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One day, two losses

On Wednesday morning, Irene Hanson had a home and a husband. One frightful evening with a blackened sky would take it all away.

Published July 22, 2005

[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
After a swift, spinning storm ripped through Irene Hanson's mobile home, a cloudy sunset covers the park. Part of her roof had torn away above her head. Firefighters removed her from the rubble. Then she asked someone to call for her husband, Bill, in a nursing home.

[Family photo]
Bill and Irene Hanson had lived in Palm Hill Country Club mobile home park in Largo for 16 years.

LARGO - Irene Hanson arrived home Wednesday night distraught. Her husband of 58 years was in pain, and she knew it when she left him in his nursing home bed.

Alone, she pulled the windows tight on the mobile home where she and Bill had lived the past 16 years. Through the glass, she spotted a rainbow, then watched the sky go pink, then gray, then black.

"Oh, my god!" she screamed.

Violent gusts of winds tugged at her home and she watched her aluminum carport roll past the window. Part of the roof ripped off over her head.

A large window shattered in a "zillion" razor-sharp pieces, swirling in a tiny funnel cloud through the house. Hanson slid down the wall, to the floor.

Then the storm vanished, leaving her trapped in the rubble. Firefighters rescued her, but Hanson would come to mourn more than a home.

As the storm whipped around her, Bill, an Army veteran Irene met at a Christmas dance in Chicago, died.

"That's when everything broke apart, and I lost my husband and my home at the same time," Irene, 77, said Thursday through tears.

The Hanson mobile home was one of a handful destroyed when separate funnel clouds called "gustnados" erupted in Largo and Clearwater shortly before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. A gustnado forms when a storm front with high winds collides with a stationary sea breeze, pushing downbursts toward the ground in a small but destructive, tornadolike spinning motion.

No one was injured, though the storms damaged more than 50 mobile homes around Seminole Boulevard and Ulmerton Road near Largo Mall and knocked out power to about 20,000 customers.

Once the skies cleared, Hanson surveyed the wreckage of her house on Sugar Palm Drive in the Palm Hill Country Club mobile home park: Sheet metal and glass everywhere, the carport gone, the front door mangled, people walking about in a wide-eyed daze.

Neighbors comforted Irene, as did Frieda Widera, a victim advocate with the Largo Police Department.

Mostly, Irene told them she wanted to call Bill's nursing home, let them know where she was and how they could reach her. Widera dialed and talked with a nurse.

Then, she broke the news: Bill had passed away.

"I just lost it," Irene recalled.

Bill Hanson, 80, had suffered heart problems for about two years and at one point had to be resuscitated, his wife said.

Two weeks ago, he went to Largo Medical Center and he stayed there until Tuesday night, when he was admitted to the Palm Garden nursing home.

The day of the storm, Irene knew Bill was suffering. She asked nurses to give him more medication to ease his pain. Upset, she eventually left, but before she did, Bill gave her instructions.

"I don't want to be resuscitated," he told her. "I want to die."

Irene said Bill was a born salesman, had been his whole life. He sold her on love.

"He could sell you anything," she said. "He could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge, if it was available."

Thursday, Irene swung between humor and crimping grief. She spent the night with her neighbor, Jeannette Bilow, and waited for her two sons, Bryan and Erik, to arrive from Illinois and New York, respectively.

To prepare her sons for what they would see, she told them over the phone: "House, gone. Car, fine. Mother, still in limbo."

About 2 p.m., cleanup crews sent by the insurance company knocked on Bilow's door and told Irene she could go through her house and gather some clothes. Strangers were packing up her other belongings. One of them sat on Irene's stairs smoking a cigarette as she slipped through the door.

She tried to pick out a few things, but after an hour, she exited, empty-handed, two women leading her back to Bilow's house.

"You're putting your life in ... it's hard to pack ..." Hanson tried to explain.

She needed to rest. Her hair was soaked through with sweat. Her knees were buckling. She could barely speak.

She would nap and try again, try to pack up the home where she and Bill had loved each other for so long.

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 727-445-4156 or

[Last modified July 22, 2005, 00:51:33]

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