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TORNADO AFTERMATH // Community gets in spirit

After Jack King read about a tornado that ripped through an eastern Hillsborough mobile home park over the weekend, destroying six homes and killing a man, he knew he had to help.

It didn't matter that he had to drive 60 miles to do it.

On Tuesday, King loaded a sofa bed into his pick-up truck and drove from his Largo home to the Summerfield Baptist Church in Riverview to donate it to storm victims.

"It's kind of thrilling to do something for someone," said King, 67. "I couldn't stand to think of the people who lost their mobile homes."

King wasn't the only one who went to great lengths to help residents in the Cowley Cove Mobile Home Park. By Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people had arrived at the church with clothing, food and furniture. One woman even offered 10 furnished mobile homes _ four more than were lost in the storm.

A Tampa woman wanted to give away her 1982 Mazda, and a Balm man donated his mobile home to the cause. The church received everything from beds, sofas and dressers to books, bicycles and toys. Two large rooms and a separate building at the church were stacked full of donations from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

"You'd have never thought people would get together and do so much so quickly," said Patti Rooke, 34, who lost her home in the tornado. "You can call it the Christmas spirit, but you never would have guessed anything like this."

The twister touched down at Cowley Cove, off U.S. 301 north of Big Bend Road, just before 3 p.m. Saturday, violently tossing mobile homes and cars throughout the park. Gary Lee Davis, 50, of 10005 Cowley Cove Drive, died in the destruction.

"It's the scariest thing I have ever been through," said Cindy Wallace, 34, who was inside her home when the tornado lifted it from the ground. "I felt like it was the end of the world."

As residents struggled to sift through their belongings Tuesday, Marlene Taylor, 41, set up a command post at her home on Cowley Cove Drive to offer sandwiches and assistance to families and workers.

"It's just been a mess out here, it really has," said Taylor, whose home received some damage. "These people are devastated. They have 14 days until Christmas, and they don't have anything."

Gennie Carpenter, who returned from Eckerd's late Saturday to find her home a pile of rubble, remembers digging around in the dark mud and driving rain to salvage family photographs as sheriff's deputies gently tried to guide her away.

"It was unbelievable. I was in such shock," Carpenter said. "I'm just so thankful to be alive."

The American Red Cross is providing food, clothing and housing to the victims until they can make other arrangements. The Baptist church is accepting donations because it is a disaster relief shelter for the agency.

"The community has poured out their hearts, pocketbooks and living rooms to these people," said Janet McGuire, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, Tampa Bay Chapter. "It's wonderful to see people do this at this time of year. When something happens like this it hits close to home."

Volunteers arrived throughout the day to provide emotional support for the families and help clear away the debris. A mile away at the church, dozens of people sorted through clothing and materials.

"I'm overwhelmed with the response. It's been tremendous," said Zenith Barnett, church secretary. "Maybe the reason they're giving more is because it's Christmas. They say they can't believe this happened to someone at Christmas."

Standing in the open lot where her mobile home once stood, Wallace's eyes well up with tears as she talks about living through the twister that took her neighbor's life.

"I feel very lucky to be alive," she said. "People say they are so sad because we lost everything, but we're alive. That's what's important."