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Victims of the wind

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A woman sifts through the rubble after a 1978 tornado devastated High Point Elementary School.

By CHRISTOPHER SCANLAN, Times Staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 1988

The color of the sky.

Ten years later, that's what the survivors remember about May 4, 1978, the day a tornado came out of the sky over mid- Pinellas County and tore into High Point Elementary School, demolishing a classroom wing, killing three kindergarten students and injuring scores of other children.

The sky was black that day.

Smoky black, as if a fire were burning somewhere. So dark the pelting rains looked like milk drops against it.

It looked green to Betty Altopp, busy in the school cafeteria getting lunch ready. A strange-looking sky, she thought, but she didn't have time to dwell on it. She had 600 children to feed.

The children arrived wet that morning in Room B-14, Elizabeth Lovely's kindergarten class. Mrs. Lovely, 58, had taught for more than two decades, most of the time in kindergarten. But each class of "kiddos," as she called them, was special, with their own needs and histories.

That morning, she spent a long time talking with brown-haired Garey Staly whose Army father was stationed overseas in Korea. He was the man in the family, she told him, and must be a big help to his mother and sister. She hung up one of Scotty Wilmot's drawings, and couldn't keep from smiling at Timmy Duval, watching him help another child with her math. If she had a pet, it was Timmy.

Timmy's mother, Sue Duval, 28, had considered keeping him and his 8-year-old sister Theresa home.

But it was Timmy's sixth birthday and in Mrs. Lovely's class birthdays meant special privileges. Timmy got to wear a paper Burger King crown with his name on it, and a party was planned after lunch.

Mrs. Duval, who was four months pregnant, dropped the kids off at school and drove to the Danish Bakery in the Tri-City Plaza for cookies and cupcakes and brought them back to the classroom where she worked several days a week as a room mother.

"When are you coming back, Mom?" Timmy asked her.

"I'll be back in a little while," she said, and gave him a hug.

In 10-year-old Elaine Johnson's fourth-grade class, natural disasters and how to prepare for them had been the subject all week. On May 4, the topic was tornadoes. On the blackboard that morning was a three-line verse that the class had brainstormed during their discussion.

Strange animal

The thunderstorms had arrived before dawn, pushed in from the north by a cold front. The storm system marched down the Florida peninsula. Individual storms moved into Pinellas County from the southwest off the Gulf of Mexico.

At the National Severe Storm Forecast Center in Kansas City, meteorologists noticed that the air above Florida was exceptionally warm and moist. Colder air even higher combined to create atmospheric instability. Conditions were ripe for tornadoes.

At 8:05 a.m. the center issued Tornado Watch #104 for central and northern Florida including Pinellas County: "Tornadoes, large hail and damaging thunderstorm winds are possible for these areas."

It was still black and gloomy when Mrs. Lovely brought the children back to class after lunch. In the teacher's lounge, she had listened to the reports about the tornado watch on the radio. If the weather worsened, she and two other teachers in the west classroom wing decided they would bring the children into the hallway that ran between their classrooms for protection.

Back in Room B-14, Mrs. Lovely gathered the children around her in the middle of the room. She put on the record player and led the children in songs. They were frightened of the storm. The more noise they made, she thought, the better off they would be. Together they chanted, "Rain rain, go away, come again some other day," but every time the lightning flashed outside, the children would cry. "Don't worry," she told them over and over. "Mrs. Lovely will take care of you."

David Quinlavin, Scotty Wilmot and Garey Staly left Mrs. Lovely's class to go to the bathroom.

On the way back to class, one of them suggested a race. But one of David's shoelaces was untied. While he bent down to retie it, the other boys raced down the hall. By the time he reached the door, they were back inside Mrs. Lovely's classroom, but before he could open it, something strange happened.

The fire doors at the end of the hall, so heavy that it usually took David and two other boys to open them, suddenly swung open with a bang. Frightened, David grabbed the doorknob to hurry into the classroom. He pulled, but it felt like someone was on the other side pulling against him.

Inside, Mrs. Lovely was just about to change records when she noticed that the rain was coming down even harder. The sky grew blacker. Then the lights went out and the music died.

"Everybody get down flat on the floor," she ordered.

* * *

At about 11:45 a.m. the tornado touched down 300 yards southwest of the school. Witnesses reported seeing it hurl a pickup truck 40 feet onto another vehicle. Then it bore down on the High Point Village Mobile Home Park across the street from the school, leaving 15 trailers destroyed or damaged but no one seriously hurt.

The tornado skipped across the street, moving at about 30 miles an hour. It bore down on the west wing of the main classroom building of High Point school.

Ten-year-old Elaine Johnson saw it coming. Her fourth grade class was lining up at the door to go to lunch. Elaine had the job that day of handing out their lunch tickets. On her way to the teacher's desk to get them, she was aware that the rain had stopped. She glanced at the window and saw the tornado, "a big gray mass coming across the field." She couldn't move. A boy came over to see what she was looking at and yelled to the teacher who grabbed Elaine and pushed her under a table, just as a tree fell through the roof where she stood.

