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Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 7, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native saw tornado bearing down on his school

Disaster drills often leave participants grumbling or wisecracking.

Until, heaven forbid, they see what Tom Cullen saw Friday afternoon.

An immense tornado was bearing down on East Washington Middle School in New Pekin, where Cullen serves as assistant principal and athletic director. The three-school campus also includes the high school and elementary. Almost 1,800 students were in class.

The warnings throughout the day proved real. A swirling black funnel cloud filled the horizon outside Cullen’s office window. It lurked less than a mile away.

“That thing was coming right at us,” said Cullen, who grew up in Terre Haute and graduated from Terre Haute South Vigo High School in 1978.

Students had been moved to safe areas in the campus complex. The twice-a-year tornado drills put the people in the proper places. “The kids and staff, corporation wide, were great,” he said.

Around 2:15 p.m. Friday, administrators decided to keep everyone on campus until the storm threat passed, rather than dismissing students early. “It really came up on us pretty quick,” Cullen said, “and thank God we didn’t [dismiss early] because we would’ve had buses out in that.”

The unexpected can happen, too, though.

Nearly 50 parents had arrived in vehicles to pick up their children. With the weather warnings and the ominous sky, Cullen hurried into the parking lot to tell the parents to take shelter inside the school. Cullen felt the intense air pressure. He heard wood “cracking and snapping” in the distance.

The parents left their cars and trucks and hustled inside, gathering in the main office.

“You’ve got procedures in place, but there are some things you have to react on instinct and common sense,” he said, “because things change.”

The path of that tornado changed, suddenly veering west and crossing U.S. 60 just south of New Pekin. It missed the trio of Washington County schools by a half-mile. “It was pretty amazing,” Cullen said. “Thank goodness, the school didn’t get hit.”

The tornado’s wrath struck nearby, though. A family of five in New Pekin — the 21- and 20-year-old mother and father, and three kids ages 2, 1 and 2 months — all lost their young lives. A neighbor tried to rescue them, according to a Louisville Courier-Journal report, but could not. He found them lying on the floor of their mobile home, praying. The tornado destroyed their home and fatally scattered the parents and children into a field.

The twister rated EF-3 on the Fujita scale, the third-harshest level, when it roared through New Pekin. Its winds reached 150 mph. “What it hit, it destroyed,” Cullen said.

It grew fiercer, strengthening to a Category EF-4 with 175-mph winds. The multi-vortex storm, according to the National Weather Service, tore a 49-mile path through southern Indiana, just north of Louisville, Ky., decimating the towns of Henryville, Marysville, Chelsea, Holton and New Pekin. Thirty-nine people in five states died in Friday’s chaotic weather, including 10 in Indiana, The Associated Press reported. Homes, businesses and livelihoods were shattered, too.

A mother in Marysville lost her legs while shielding her children as hulking pieces of their 8,000-square-foot “dream home” collapsed upon them, the Courier-Journal reported.

“There are lots of incredible stories,” Cullen said.

His own family, including his wife and their four children, made it through safe, and their house in Georgetown, near New Albany, was spared. Some students in the East Washington School Corp. lost homes, though, Cullen said.

The 52-year-old Liberty University graduate and his family have lived in southern Indiana since 1991, his final season as head basketball coach at Terre Haute Christian School. He moved from coaching to administration in 1997, and has “been blessed” with his assistant principal and athletic director roles ever since. Through it all — his years in Terre Haute, college, teaching, coaching and administrating — Friday was the first time he’d experienced a tornado.

Having seen the real thing, and knowing what it did just a few minutes away, Cullen is glad the school had prepared.

“When you hear those sirens go off and it isn’t practice, and then you see it, it’s like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said, quietly. “When you practice those [drills], you try to get across to the kids, ‘This is practice, but you’ve got to take it seriously.’”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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