91.6 million in insured losses.

Wide damage and loss

In Van Wert County, 46 homes and seven businesses were destroyed. Another 150 homes and 10 businesses were damaged.

After leaving Van Wert, the storm continued northeast, slamming Roselms Church and the Washington Township Hall in Paulding County and several houses near Continental in Putnam County.

Two people were killed in Van Wert County. Nicholas Mollenkopf, 18 of Van Wert died after being thrown from a car during the storm, and Alfred Germann, 75, was killed when his Van Wert house collapsed.

In Putnam County, Denver and Cretie Branham died when their mobile home near Continental overturned.

As the storm moved east, rail cars were knocked off their track near Hamler in Henry County and a tornado touched down in Fostoria, where it peeled roofs off St. Wendelin High School and Junior High and toppled the chimney on Fostoria Community Hospital.

Just south of Tiffin, a tornado struck Honey Creek subdivision, flattening three homes and damaging others and continued along the city’s eastern edge, tearing away a section of a house.

Farther east in Seneca County, Darren J. Smith, 24, was killed when a tornado plowed through his house near Republic. Jeremiah and Emily Woodmansee, who shared a home on County Road 38 with the recent Heidelberg University graduate, were saved when Mr. Smith herded the couple into a closet and then piled in on top of them.

The storm flattened the one-story house, killing Mr. Smith instantly. The Woodmansees were thrown toward the mobile home of a neighbor and were injured.

To the north, a separate storm damaged H.B. Magruder Hospital in Port Clinton and homes near Lakeview Park.

In the following weeks and months, debris that had been scattered in the storms was found in fields and communities throughout northwest Ohio and Michigan.

A wedding dress that belonged to a Van Wert woman traveled more than 130 miles to Monroe, Mich.

A blue seat from the Van Wert cinemas smashed through a window of a home about eight miles away.

Recovering, rebuilding

For the next year, Van Wert slowly began to rebuild. Homeowners, business owners, and public agencies picked up the pieces with the help of more than $12.4 million in emergency grants and loans from state and federal agencies.

Within a year after the tornado, five of the businesses in Vision Industrial Park rebuilt, keeping the 500 jobs in the community.

One company that didn’t return was replaced with a new business.

“Every business rebuilt with something bigger than they had before,” Mr. McCoy said.

However, not so quick to return was the town’s only movie theater. Mr. Boyd struggled to get approval for a loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and finally was able to start construction and show movies again two years later.

“It definitely was a frustrating time. But it was worth the effort to pull it all together and bring the theater back into the community,” he said.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.