In the cafeteria, Betty Altopp and her staff were serving lunch when the lights went out. The dining room went dark and filled with the screams of 200 frightened children. The school's clocks stopped at 11:47.

A teacher and the vice principal ran in the door and yelled at the children to get under the tables. Betty Altopp came out of the kitchen and froze. Trees were passing in front of the window. Not branches, entire trees. She crawled under the table trying to comfort children who were howling for their mothers.

In Room B-14, Betty Lovely was praying. Her kindergarten students were screaming. The air filled with a horrible roar as the tornado, bypassing the cafeteria and an adjacent kindergarten pod, plowed into the classroom wing. In seconds it tore the roof off the building, blew out the windows and collapsed the walls. Bricks and cement blocks crashed to the ground. A tree sailed through the room. The tornado moved on, raining debris on the library building behind the classroom wing.

Betty Lovely struggled to her feet and looked around. All around her, bleeding, terrified children were screaming. But Timmy Duval, the birthday boy, and Garey Staly, 5, who had to be the man of the house while his Dad was overseas, weren't moving. Scotty Wilmot, 6, the little artist, was badly hurt too.

Olney Arnold, the principal of High Point Elementary, had been spending the day at a principals' meeting next door at the Pinellas Vocational Technical Institute. He was sitting in the cafeteria when he heard an explosion coming from his school. He got up and ran outside and looked across the field at the west classroom wing.

"It was gone. There was nothing. Just debris, bricks, glass and wood, cement. It was just a pile and people were rummaging through the pile. There were kids under it," he says.

Across the street in the High Point Village Mobile Home Park, parts of trailers were tangled in overhead power lines. In the school parking lot, cars were stacked on top of one another. A tree branch speared a car windshield.

As suddenly as it happened, it was over. The tornado's path snaked for just a mile and a a half. At its widest it was never more than 400 yards across. But it left an awesome illustration of fury. No one has ever been able to measure the strength of a tornado; a scale of 0-5 is based on an estimate made by assessing damage. The High Point tornado, which caused an estimated $3-million damage, was classified a 3, with winds estimated at 150-200 miles per hour. It demolished nine classrooms and devastated the library. Seven buses in a school district garage behind the elementary school were battered, the garage itself leveled. High Point textbooks were found four miles away. The tornado drilled single pine needles into tree trunks.

In the rubble of Mrs. Lovely's class, 5-year-old Lon Strickland couldn't find one of his tennis shoes. The immense suction of the tornado apparently tore it off, something that happened to many children that day. But Lon's sneakers were new, and he was afraid he would get into trouble for losing it. He began hunting through the debris until somebody told him to get out.

Hysterical children streamed into the cafeteria from Mrs. Lovely's class and the other demolished classrooms in the west wing, many bleeding from cuts from shattered windows. Kitchen workers tried to staunch the bleeding with tea towels.

Betty Altopp raced down the hall to the school office where a secretary told her the phones were dead. She ran outside to her car and grabbed the microphone of her CB radio, switching to Channel 19, an open access channel. "For God's sake, send help," she screamed. "High Point School's been hit by a tornado."

Down the hall from Mrs. Lovely's classroom, 10-year-old Elaine Johnson broke away from a teacher's grasp. She had to find her little brother, Lon Strickland, who was in kindergarten. "I got to Lon's room and there wasn't a room anymore. Just rubble. Everything was turned over."

The kindergarten students had name tags on the back of their chairs. She looked for Lon's. "It was covered in blood and turned over on the floor."

After she dropped off the cookies for Timmy's birthday party, Sue Duval had gone home. Around noon, she began to hear sirens but they were common near busy Roosevelt Boulevard; she didn't give them a second thought.

Her sister-in-law called to say she heard on the radio that a tornado had hit "High Point something." Mrs. Duval drove to the school. She noticed lots of traffic on 150th Avenue. She parked and began walking, then running.

At Westminster Apartments on Roosevelt Boulevard, Mickie Sabin found out about the tornado from a neighbor who had a police scanner.

Mrs. Sabin had two children at the school - Elaine Johnson and Lon Strickland. She pulled on clothes, forgetting shoes, and jumped in her car. Traffic clogged the road in front of the school so she parked in front of the Vo-Tech center and ran around to the open field bordering the elementary school and saw Mrs. Lovely's classroom.

'My child's schoolroom was gone," she says. "There was just nothing there, except rubble. It was like a bomb had gone off. I did what every red-blooded American mother did, and went straight to pieces. I just stood there and screamed."

All around her, from every direction, parents streamed into the area, like a crowd rushing onto the playing field after a football game. Many swooped up injured children and took them home without notifying school officials. From the Vo-Tech, students and teachers came running. Fire engines, ambulances, police cars raced to the school.

High Point Fire Chief Robert Preston was on his way to a brush fire when a call about a roof blown off at the elementary school came over his radio. It wasn't until he saw the classroom wing that he realized what he had on his hands. "It looked like a war zone," he says.

