Albert Thorn awoke in his rental cottage Thursday to the sound of heavy rain and wind. Then, there was screaming. Within minutes, the sky turned dark, cellphones pinged with emergency messages and a tornado tore through a popular campground, ripping awnings from trailers and flipping RVs on their sides.
A couple from New Jersey was killed when a tree fell on their tent. Their 13-year-old son, in a tent next to them, had life-threatening injuries. He was among three dozen people hurt.
“I love thunderstorms, and I went out to see it,” said Thorn, of Monroeville, New Jersey. “There was a wall of gray – wind and rain. It was coming through the trees right at us. By then, we shut the sliding door and it was pounding them windows like you couldn’t believe. You could hear people screaming before it even got to us.”
When the tornado hit about 9 a.m. EDT, more than 1,300 people were at Cherrystone Family Camping and RV Resort along the Chesapeake Bay, a 300-acre playground of swimming pools, mini-golf, pier fishing, crabbing and other activities on the state’s Eastern Shore.
Hospitals prepared for mass casualties, but they did not come. Injuries ranged from cuts to broken bones to life threatening, said Virginia State Police Spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
“All hell broke loose,” said Joe Colony, a Stephensville, Maryland, resident who has been coming to the campground for 30 years. “We got an emergency message on a cellphone and within 30 seconds, the thing hit and it blew down 40, 50 trees in the park.”
Larry LeMond, chairman of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, said a local high school would be used as a shelter for those who had nowhere else to go. Churches and other groups donated food and clothing. Weekends would typically draw 2,000 people to the campground, he said.
“In the summertime, it’s the biggest town on the shore,” LeMond said.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the area about the time it struck. Many at the park said they had only a few minutes of warning.
“The people who were in their tents had no chance to get out of their tents to go for shelter,” said Tori Thomas, of Monroeville, New Jersey, who was staying in a cottage with her two children, ages 1 and 3.
Joe Micucci said he and his wife rode out the storm in their camper as softball-sized hail fell.
“We saw at least five (campers) that were flipped over. One was completely gone and only had its wheels left,” said Micucci, of Washington Township, New Jersey.
The couple killed were identified as Lord Balatbat and Lolabeth Ortega, of Jersey City, New Jersey, Geller said.
Luis Balatbat Jr., 47, told The Jersey Journal that his family was shocked to learn of the death of his brother and sister-in-law.
“We are a close family, and this is very bad for us,” he said.
Lord Balatbat’s father, Luis Balatbat, 78, told the newspaper that all three of the couple’s children are hospitalized. He said his grandson is in a coma, his 12-year-old granddaughter suffered a leg and ear injury, and his 7-year-old granddaughter was struck in the stomach by a tree limb.
“I’m struggling,” the grandfather said. “I wanted to go there, but my doctor said do not go there because I am not well enough to travel. My wife is the same way.”
The couple has been married 14 years and both were born in the Philippines, the newspaper reported.
Peter Glagola, spokesman for Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital, said the hospital treated more than two dozen people. One patient in critical condition was flown to VCU Medical Center in Richmond, he said. Most at Riverside had been released, according to state police.
The Coast Guard said good Samaritans pulled at least three people from the water.
Across the country in Spokane, Washington, severe thunderstorms knocked out power to more than 60,000 customers and damaged dozens of homes Wednesday. One driver suffered life-threatening injuries when a tree slammed onto his car, impaling him. Severe thunderstorms were forecast for the northern Plains on Thursday and could threaten the Deep South and mid-Atlantic.