VAN WERT, Ohio – The warm November air and sun made him uneasy.
Rick McCoy can’t explain why, but when he walked out of Redeemer Lutheran Church just outside of Convoy, Ohio, a decade ago today, he knew something bad was on the way.
He just had no idea how bad.
It’s an instinct, a feeling, McCoy says now. The way the air felt – that real warm, humid feeling. It just felt eerie out there.
McCoy left the church right before noon on that Sunday.
Within an hour, the Van Wert County Emergency Management director was in his office, poring over weather radar images and speaking over the emergency scanner with police officers and firefighters.
He tracked storms over Indiana. He listened as tornadoes touched down in Berne and Hartford City. He watched a super cell develop as it headed his way.
At one point, a sheriff’s deputy told McCoy a twister had touched down near the Indiana-Ohio line but had gone back up into the sky. Shortly thereafter, it touched down again and the worst came.
At 3:28 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2002, a tornado with winds between 207 mph and 260 mph ripped through Van Wert County, leaving a swath of leveled buildings, injuries and two deaths in its wake.
A decade later, people like McCoy, who still is the county’s emergency management director, remember the destruction brought by the storm, which was one of the worst – if not the worst – recorded in the area.
People like McCoy remember the rebuilding that came afterward, and more importantly, they remember it as a time when the community came together in the face of disaster to save each other.
My fear was, are people taking heed and listening to the warnings and protecting themselves? McCoy said of his thoughts before the storm hit.
You don’t know that until after the fact.
Cinema in ruins
Jim Boyd has spent the week in Arizona looking for used equipment.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and his van parked outside Van Wert Cinemas is full of digital projectors and digital servers that 50 years ago he never imagined he’d have to buy.
To keep his five-screen independent cinema open, he’s got to make the conversion from celluloid to digital, and it’s costing him a pretty penny.
A tornado took my theater down 10 years ago, and now another one has come through, he says. This time, it’s from the movie studios.
The tornado that swept through a decade ago left Boyd’s cinema in ruins and killed an 18-year-old college student who was driving his car along Lincoln Highway nearby.
But Boyd’s cinema was also the scene of heroics that caught national attention.
At the end of a sold-out showing of The Santa Clause 2 and a few other movies, roughly 60 patrons – many of them children – began to filter out into the cinema’s lobby.
Scott Shaffer, a then-26-year-old employee for the theater, had been monitoring the weather over the radio. He told patrons they could leave if they wanted, but he also offered the theater as a haven until the storm broke.
He also checked all screens to make sure no stragglers were left inside the more dangerous areas of the building.
Outside the theater in the parking lot, a part-time emergency medical technician whom the Toledo Blade identified as Rick Busch had just gotten out of his car when he spotted the tornado.
He ushered others who had left the theater back inside.
Moments later, with people huddled in bathrooms, corridors and the lobby, the roof of the building peeled away and the cars of employees were thrown through a screen and into the theater.
Those cars landed right on top of theater seats that minutes before had been occupied by moviegoers.
This is where those cars went, Boyd said, motioning to newer front-row seats in Screen 1 of his theater. They were right here.
At the time, Shaffer, who reportedly moved out of the area and could not be reached for this story, said the staff had gone over the disaster plan just a couple weeks before. No one at the time had taken it seriously.
I just did what we were told, he said days after the tornado, referring to his actions.
‘Word got out’
Other stories began making the rounds soon thereafter.
One man opened his basement to neighbors fleeing the twister, ending up with about eight people inside.
In nearby Seneca County, Ohio, where 49 buildings were destroyed, residents were warned of an incoming tornado when an emergency dispatcher in the Tiffin area went against her department’s protocol and sounded warning sirens after seeing ominous clouds out her window.
In the upstairs of a rural Van Wert home, 75-year-old Alfred Germann used his body to shield his wife in a wheelchair as the storm slammed into the couple’s house.
Flying debris struck Germann in the back of his head, and he died.
McCoy said police officers and firefighters were out in the county acting as spotters, looking for tornadoes, with one crew even having to take cover under a bridge as the twister passed over them.
They communicated directly to him, and he would try to issue warnings that he hoped would reach residents.
He sounded the tornado warning sirens at 3:02 p.m., just as the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning and 26 minutes before the tornado cut through the area.
Just a year before, McCoy had spearheaded an effort to prepare the area for severe storms by getting area businesses equipped with weather alert radios – one of which Shaffer had been listening to in the movie theater.
But again, McCoy’s biggest fear was, would people heed the warnings?
Word got out, McCoy said. Everybody was sharing. They were calling each other and getting each other to safe locations.
