Powerful tornado strikes Gloucester: Three dead; Page Middle School devastated

by Elsa Cooke Verbyla - Posted on Apr 18, 2011 - 03:00 PM

Photo: Roger Hogge barely escaped with his life and the lives of his fiancée and son as the tornado took direct aim on his Cedar Bush Road home.

Roger Hogge barely escaped with his life and the lives of his fiancée and son as the tornado took direct aim on his Cedar Bush Road home.

A powerful tornado touched down in Gloucester County Saturday night, leaving a straight-line path of destruction from the communities of Coke and Clopton, devastating Page Middle School and touching down again at Ware Neck, before eventually heading off to Deltaville and then out into the Chesapeake Bay.

The storm, which struck around 7 p.m., caused at least three deaths and profound damage in Gloucester. A large portion of Page Middle School, about 10 school buses and an undetermined number of homes were destroyed. Trees were down in large swaths along Hickory Fork and Cedar Bush roads.

The freakish nature of the tornado became apparent as miles of roadside appeared undisturbed, every lawn ornament and dogwood blossom in place in front yards. Turning a bend in the road, one would suddenly come upon rows of homes with pine trees through the roofs, alleys of pines snapped off and pushed from the roadsides…and on some home sites, everything gone down to the foundations.

Names of the dead were not released as of Sunday morning, although Sheriff Steve Gentry had scheduled a press conference at noon at Gloucester High School to discuss the disaster and the county’s response to it.

Survivors

Gazing at the foundations of the home, commercial shop and garage on his property on Cedar Bush Road, Roger Hogge, 45, bandaged and limping, with his arm in a sling, said, "I’m so happy. You just don’t know."

That is because he, his 13-year-old son Jesse, and fiancée Lisa Vandyke were in the eye of the tornado, huddled together in the bathtub as it approached. One minute later, everything was gone.

"We were at home, watching TV, and the satellite dish went out because of the rain," Hogge said Sunday. "The wind stopped. It was the calm before the storm.

"My girlfriend said the sky was green and that she had always heard that if a tornado is coming, the sky will turn green.

"She stood up and looked out the window and said ‘Oh my God,’ said the sky was black and spinning. My kid heard it, he came and ran to the window and said ‘Oh my God,’ and then I went to the window and saw the trees blowing. Then I saw the whole tornado coming. I saw shingles and roofs and trees and limbs 200 feet up in the air," Hogge said.

"I said ‘get in the bathroom now’ and we got in the tub, the three of us. I was thinking it would blow by but you could hear it coming. It was just like a train, like they say.

"All of a sudden we felt the wind, the pressure on the house and on our ears. About that time it felt like the house slipped about a foot off the foundation and then stopped.

"Then all hell broke loose. We went around four or five times, from the tub to the ceiling to the walls to the tub, glass breaking, white powder from the sheetrock in the air."

The bathroom then came to an abrupt stop, Hogge said. The ordeal had lasted about 20 seconds but "it seemed like 20 minutes. It was the longest, scariest ride I’ve ever been in. Busch Gardens has nothing to compare.

"As soon as we stopped, my son was headed out the door … or the opening of the house. I was behind him. He said, ‘Where’s Lisa?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She was still in the tub, bleeding; and my son was cut bad on his hand.

"We got to her and she said she couldn’t get out. It took us a minute or two to get her to her feet, and we stomped through all that glass barefoot and never got a cut," Hogge said.

The bathroom end of the house was the only piece left intact. It had flipped over several times and come to a rest against the trees. When they got outside, and dark had fallen by then, the yard was laid bare and was full of waste.

"We got in the truck. The road was blocked by trees both ways. We got out and walked to our neighbors’ house" and by good fortune, two nurses were having dinner there and attended to the injuries sustained by all three.

Hogge, his son and Vandyke were finally able to get in touch with emergency help and learned that their area was in the eye of the trouble. Eventually they were taken to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital for CT scans and x-rays. "Everybody at Walter Reed were angels to us," Hogge said. "Lisa has a concussion, my son has cuts and a fractured ankle, and my shoulders and ankle are messed up."

But looking at the foundation where his house had sat, where the 50x75-foot commercial building from which he operated his business, Hogge’s Septic Tank and Grease Trap Service, at the foundation of the garage, he reflected that the trio who rode out the tornado has much to be thankful for. And as friends and neighbors sorted through the debris, hanging up clothes, and gave them all hugs, Hogge said "we’re going to be O.K."

Photo:

Page Middle School

Photo: Superintendent of Schools Ben Kiser talks with Gloucester Volunteer Fire and Rescue Capt. Jim Gilsinan on Sunday morning at Page Middle School. Above, wrecked buses.

