Tragedy here, miracle there

Published February 3, 2007

LADY LAKE - The storm's roar jolted Ron Beal awake about 3 a.m. Outside, he saw his neighbors' home crushed by an oak tree.

The owner, Don Halvorson, was trying to get to his wife, Emily, who was still inside, Beal said.

Halvorson crawled through a hole in the wall. He reached his wife, but she had no pulse.

"I just feel helpless. Helpless," said Beal, a 69-year-old snowbird from Glennie, Mich.

The storm hit hard in Lady Lake, a retirement community of about 15,000 north of Leesburg. At least six people died there. Many homes were leveled.

Within hours, help began pouring in. The sound of chainsaws and bulldozers filled the air.

More than a dozen residents of the Sunshine Mobile Home park were evacuated, many of them carrying their belongings in garbage bags. A Salvation Army disaster relief truck was parked near the mobile home park's entrance. Police stood guard.

Just after 11:30 a.m., park resident Paul Dinofrio came to the shelter at North Lake Presbyterian Church looking for an insurance adjuster.

After spending the night at a friend's house in the retirement community called the Villages, Dinofrio, 82, returned home Friday morning to find his home in the mobile home park destroyed. Shattered glass covered his bed. The family room was gone.

"It had blown away completely. Everything had blown down," he said. "The television was the only thing left standing."

Many of the residents streamed into an emergency shelter, including Beal. He said the Halvorsons had wedged themselves between the mattress and box spring as the tornado raged. But as the tree fell, Don Halvorson was able to slide out. His wife could not escape. She was 77.

"She was the nicest lady," said Nancy Uhlers, 61. "This is a tragedy. I don't know what to say."

Kathryn Johnson, 76, said she rolled off her bed and began praying over the noise of her splintering home. "It seemed like it lasted forever. Then, bang, it stopped. I went outside and my neighbor's home was completely flattened."

Johnson began to cry. "I thought they were dead. It was flattened. Just flattened."

A few minutes later, Johnson heard a knock on her back door. It was Larry and Lou Riley. They survived.

Standing outside the shelter, Johnson saw her friends in the distance. She ran down a covered pathway and embraced Lou Riley. They lingered in each other's arms, crying.

Larry Riley held a small cage with their chihuahua, Pita, inside.

"We heard this horrible noise, like a jet engine," said Lou Riley, 58. "My husband and I clung to each other, and he was able to push the roof off of us."

She screamed at her husband, who was asleep next to her. "We're going to get hit!"

She grabbed his arm.

"All of a sudden we were like, phewww, airborne," Larry Riley said. "We flew up, then everything crashed on us." A dresser, lamp, fan, TV and the roof. "I just kept inching and wiggling and got stuff off of me."

They bought the home less than two years ago. It was not insured.

She shook as she talked, wiping tears with a tissue. Her left arm was in a sling, a bruise over her right eye.

"I don't believe we got out," she said.

Bianca Ruhl, 46, walked in a half daze down Quail Street, carrying what she could salvage: a photo album, the Bible and a plastic bag filled with slippers and candles. Her new Saturn was pinned under a tree.

Two minutes before the tornado hit, she ran into the bathroom and got in the tub. "I heard the window in my bedroom explode," she said. "Later I saw glass shards stuck in my pillow and quilt. They would have ripped me to shreds. I think the Lord woke me up."

Fast Facts:

The Villages

The Villages, Central Florida's largest development, has an estimated population of 60,000, which is expected to grow to 100,000 by 2010. It is an unincorporated community that straddles three counties: Lake, Sumter and Marion. Launched in the 1980s, the 55+ community is owned and operated by the Morse family. It is self-contained with restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, supermarkets, recreational facilities, medical facilities and golf courses. The development has its own newspaper and cable news channel. Children under 18 can't stay more than 30 days a year.