Advertisement
  1. Archive

Memories blown away in an instant

With the sun beating down on the 4-inch gash across his forehead, Harry Sieg scavenged through his flattened home searching for memories.

He dusted off the brown officer's hat he wore as a Navy lieutenant fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. He found one of his wife's precious vases. Then he noticed the Masonic ashtray his father-in-law had given him.

It was all too much.

Sieg turned his face, trying to hide the tears that were filling his eyes.

"Excuse me," he said.

At 72, Sieg and his wife, Rita, are starting over. Sorting through the debris that was left after a tornado obliterated their Pinellas Park mobile home, the couple is piecing together the 45 years they shared. In 30 seconds, exactly 12 years after they moved into their home, nature unraveled a lifetime.

When it was over, Sieg was left battered, bloodied and bruised. He could not stop shaking for days. His wife, driving back from the hairdresser's when the tornado struck, arrived home to find a heap of twisted metal and splintered wood.

One of the Sieg's neighbors and another friend at the Park Royale Mobile Home Village were dead, 96 of the 309 homes were totaled and 60 more were damaged. Everyone who lived there was numb. All are over age 55, many in their 70s or 80s.

"There were so many people who just went through the same thing," said Rita Castellano, a 70-year-old neighbor and friend of the Siegs. "It's very hard for a lot of people to pick up and start over again. You think you have finally found your place _ where you can stay. These people all thought they were set for the rest of their lives."

Building a life

The Siegs were no different from many of their neighbors. They expected their move to Pinellas Park to be their last. They had moved often in their lives, each time leaving behind friends, neighbors and good times.

Both graduated from Calumet High School on Chicago's south side. But it would take years and the end of World War II before they would meet.

Mrs. Sieg went to work in her parent's bakery after graduating. Sieg studied mechanical engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he was sent to the South Pacific. He became a torpedo expert, a lieutenant and served at Guadalcanal.

A talkative, funny man, Sieg tried to pick up the morale of the troops.

"I remember a couple of good parties he threw on the islands," said Paul Buerckholtz, 73, a lifelong friend who also served in the South Pacific and now lives in Chicago. "There was a lot of drinking. He's a great one for jokes _ telling jokes."

When the war was over, Sieg and Buerckholtz returned to Chicago. They drank, dated and danced. At one of those dances, Sieg met his future wife.

"When he called me for a date, he asked if I had a friend," Mrs. Sieg said.

The "friend" was for Buerckholtz. For the next year or so, the two couples often double dated, stopping by the officers' club at the elegant Knickerbocker Hotel in downtown Chicago and dancing to big band music.

Both couples eventually married. The Siegs had a simple evening ceremony at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Chicago on June 14, 1947. About 150 friends and relatives attended.

The Siegs went to the Smoky Mountains for their honeymoon, then moved into a small apartment in Chicago. Sieg became a salesman, working for several companies and dealing with engineers. Mrs. Sieg got a job with the Northern Trust Co.

"We were struggling," she said. "You tried to save as much money as you could. You tried to get ahead. But you were lucky if you made $300 a month if you were a man _ $200 a month if you were a woman."

They bought their first home after saving for eight years. It was a five-room, one-story, brick ranch house in Westchester, at the western edge of Chicago. They lived there for 17 years.

When they found out they couldn't have children, the Siegs decided to adopt: First Dale, in 1957, then Karen, four years later.

Mrs. Sieg left her job, and for the next few years life for the Siegs involved church socials, PTA meetings and work. Their neighborhood was young, middle class and their children had plenty of friends. School was only 1 mile from home.

In 1972 the Siegs moved to Huntingdon Valley in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Eventually, they bought a new house for $76,000. It was a brick tri-level with a kidney shaped swimming pool on three-quarters of an acre surrounded by hemlock, pine and blue spruces.

They entertained friends around the pool. Mrs. Sieg played bridge and took care of the children. Her husband, after years of working for other people, started his own business, a company that manufactured ticket machines for parking lots.

At 60, Sieg figured he could retire. Banks were paying 16 or almost 17 percent interest on savings in the early '80s. With that money, some investments and money from the sale of their home, the Siegs moved to Florida. They decided to join Sieg's mother in Pinellas County. They wanted to travel, play golf and savor the warm weather.

They priced condominiums, houses and mobile homes. They settled for a $26,500 mobile home on lot 299 at the Park Royale Mobile Home Village off 66th Street N.

All the residents were required to be 55 and older. There were shuffleboard and bowling leagues, monthly catered dinners in the clubhouse adjacent to the swimming pool, coffee and doughnuts on Saturday, burgers and hot dogs on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Residents felt safe. The park is well-lighted and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Residents rode their bikes or walked around the mobile homes at all hours of the night and early morning.

