SUFFOLK, Va. — It was a scene of haphazard destruction that stretched for 25 miles: Row upon row of homes reduced to sprays of splintered lumber, shopping centers stripped to bare metal, parking lots turned into junkyards.
And yet no one died.
"The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed," fire Chief Mark Outlaw said Tuesday.
Even among the 200 people who were injured, most suffered only cuts and scrapes. But at least a dozen people remained hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.
Authorities said people in the tornado's path had plenty of warning and were fortunate that the twister struck in the late afternoon, rather than at night, when most residents would have been sleeping.
The extra few minutes provided enough time for people in the storm's path to huddle in bathrooms or crouch in the back of stores as the strongest of six twisters zigzagged for 25 miles across central and southeast Virginia.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas, said about 145 homes were severely damaged in Suffolk, a city of 80,000 people west of Norfolk.
"It is kind of amazing there weren't more significant injuries," Kaine said on WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. "You are talking about 145 homes; that is probably five to six hundred people directly affected by this tornado."
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Brenda Williams, 43, had been getting a manicure at a nail shop in Suffolk when the lights went out and she saw debris flying in the wind around the parking lot. She rushed to the back of the shop for safety, but the ceiling collapsed, burying her. She wasn't sure how long she was trapped. She prayed, then hollered when she heard footsteps. A stranger pulled her out.
"I'm not lucky, I'm blessed," said Williams, who had a 2-inch gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. "I'm fine. I'm here. I'm in the land of the living."
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Naomi Britt, who cares for an 87-year-old woman, was at the woman's home in a Suffolk subdivision when she heard what she thought was an 18-wheeler.
"I grabbed her by the hand and said, 'Let's go,' " said Britt, 60. She led the woman into a bathroom just as the lights failed.
"I got down as far as I could and we just held hands and prayed," she said.
After the roar had quieted, Britt opened the door to find rubble around her. Nothing remained of a neighbor's house but a cinderblock foundation.
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Retirees Joe and Ruth Silberholz jumped into a closet and slammed the door behind them as they heard the storm arrive. They emerged to find their home damaged but standing.
Their neighbors were not so lucky. The couple found a woman and her 3-year-old grandchild had been blown out of a sunroom in their house, landing 30 feet away. The woman was at the edge of a small lake, the child in its shallows.
"The house must have just exploded," Ruth Silberholz said.
The little girl was covered with blood from a cut, and she and her grandmother had only bumps and bruises.