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Local News

March 5, 2012

Friday’s tornado kills five in East Bernstadt

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Severe storms clouded the sunset in Laurel County Friday evening and gave way to a fierce force of nature. The National Weather Service in Jackson, Ky. reported a funnel formed over Wood Creek Lake at around 7 p.m.  

Minutes later, a flash of lightning lit up the sky on Bentley Road in East Bernstadt that revealed a funnel whistling northeast from I-75 bound for eye-witness Aaron Holt’s home.

“It was horrific. We didn’t see it because it was so black and cloudy but when the lightning struck that’s when we saw it,” Holt said.

Aaron Holt and his wife, Tori, rode out the storm with about 10 of his closest neighbors in his basement.  Up the road, James Sawyers sat, bent over his bathtub in his double-wide trailer, praying.  

Sawyers was left with his life, but not much else.

“All I got left is me and my car,” he said on Saturday morning as he stood atop a littered ground where is trailer once stood.

Ethel Pruitt was not as lucky.

She was killed when the tornado destroyed her mobile home on Bentley Road.  Another occupant of the home was critically injured.

The tornado’s destructive path drew further northeast as it touched down on Old Hare Road, and then Little Arthur Ridge Road.

The tornado claimed the lives of five Laurel Countains, either that very night or by injuries sustained from the tornado.  Other fatalities were: Wilburn and Virginia “Lizzie” Pitman of Old Hare Road; and Sherman  Wayne and Debbie Allen of Little Arthur Ridge Road.

On Little Arthur Ridge Road, Candace Wright was about to head to neighbor Donald Rhode’s basement when the tornado whipped over the ridge, wiping away four mobile homes in its wake.  

“It was a loud roaring sound just like they say, like a train,” Wright said. “We just didn’t have time.”

Five people rode out the tornado in Rhodes’ basement on Little Arthur Ridge Road, just across the street from where Sherman Wayne and Debbie Allen were killed.

“We heard it coming and I tried to get everyone down in the basement,” Rhodes said. “It took me a while but I finally got everyone, including the dog.”

Rhode’s home was completely torn away by the tornado, leaving nothing but the basement walls where the five sought refuge.

“We got knocked around a bit and some stuff fell on us, but we all got out,” he said.

The Allens did not.

“We realized the Allens were missing so the men went looking for them.  They went down over the bank into the holler in the woods — that’s where they found them,” Wright said.

Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen along with their son Eric Allen and his fiancé Amy Harris were thrown from their mobile home they sought shelter within.  Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen were found dead late Friday night. Eric Allen and Harris were found soon after by emergency personnel and received treatment for their injuries.  

At that time, first responders across the county began pouring into East Bernstadt areas in droves.  Those found injured like Harris were flown to the UK Medical Center in Lexington.  Many roads such as Hawk Creek and Radford were tough to navigate through to retrieve families trapped and injured because of a heavy layer of debris and trees.  

At 8 p.m. many families emerged from their homes without power to ingest all that happened within a short hour and assisted with emergency personnel in finding lost neighbors.  Many worked through the night within pummeled neighborhoods, at designated shelters and local churches awaiting those displaced from their homes while Saint Joseph-London hospital was teeming with patients.  The Laurel County Road Department completely cleared the roads of all debris and as soon as the sun rose, emergency workers, volunteers from Jackson, Knox, Whitley, Clay counties as well as The Kentucky National Guard provided helping hands to those in need.  

“This has been one of the most devastating incidents we have had in Laurel County,” said Gilbert Acciardo, public affairs officer of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department.

Five fatalities have currently been confirmed in Laurel County, 41 injured, six of which were air-lifted to UK Medical Center and two are listed in critical condition.  Traffic control was provided on Saturday by Laurel County Sheriff’s Deputies, Kentucky State Police Troopers and Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officers, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentucky National Guard.  Assisting to confirm fatalities was Laurel County Coroner Doug Bowling and coordinating efforts were the Laurel County Emergency Management, Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, East Bernstadt Fire Department, Lily Volunteer Fire Department, Laurel County Fire Department, London-Laurel Rescue Squad, and McWhorter Volunteer Fire Department.  Many ambulances from Ambulance Inc. of Laurel County as well as ambluances from Knox, Whitley Jackson and Clay counties assisted in removing injured victims.

Other county officials who responded to assist on-scene included Sheriff John Root, Commonwealth Attorney Jackie Steele, Circuit Clerk Rodger Schott and Judge Executive David Westerfield.  The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management is in charge of allocating the disaster areas of Laurel County and a thorough inspection of the affected area is being conducted and continued.  

mmccrarey@sentinel-echo.com

Visit the following link for a video documentary of storm coverage:

http://vimeo.com/37958787

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