A swath of Eastern North Carolina was battered Saturday by one of nature's most frightening phenomena -- tornadoes striking in the dead of night.
The high winds fed by warm air pushing up the coast killed two people, destroyed more than a dozen homes and left more than 40 homes damaged in Johnston and Wilson counties.
Curt Jernigan, 41, had just fallen asleep early Saturday morning when he heard the house-rattling sound of a tornado descending on his Kenly neighborhood. He took refuge in his bathroom while winds blew out windows and tore pieces off the roof.
A short time later, he and his next-door neighbor, Argiro Gomez, stumbled through the dark, with only a thin flashlight beam to guide them, in a vain search for Gomez' wife.
"I saw the destruction," Jernigan said somberly. "I knew it wasn't going to be good."
Maryland Gomez, 61, died when a tornado demolished her family's home. Argiro Gomez was treated for injuries at WakeMed's Raleigh hospital.
The tornado left little of the house other than scattered bricks, concrete blocks and pieces of the front porch.
Just outside Wilson County's Elm City, a tornado killed 11-year-old Joshua Wiggins. The Elm City tornado, classified as an F3 with winds of 140 to 145 mph, was one in a cluster that moved northeast along the Interstate 95 corridor. Between 2:30 and 4 a.m., it roared along at 45 to 55 mph.
At least 20 families in eastern Johnston and southern Wilson counties were forced to leave their heavily damaged homes. Some storm damage was reported in the Clement area in western Sampson County, where a few small tornados touched down, knocking down trees and power lines. A few trees fell on houses and a few small barns were destroyed, but no injuries were reported.
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who represents the area, surveyed the damage Saturday. Gov. Mike Easley plans to tour the area today.
"I want to express my sympathy to the families who lost loved ones in this damaging storm as well as my concern for those who were injured, have had homes and property destroyed or damaged," Easley said in a statement. "We will do all we can to assist those in the affected areas."
The tornadoes formed a "classic supercell thunderstorm," said Jeff Orrock, warning coordinator at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh.
National Weather Service teams surveyed the damage near Kenly in northeast Johnston County and Elm City in northern Wilson County. Teams found tornado damage in northwest Sampson County, the site of the first touchdown, he said.
The tornadoes early Saturday morning developed after a warm front pushed inland from the coast, then combined with instability and shear in the upper atmosphere, Orrock said.
"Storms like that are long-lived and have long, rotating updrafts," he said. "This was a classic tornadic storm."
The storms destroyed seven homes in Johnston County and six in Wilson County and damaged dozens more, according to the fire department in Kenly, which straddles the Johnston-Wilson border.
Hardwoods and pines with snapped trunks marked a path to what was left of the Gomez home. Car seats and the door to a home lay in a watery ditch. A punching bag rested a few yards from the road.
A family escapes
The Barbee family worked to salvage what they could from their recently redecorated home, split in half by a tornado.
Someone found a soggy photo of the home as it had been, a landscaped yard with a pond in front of a house with a large deck. The tornado spared none of those loving touches.
The front of the home was collapsed. The sun room was gone. The workshop and small barn were leveled to junk heaps.
Monica Barbee said that when she heard the tornado coming, she grabbed her 8-year-old son, Zachary, who was in the same room with her and her husband, Richard. Then she ran toward the other end of the house, where her teenage children slept. She fell when the floor buckled.
"I was screaming for my children," she said.
The Barbees escaped to a neighbor's home. Blake Barbee, 19, hurt his arm slightly but escaped serious injury when an air conditioner landed on his bed.
The Barbees returned home later Saturday to find their doublewide pushed off its foundation and cracked lengthwise. Tools from the shop were blown into the house.
A pickup truck was flipped on its hood in the backyard.
The family went through the grim task of picking among the debris for clothes, paintings and other keepsakes to salvage. The Barbees brightened a bit when Richard Barbee's brother, Terry, returned from a foray into the woods with a North Carolina flag and Blake Barbee's guitar.
"A lot of hard work is gone, but I'm thankful my children are OK," Monica Barbee said. "The Lord was with us."
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