By then, a busload of injured students had already been rushed away to a hospital, but frantic parents kept arriving, looking for their children.

"It was totally uncontrollable. There was nothing you could do out there. Even when we had law enforcement on the scene, people would not obey the ropes and barriers. We were powerless to do anything about it.

They were knocking deputy sheriffs down. They wanted to start searching through the rubble," says Preston.

After the power failed in her home, Diana Quinlavin, the mother of David, a kindergartener, and Robert, a first-grader, wondered if a plane had crashed at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport two miles away. She didn't know what had happened until another neighbor drove up with her sons and carried her son David inside. "He was covered with gravel. It was just caked in his hair," she says.

Sue Duval couldn't find her son. Her daughter Theresa had been taken home with a friend, but nobody would tell her where Timmy was.

She wanted to go to his classroom, but they told her she had to wait at the Vo-Tech center. On the way over, she saw the classroom wing.

Looking at the destruction, she said to herself, "There's no way anybody could have lived through that."

Timmy didn't. Struck by falling debris, he never regained consciousness. He died on his sixth birthday in Clearwater Community Hospital.

Ninety-four children were brought to area hospitals and released after treatment. Fourteen children and two teachers were hospitalized, including Betty Lovely, who suffered a leg wound, but was too busy identifying her students for hospital officials to notice her injury until later that afternoon. At Morton Plant hospital, Elaine Johnson saw a firefighter carry her brother Lon in. His face was cut and bricks had battered his body, but he was safe. At Vo-Tech, Mickie Sabin and other parents waited for word. They didn't know if their children were dead, or badly hurt or had just gone home with a neighbor. With phones out, police had to relay information about the location of children over their radios. "Police officers were bringing in names written on napkins, paper towels, Styrofoam cups, envelopes," says Mrs. Sabin. "It was a nightmare."

By 6:15 p.m. she and one other woman were the only ones left. A state trooper came in and said, "Which of you is Mrs. Staly?"

"I am," the woman said.

"We have your son."

Pat Staly hugged Mickie Sabin.

"Oh Pat," Mrs. Sabin remembers saying. "I'm so thankful."

A few moments later, Mrs. Sabin's husband walked in with her daughter Elaine and son Lon. It wasn't until she got home and turned on the television that she learned that Mrs. Staly's son Garey was dead.

Scotty Wilmot died in the hospital nine days later. As she had for Timmy Duval and Garey Staly, the two other boys from her kindergarten class, Mrs. Lovely attended the funeral in her wheelchair.

May 5, 1978 dawned bright and clear, a gorgeous spring day.

To Sue Duval, it seemed an outrage. She walked outside and saw the world behaving as if everything were normal. Watching people drive by, she wanted to scream: "Don't they know my son was killed yesterday.

How can they be going on with their lives like this. Everything should stop."


High Point Elementary's students and staff spent the next school year commuting to an abandoned school in Gulfport. They returned to High Point in September 1979 after the classrooms destroyed by the tornado had been rebuilt.

But the aftereffects of the tornado continued to be felt by those who lived through it. "When it would storm or rain some would get upset and cry, the kids would want somebody to hold them, especially the little ones," says Betty Altopp, one of a handful of staffers who stayed on. "You tried to show you weren't scared, and yet your insides were shaking."

Olney Arnold is principal of Westgate Elementary School in St. Petersburg today. On stormy days, the events of May 4, 1978 all come back to him.

"I don't know of anything anyone could have done differently ...

The only way it could have been prevented was to have kept all the children home, he says. What would the rationale have been? We have lots of windy, stormy-looking days without having tornadoes."

Betty Altopp keeps a portable radio in her kitchen at High Point Elementary. "When it gets stormy, I turn it on."

Sue Duval and her daughter Theresa, now 18, cherish mementos of Timmy, like his drawing of Curious George on a chalkboard. Her son Lee Timothy, born five months after Timmy died, plays with some of his toys.

Elizabeth Lovely, 68, never returned to the classroom. "I was so nervous I knew I never could go back," she says, sitting in the living room of her St. Petersburg home, where the walls are dotted with pictures of her children and grandchildren. "It was the worst day of my life. I don't think I'll ever get over it, but I can think of it and not cry, hopefully."

David Quinlavin, 15, is a sophomore at Pinellas Park High School.

He thinks the experience may have helped him cope when a student opened fire in the crowded cafeteria in February, killing an assistant principal and wounding two other teachers. "It was kind of the same," David says. "People were scared, didn't want to come back to school."

"I've been through it before," he says. "It seemed to be easier for me to handle than most kids."

For years after the tornado destroyed his classroom, Lon

Strickland would take his shoes off and clutch them to his chest when storms blackened the sky, fearful he might lose them again. "I don't think I'll ever forget it no matter how much I try," says Lon, 15, who now lives in an Atlanta suburb.

Only recently he stopped having this recurring nightmare: It's Christmas and he is sitting under the tree, playing with his toys. Suddenly the tree begins to spin and is transformed into a whirling funnel that sucks his shoes off. "It always wake me up," Lon says.

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