Like McCoy, Rick Anderson remembers the odd, balmy weather outside and also described an eerie feeling as that Sunday unfolded. And like many others, he and his wife, Lynn, opened their basement to neighbors as the weather turned ominous.
The siren went off and we took it for real, he said. Everybody was taking it for real.
The group in the basement listened to a radio as spotters reported the tornado heading toward Van Wert’s Vision Industrial Park, where Anderson worked at National Door and Trim.
It also happened to be where Anderson’s brother-in-law, Mike Thomas, was supposed to be that day, sending both his and his wife’s minds reeling.
We didn’t know for sure if he was there or not, Anderson said. We couldn’t call. The phones weren’t working. You just felt helpless. There’s nothing you can do. You just had to wait until the sirens stopped and you could go out.
Like Boyd’s movie theater, the industrial complex was ripped to shreds. The devastation was hard for Anderson to fathom, he said. Nothing taller than 10 feet was left standing.
It wasn’t real until you saw it, Anderson said.
His brother-in-law was indeed at the industrial complex. He hid underneath a steel mezzanine during the storm and had to be dug out by rescue workers, Anderson said.
And while alive, he was paralyzed from injuries he suffered in the destruction.
He’s doing really well coping with it, Anderson said.
Boyd was not at his movie theater when the storm hit.
He and his wife were getting ready to take his mother out to dinner about a mile away from the tornado site when he told them to take shelter inside.
Meanwhile, he stood on the stoop of his mother’s house and watched the clouds until he heard the classic rumble that goes with the likelihood of a tornado.
Afterward, Boyd and his wife made their way through streets littered with felled power lines, trees, parts of homes and cars and then through a police barricade to their theater. Along with the theater, a drive-in owned by the Boyds as well as their home next door were destroyed.
Well, when you’ve been up here for 13 or 14 years, and you see essentially everything is gone, it’s just hard to describe, said Boyd, who has been in the movie theater business for 50 years and had come to Van Wert in 1988. How do you recover?
Slowly, for some.
It took Boyd two years to rebuild and reopen the theater.
He encountered snags with loans and aid from the federal government along the way, noting that he was trying to be as meticulous as possible in filling out paperwork and trying to meet the guidelines he was told to follow.
Among those guidelines, he said, was that the building had to be almost exactly as it had been before the storm.
We were not in a good financial position when the tornado hit us, Boyd said. I was carrying a lot of extra debt. Then, the first loan officer I talked to about a (U.S. Small Business Administration) loan cautioned me to get everything right before we signed. Five officers later, a new one is saying sign and we’ll change as we go.
Meanwhile, he never rebuilt the drive-in, and he and his wife moved into a new home nearby.
National Door and Trim moved into a temporary building for six months, Anderson said of the business where he still works.
Soon, Vision Industrial Park was rebuilt and companies that had been there, National Door and Trim included, began moving back into their old spots, according to Anderson.
Why Van Wert?
Rick McCoy became fascinated with tornadoes when he first saw The Wizard of Oz on television.
The 53-year-old got his first real-life taste of a twister when, as a 6-year-old shooting off fireworks in Van Wert, he heard the roar and then stood outside and watched a funnel cloud pass directly over his boyhood home.
After that, he always watched the news for the weather, marking up maps of the United States with warm fronts and cold fronts, storms and temperatures – some of which he still has tucked away somewhere.
It’s amazing I didn’t get my full meteorologist degree, he says now.
He called Van Wert the tornado capital of Ohio, making mention of notable tornadoes that touched down in the area on Palm Sunday in 1965 and another in April 1974. The one that touched down in 2002 was deemed an F4 tornado, a step below the most destructive rating.
And it’s hard to say why the Van Wert area seems rife with tornadoes.
Mike Sabones, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service office in Syracuse, said tornadoes are relatively rare and that storm data might smooth out over time.
In other words, what humans have been able to record in the area in a relatively small amount of time might just be an anomaly.
There are other theories. One is that wind currents from Lake Michigan collide with cold and warm fronts moving over Indiana and into Ohio, adding fuel for potential storms, McCoy said.
But that’s pure speculation.
What else is pure speculation, but something McCoy believes, is that it’s only a matter of time before Van Wert gets hit severely again, which is why he spends his time trying to make sure the county is as prepared as possible.
And that means getting more tornado sirens for the county and equipment that can track storms with the latest technology. It means getting his agency on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
It means recommending every homeowner get a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather alert radio, which he says are just as important as smoke alarms.
It means he’s still constantly watching the weather.
It’s just a matter of time before something like that happens again, he said.
And like last time, he plans to be ready.