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Wedding bells ring louder than wind

A tornado Saturday nearly unraveled Ken Fliss' plan to get hitched, but his friend's 1992 Ford Explorer got him to the wedding only a half-hour late.

About two hours before he was to be married, Fliss, a Pinellas County Jail corrections officer, and George Koder, a Clearwater police officer, got caught in a tornado that damaged buildings on 126th Avenue just west of U.S. 19 on Saturday morning.

The wedding was scheduled for 2 p.m. at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Largo. About 11:30 a.m., the two men went to the Tampa Bay Conference Center at 6152 126th Ave. N near Largo, where Fliss' reception was to be held, to leave Fliss' Blazer. In his Explorer, Koder followed Fliss to pick him up.

As they pulled into the parking lot at the center, a swirling cloud about five stories high rose above the building.

"There were shingles, metal and all kinds of stuff swirling around," Koder said. "It was real dark right there. It was incredible. You could hear metal breaking off the roof of the building next to the center."

Fliss, 24, jumped out of his Blazer and sprinted toward Koder's heavier truck. A piece of flying debris hit him. He fell, hitting his knee, and grabbed a tree to hold on against the wind. Finally, he made it to Koder's truck.

"We huddled underneath the dash," Koder said. "When it got closer, you could hear this loud wind noise."

A tree fell on one side of the truck, breaking a window. One by one, all the glass was shattered except the windshield.

"It must have lasted four or five minutes," said Koder, 26. "I was worried metal would hit the truck because there was so much stuff flying around. It was really intense."

When it was over, the men checked to see if anyone needed help. Then they hurried to get Fliss to a hotel where a limousine was scheduled to pick him up to take him to the church.

At the church, the power was off. But as the wedding of Fliss and Karen Brisbois, a nurse at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, began, power was restored. The couple's reception was held at the Holiday Inn on Madeira Beach, and they are now honeymooning in Tennessee.

"It's a day they won't forget," Koder said.