Grief, fear engulf tiny town

Published February 3, 2007

PAISLEY - When the worst of it arrived, when it seemed they had run out of tomorrows, Vern and Louedna Huber huddled together in the hallway.

In the predawn darkness, with pillows over their heads, the 81-year-old woman turned to her 87-year-old husband.

Thank you for such a good life, she told him. I'm lucky to have spent it with you.

A few doors down Bear Lake Boulevard, Greg Jennings climbed into a bathtub with his fiancee and two friends. They clung to one another as his wood-framed house disintegrated around them.

The windy horror that descended on this tiny Florida hamlet early Friday passed quickly but brutally, killing at least 13 people, more than any other area ravaged by the storm. It left mattresses in trees and front porches with no house attached.

It left the twisted bodies of young and old. It left relatives and neighbors in this tight-knit community to grieve and, even worse, to wonder.

* * *

Tina Addison sped down Lake Mack Drive, Marlboro Light in one hand, cell phone in the other.

She raced to the Lake County Fire Department's Station 2. Inside, a group of rescue workers were talking. A minister sat behind a folding table.

"I'm looking for my sister and her kids," Tina told him.

"What's your name?"

"Tina Addison."

"What's your sister's name?"

"Jean. Jean Rohrer."

"Where does she live?"

"On Cooter Pond."

"Where on Cooter Pond?"

Tina couldn't think of the streets. "I don't know."

"Relax, please," the minister said. "What are the children's names?"

"Ashley Bennett and James Rohrer and her baby is Skylar Wyatt."

"How old are the kids?"

"James is 10. Ashley is 14 and the baby is four or five months old."

"Keep your cell phone on," the minister said, "and keep checking your messages. We're looking."

Tina hopped back in her car and sped away.

* * *

Nearby, at Bear Lake, daylight brought gratitude and grief.

Bill and Karen Barth saw the sunrise they didn't think they would see. He took a look around, then called his mother.

"It's gone, Mom," he said. "Everything's gone."

Sheriff's deputies showed up with their bloodhounds and inched through the rubble, looking for signs of life. Or death.

Louedna Huber learned that the couple down the street, the ones who sold produce, had died in the storm. She peered across the lake to where their home had stood only hours earlier.

"We were good friends," she said softly.

Nellie Byrd sent her husband to the hospital. He'd just had a pacemaker put in and was complaining of chest pains. She stayed behind in her bath robe and her house with no walls.

"The good Lord protected us," said Mrs. Byrd, 75. She looked around and shrugged. "These are just worldly things. You can't take it to heaven. We'll pick up the pieces and move on."

Gov. Charlie Crist, high above in a helicopter, saw the residents of Bear Lake picking up the pieces. He came down for a closer look with Sen. Bill Nelson. They shook hands. They patted shoulders. They promised help.

And then they moved on to other tragedies.

The residents of Bear Lake went back to picking up the pieces. And grieving. And searching.

* * *

Tina Addison ended up at Forest Hills Country Store on State Road 42, along the edge of the Ocala National Forest near the St. Johns River.

This is a rural clump of modest houses and mobile homes situated around small lakes. It is home to fewer than 1,000 people who live here but mostly work a few miles east in DeLand.

The parking lot was packed. People from Lake Mack and Bear Lake and Cooter Pond exchanged information about lost family members. Moe Chowdhury, who works the counter, smoked a cigarette even though he doesn't smoke.

"I got my sister back in there," said Delbert Himes. "All the houses are gone. There's a lot of houses back in the woods and there's nothing left."

A Lake County deputy saw Tina crying.

"What's the house look like?" he said, pulling a pad from his pocket.

"It's a brown double-wide," Tina said. "Please."

"What's the name of the family?" he asked.

"Jean Rohrer," she said. "R-O-H-R-E-R."

"And the kids?"

"James. Ashley. And Skylar. Jean has red hair and James has red hair, too. Please, God."

Tina lit a Marlboro Light.

"Please don't be dead," she said.

Before long, a Dodge pickup pulled into the parking lot, and four women spilled out. Tina ran to them.

"We went down on Cooter Pond and everything's flat," one of the girls said. "Donnie's dead."

Tina put her hands on her head. "Jean and Ashley and James live right next to Donnie!" she said.

At 3:12 p.m., a black Chrysler pulled off Lake Mack Road. Tina ran to the car.

"My sister! My sister!" she screamed. "Oh my God!"

She grabbed Jean. Ashley was in the back, next to a car seat carrying a sleeping baby boy. Jean's son, James, was with his father in DeLand, she said.

Everyone had survived.

"We were in the house when it collapsed," Jean said. "I laid on top of the baby."

They had crowded into the baby's room and she pulled a blanket over their heads. The roof lifted above them as they prayed and cried. When the noise stopped, they climbed out of the debris. Neighbors on both sides on Cooter Pond Road were dead.

"I don't understand how all them died but we didn't," she said.

Tina just kept touching Jean's arm. "You're real."

* * *

As the day wore on, the death toll kept rising. Thirteen, the officials said, more than anywhere.

Down on County Road 42, John Wable sat in front of the Forest Hills United Methodist Church, eating popcorn and reading the book of Revelation.

It seemed only appropriate.

"It says he will come like a thief in the night," he said. "You will not know the hour nor the minute."

At Forest Hills Country Store, Mike Heaton shuffled to the counter, his eyes red and puffy from crying. He'd lost his aunt, uncle and 15-year-old cousin. He paid for his 24-ounce Bud Light, walked outside, said he wasn't sure where he was headed.

Back at Bear Lake, Greg Jennings, still cut and bloody, sifted through the splinters of his home. He found a belt. Found his lawn mower. Found his high school yearbook.

Just then, a neighbor walked past and shouted in his direction.

"I heard you were dead!"

Jennings laughed, as best he could.