Superintendent of Schools Ben Kiser talks with Gloucester Volunteer Fire and Rescue Capt. Jim Gilsinan on Sunday morning at Page Middle School. Above, wrecked buses.

 Dr. Ben Kiser, Gloucester County’s superintendent of schools, explained that Page Middle School has three wings: the sixth grade wing in front, the seventh grade wing in the middle, and the eighth grade wing farthest from Route 17.

Damage was apparent in all three sections, although the eighth grade wing seemed to be nearly destroyed, with large sections of walls and the roof torn away.

Like so many of those on the scene, he said "it could have been a lot worse," because the storm happened on a Saturday when no one was in the building so that no one was hurt at the school.

"We can deal with buildings," Kiser said, explaining that he and fellow administrators will be working out a plan so that the 580 students at Page can complete the school year. "We will make it happen," he said.

"Gloucester is a strong community. We have great children, strong families, and resilient people. We bounce back from things, most recently Hurricane Isabel. The community comes together in times of trouble," Kiser said.

Bobby Crewe, Gloucester Point district member of the county’s board of supervisors, said, "I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve been through four hurricanes" in three states, including Hurricane Isabel in Gloucester in 2003. "I’ve never been through anything like this."

He said that he and his wife were at home around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and that "I told my wife, this doesn’t look good." The lights went out, and he came up Route 17 to look for the source of the trouble.

"That’s when I saw the power pole" in front of Page Middle School broken off and some debris scattered along the road, but due to the darkness, "I couldn’t see any of this damage."

Crewe repeated the refrain heard so often Sunday morning; that the tornado, horrible as it had been taking three lives elsewhere in the county, was a "blessing in disguise" as it did not strike during school hours.

Part of Route 33 closed

All travel lanes of Route 33 in Middlesex County have been closed from North End Road (Route 631) east so Virginia Department of Transportation crews can clear debris from the roadway.

Message boards have been posted west of the road barricades, at Stampers Bay Road (Route 630), to inform motorists of the closure. Motorists will be turned around at Stampers Bay Road unless they reside between Stampers Bay Road and North End Road.

Vehicle traffic is being temporarily restricted to allow VDOT work crews and Dominion Virginia Power to clear travel lanes on Route 33 and the surrounding roadways. Crews are also working to clear debris from multiple primary and secondary roads in the neighboring counties.

Virginia State Police is providing traffic control at the road closure site.

Antioch church

The tornado ripped off much of the roof of Antioch Christian Fellowship’s church building on Cedar Bush Road.

Pastor Leonard Marble said that he visited the 80-year-old frame structure just after the storm and could not see much of the damage then. By Sunday’s daylight, the problems were much clearer.

A chimney was knocked over. Much of the metal roof had been peeled back. Inside, a large crack in the front wall showed that the building had taken quite a shaking.

No service was held there Sunday. The pastor visited all the rooms, shaking his head at the apparent load of work ahead. "It looks worse in the daylight," he said. "But we’re a lot better off than a lot of people. Stuff can be replaced."

County board

Speaking on behalf of his fellow supervisors, chairman Christian "Buddy" Rilee said that "we are very saddened and shocked by the turn of events as the result of Saturday’s tornado. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were so tragically affected. The board will do anything within its power to assist in recovery. So many have stepped up—fire and rescue, local Sheriff’s department, State Police, emergency responders and many others. Our community will pull together and come back even stronger."

National Weather Service

National Weather Service spokesperson Christopher Vaccaro said NWS officials from Wakefield are out in the affected areas today doing a storm assessment.

"The teams will review the damage and determine what kind of tornado caused" the damage, he said. Vaccaro said the assessment team will determine the tornado’s wind speed, its width and its path. The team will also determine if the tornado lifted off, and if it touched down and where, he added.

Mathews County

Mathews County suffered slight damage as compared to Gloucester.

David Burns, emergency services coordinator, said emergency dispatch received 11 calls for aid Saturday night. Of these, three involved serious damage such as trees on houses, he said. Most of the calls came from North.

The remainder of the calls involved property damage of some sort such as siding torn from homes, trees down in the yard, etc. One woman was trapped in her home at North by debris at the front and back doors, but was not injured, Burns said. In another case, a tree fell across the corner of the carriage house at Kingston Plantation.

No person was hurt and there were no rescue calls, Burns said. The Mathews Volunteer Fire Department provided mutual aid to Gloucester during the night, he said.

‘Trust God’

Among the many rescue workers, utility workers, passersby and others viewing the destruction, one car made a number of stops. In front of damaged homes and buildings, Cecil Smith posted signs stating, "No Matter What Trust God." He is from a ministry of the same name founded in Newport News by James "Peter" Person, according to a business card.