"Being a small community, which this park was, it was like family," said Mrs. Castellano, the Siegs' friend. "We knew everybody."

Like a bomb

Oct. 3, shortly before noon, all that changed.

Even though it was raining, Mrs. Sieg decided to keep an appointment with her hairdresser. Sieg was in the kitchen going through the mail.

"I thought to myself, "That mailman is really something to be delivering mail in this kind of weather,'

" he said.

Then the lights went on and off, on and off. Sieg walked toward the living room and saw the front porch blown south. Perhaps because he had been used to diving into foxholes in the South Pacific, Sieg got down on the floor and pulled a La-Z-Boy on top of himself. The window imploded and glass fleweverywhere.

"I didn't know whether it was a bomb or a tornado," Sieg said. "When it was all over, I pushed the chair off me. I looked up and saw the blue sky. No walls. I felt the blood running down the side of my face."

Nothing was left of his home. The walls were gone, dishes were shattered and furniture had been tossed around the lawn. Sieg got up and walked barefoot through the glass, nails and jagged metal to a neighbor's house.

He asked for a towel. His head was bleeding badly. Sieg, who takes medication that thins his blood, was terrified he might bleed to death.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Sieg arrived. She saw their flattened home and her bleeding husband. All she could say was, "Oh no. Oh no."

Mrs. Sieg drove her husband to Metropolitan General Hospital in Pinellas Park, where Sieg got nine stitches.

Other residents were less fortunate. Two of the four people who died in the tornado lived at the park, including 80-year-old Amelia "Millie" Riehl. She and her husband, William, lived behind the Siegs. Her body was found several days later about 100 feet north of the Sieg's former home. Sixteen other people, including three who had heart attacks, were transported to hospitals.

Residents stumbled into park manager Judy Fitzgerald's office.

"My God, do you believe it?" they told her.

"We had a particularly hard year anyway with a lot of people dying," Mrs. Fitzgerald said. "The first group came here in their 60s. Now they're in their 80s."

Homeless residents moved in with friends and relatives. Some went to hotels. Those who still had homes were left without electricity. Many met at the clubhouse, eating the free sandwiches, chips and sodas various groups donated. They gathered at the tables where they had so often met to play cards, dine and chat.

"A lot of these people lived here 20 years," Mrs. Fitzgerald said. "Then they all just got blown away. Some of them are still dazed. They don't know which end is up."

Starting over at 72

The Siegs moved into a friend's vacant mobile home a few blocks away. They slowly are putting their lives back together. Four days after the tornado struck, they went to Mrs. Castellano's house for a dinner of roast pork, baked potatoes, green beans, salad, ice cream and coffee.

"He (Sieg) was still shaking," Mrs. Castellano said.

Over dinner, the Sieg's talked about moving. They decided to make no quick decisions. Sieg's 96-year-old mother still lives in Clearwater. He doesn't want to leave her. Their daughter, who has two young children, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband.

"We just don't know what we're going to do," Sieg said. "Here I am, starting all over again."

The tornado flattened their mobile home, smashed one of their cars and carried away their memories.

For days they searched through the rubble looking for the keepsakes and knickknacks that had made their house a home.

Mrs. Sieg lost much of her collection of cups and saucers: a Meissen cup and saucer inherited from an aunt, a collection of English cups and saucers that her parents gave her. And she never found a cup and saucer from her sister-in-law.

They expect their insurance company to reimburse them for the cost of their mobile home and give them enough to replace their personal property. They made a list of the belongings they lost. They photographed the heap that was their home. They replaced the medicine that was lost in the storm. They are trying to compile a list of the addresses and phone numbers they collected in a lifetime.

Deciding where to live is much more difficult. A lot of their neighbors are moving away. The Siegs considered Hot Springs, Ark. They liked the trees, the hills and the golf courses they saw during a visit.

They also thought about moving into a condominium or buying a house. But for financial reasons, they may end up living in another mobile home.

"Whatever we buy now will be almost two or three times what we paid," Mrs. Sieg said.

One day last week, Sieg returned to the site of his former home. He watched as his son-in-law searched through the metal in the hot sun.

"I used to sit on this porch," Sieg said. He used to wave at his friend, Frank. He would say hello to Bill and Millie Riehl.

"I lost all that now," Sieg said. "I probably won't see half of these people again. They're gone."

Tears came to his eyes.

"They'll come with a bulldozer," Sieg said. "I don't know."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement