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Tornado Kills Eight in Columbus County


Riegelwood, NC – Ryan Lacewell never saw the deadly tornado that passed a half-mile from his trailer. He did feel it, though.

"I didn't bother looking out the window. Everything in my house started shaking and everything so I got scared," he says, laughing at the memory.

"I knew something bad was happening, but I didn't know what."

Instead of finding shelter, Lacewell continued to get ready for work - today was supposed to be payday, after all. But when a friend arrived later to give him a ride, he came bearing stories of destruction from just up the road.

The tornado touched down a little before seven AM, ripping through a mobile home park on the outskirts of Riegelwood. This is a one-grocery town, as one resident put it - small and tight-knit.

As soon as the storm was over, cel phones around Riegelwood started ringing.

"Everybody was calling everybody, letting everybody know the storm had come through," resident Kevin Brown says.

Brown actually saw the twister, although he didn't realize it touched down until later. After finding out the tornado had killed a friend, and injured several family members, Brown, and his girlfriend Jeri Long, walked down to see the devastation.

"It's like three or four brick houses gone," Long says. "It looks like nothing is there at all. Them doublewides is gone... It was a brick two-story house, it's gone. It just look like there wasn't nothing there. It just looks terrible."

Brown chimes in: "Cars turned over and everything in the highway. I never in my life experienced nothing like this in my life."

By midmorning, emergency workers and law enforcement officers from scores of agencies were on the scene - some who's been called in, and some who'd just heard on the news and rushed to Riegelwood. Roads were blocked off, and the sheriff sailed high overhead, getting a helicopter view of damage.

At a press conference later in the day, sheriff Chris Batten described a corridor of destruction a half-mile wide and nearly a mile long.

"You have to keep these people in your hearts and your prayers," Batten said. "Because there's not only their lives... and their families that are effected, but all these people that lost their homes, they have to rebuild from scratch. And we all need to keep those in our thoughts and prayers."

Among the officials was a team from the National Weather Service, trying to discover if their tornado warning - issued at 6:29 Thursday morning - had come in time.

Meteorologist Michael Caropolo says that Southeastern twisters spin up much faster than those in the Midwest, making it harder to read to read the radar.

Caropolo describes Thursday's weather conditions as classic. A strong cold front hitting a plume of warm tropical air all mixed with a low level jet stream. The result, he says, "you get that quick spin up in the atmosphere and it can put down a tornado in a matter of minutes."

As the rain begins to fall from another wave of thunderstorms, Caropolo's colleague Thomas Matheson brings over a weather radio he's been showing to residents.

"If people had a weather radio, they would have been notified a good five minutes before the tornado touched down," Matheson says, adding that they make great Christmas gifts.

Matheson watches the road, where more emergency vehicles are slowly making their way toward the devastation. It feels personal, he says, realizing their warning didn't reach the people who needed it.