911 callers recount terrifying minutes after tornado hits

Published: Jan. 11, 2012 at 10:40 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2012 at 10:40 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A rare January storm containing three tornadoes surprised parts of western NC on Wednesday -- with the tornadoes reported in Burke, Rutherford and -- as of Friday -- Caldwell counties, officials said.

The major damage and injuries came from tornadoes in Burke and Rutherford, while the tornado in Caldwell County caused damage on Lake Hickory and was only identified by the weather service two days later. (More details: Lake Hickory tornado)

The National Weather service confirms a tornado hit Rutherford County on Wednesday evening with E-F scale rating of EF2, wind speeds of 115 miles per hour. A similar tornado hit minutes later in eastern Burke County with 130 mph winds, causing most damage in the Hildebran community near I-40.

Related story: Wall collapses on elderly woman

The EF2 tornado touched down near Ellenboro, the NWS confirmed. An EF2 scale tornado falls between 111 mph and 135 mph.

Sheriff's Sgt. Dwayne Wright told WSPA that 10 people were injured in Ellenboro, two of them seriously. Also in Rutherford County, at least 10 buildings were damaged, WSPA reported.

Barbara Henderson, an elderly woman was injured in the storm. 

WEB EXTRA: Click here to see viewer video of tornado outside Ellenboro

She was inside her home, which she shares with her husband, when the storm hit. (Read that story)

As the couple was attempting to take cover, a wall of the home fell and trapped her inside the home.

David Henderson tells a 911 dispatcher that he can speak to Barbara but can't see her. "Just tell her we have help on the way," a dispatcher said.

Samantha Owens, her four children and mother were thrown from their mobile home. In a 911 call, Owens tells a dispatcher she can't find her mother or her children. Two were pinned under a TV.

"I was horrified and scared. I didn't really know what had happened," Owens said.

Another calls says, "We had a tornado touch down, down here in Ellenboro..parts of the house are up in the trees. It's unbelievable."

In Burke County, at least 16 homes were destroyed with another 50+ with either moderately or minor or moderate damage, Burke Co. EMS told WBTV. Five people were injured in the reported tornadoes that hit Burke Co.

Members of the American Red Cross responded to the emergency also. An emergency shelter was set up at First Baptist Church located on Highway 70 in Icard. As of 9 p.m. the Red Cross said 20 people have checked in to the shelter.

One of those displaced at the shelter, Casondra Mingus described what she saw.

"As (we) were leaving our development, we saw the clouds circling up above.  We went to the middle school for shelter, and when we got back to our house, we heard that our house was destroyed."

Christina Lowman was also there when the storm struck.

"You could see the clouds actually turning, it was like, I don't know.  It was something from a nightmare."

Kaye Hilderbran lost everything in Wednesday's storm, and is now calling the inside of her small car home.

"There's nothing left." Hinderbran said.  "I don't know...I just don't know."

The fear for many people is what they were going to find when the sun came up in the morning.  Whether they had repairs that needed to be done, or if everything was gone.

"People are uncertain." said Charles Avery with the American Red Cross.  "They don't know what to expect the next morning.  Most of the people came here (the Red Cross Shelter) when it was dark, so they don't know how much damage was done to their home."

Damage included several homes that were destroyed and a family trapped in their basement as they were sheltering from the storms.

Gov. Bev Perdue saw the damage firsthand with emergency management officials in Ellenboro and Hildebran Thursday.

The disaster started when a tornado warning was issued around 5:40 p.m. and ran until 6:45 p.m. for six counties in the WBTV viewing area, according to the National Weather Service.

The storms created dramatic scenes across Alexander, Catawba, Caldwell, Cleveland, Lincoln and Burke counties.

The damage from tornadoes was reported in Icard, in Burke County, and Ellenboro in Rutherford County, which is just west of Cleveland County.

In Burke County, just south of Icard on the George Hildebran School Road, a home was destroyed and just streets away on Old Laurel Road a home was moved about 15 feet off its foundation, injuring 2 people inside, according to WBTV's Steve Ohnesorge.

A mobile home was reported to have rolled over in Burke County and in another case a family was trapped in their basement after they sought refuge from the storms there.

In that same area south of Icard a man said that the winds of the storm picked up his car and moved it from beside his house to an area down a hill -- but caused no significant damage to the vehicle.

A structure collapse with some injuries was reported in the 6900 block of Bradshaw Road. Burke rescue crews were coordinating near the George Hildebran Elementary School

The Burke County Sheriff's Office Facebook page asked people not to go sightseeing if they do not live in areas with damage.

Three boats were flipped over in the middle of Lake Hickory along with a house boat, according to WBTV viewer Lily Bartlett, who lives on the lake.

The community of Ellenboro, where the now confirmed EF2 tornado hit, had heavy reports of damage, according to the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office.

For people in South Carolina, Wednesday night's storms were a familiar reminder of the deadly tornadoes that struck just two months ago.

On November 16, a deadly EF2 tornado hit York County, killing three people.

Related article: SC twister victims still cleaning up 2 months later

The Rock Hill tornado followed a two and a half mile path, about 200 yards wide.  At the time, York County emergency management estimated the community suffered about $770,000 in uninsured losses.

Reminders are everywhere, even two months later, of the power of the 135 mile and hour winds that threw a mobile home over their heads.

Though clean up seem to be an ongoing process in South Carolina, victims of the storm say there is some good that came out of the storm - something that victims in North Carolina can hold on to.

"There were a lot of volunteers," said Judy Ferrell. "We did have a lot of people that helped us that we didn't know who they were and no way to thank them."

She says that's stronger than any wind that can destroy a house.

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