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The wrath of Fran // Living and dying in storm's path

A Marine died, a child was born. A family huddled in the basement as trees crashed around them. Fran's reach was broad; the strength incredible; the pounding stamina unexpected.

From the moment she blasted ashore Thursday night, to Friday's morning hours, when she crept into Virginia as a tropical storm, the hurricane changed lives throughout eastern North Carolina.

At Wrightsville Beach, boats were wrenched from their marinas onto the highway. As the storm plowed northward, residents unaccustomed to the terror of hurricane-force winds listened to transformers pop and trees groan to the ground.

Fran landed at Southport, N.C., officially at 9 p.m., but hurricane-force winds had leveled trees, smashed boats and made "Silly String" of power lines well north and east of the eye.

About 9:30 p.m., three Marines were on their way to Camp Le Jeune as Fran unleashed her highest winds in Onslow County. They got a little disoriented. They thought they were crossing an elevated bridge to New River; instead they drove onto Topsail Island, evacuated and flooded for hours. With water surging around them, they scampered out of their car, trying to keep their footing by forming a human chain. It didn't work. Two of the soldiers, Lance Cpl. Steve A. Sears and Lance Cpl. Robert M. Smith, were swept away.

By 11 p.m., Fran had turned away from the coast and headed northwest toward the interior.

At 1:30 a.m., a very pregnant Tina Perry of Sameria, a small community in western Nash County, felt the approaching eye in a very personal way. As the low pressure eye steamed along a path southwest of Nash, her water broke. But when they left their home, Perry and her husband, Windell, found all the roads blocked by trees and downed power lines.

It took firefighters and rescue crews almost three hours to cut through enough trees to reach the couple. Then, by the time they got into a sheriff deputy's car, another tree fell across the road.

So they made their own path. "We're in a cop car going through a tobacco field just wide open, trying to get over to the ambulance," said Tina Perry.

In the early morning hours, Fran's winds started to rattle windows and shake rafters. At 2 a.m., Deborah Ellis and her son Sam, 7, were stunned by a "catastrophic sound" outside their house in Chapel Hill. In the front yard she found a twisted oak, the broken remains of a gas line dangling loosely at the top. She heard hissing and smelled gas.

Ellis grabbed her son, their dog, and a cellular phone and headed out the door. As they piled in the car, Ellis placed her key in the ignition, then froze.

"I thought, what if I turned on my ignition and there was a spark? We ran down to the corner _ trees were falling all over the place. I finally ran up on someone's porch," she said.

Ellis dialed 911 and soon a police officer picked them up. He tried to get them to the shelter, but the roads were blocked. He took them back to the police station instead.

Around 3 a.m., as the eye of the hurricane approached Raleigh, Larry Cope and his family were secure in the basement of their rural Garner home, but with dread they heard trees falling one by one.

"It's like a lumber mill come in here and cut them off from the bottom," said Cope. "The trees are stacked on top of one another."

At 5:15, Fran was downgraded to a tropical storm as it headed toward the Virginia border by way of Roxboro.

At first light, emergency workers in Topsail began hunting for the missing Marines. Bill Poe, deputy fire chief for the North Topsail Beach Island Fire Department, and another firefighter took a boat, and found Lance Cpl. William E. Sears IV, no relation to Steve Sears, clinging to the top of a tree in a flooded stretch off the Intracoastal waterway.

"We plucked him off the tree at 8 a.m. He said he'd been there since 10 last night," Poe said.

At 4 p.m. Friday, Tina Perry gave birth to a girl at Nash General Hospital. They considered calling her Fran, but decided against it. After the evening's escapade, Windel Perry said Brittany may be their first and last child.

"I don't think I want to go through this again," he said.

_ The story is from the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.)