One minute she was working on invoicing online with Bridgestone/Firestone, and the next she was hugging the floor under her desk, praying her death would be short and painless.
When the tornado disappeared as quickly as it had come on July 21, Melody Bloomingdale suffered only a sore knee, a bruised hip and a bump on her back. But the Ziegler Tire & Supply Co. outlet in Youngstown, where Ms. Bloomingdale has been an administrative assistant for 13 years, was another story.
The second floor-where she took cover under a desk that later was pulled away and ripped in two like a piece of paper-was virtually gone. Only the interior wall separating offices and a safe were left standing, Ms. Bloomingdale said. Single concrete blocks and shards of lumber littered the ground.
``When it finally stopped, I unburied myself, and I was standing in the middle of nothing but, by the grace of God, was virtually unscathed,'' she told Tire Business.
William Ziegler, president of the 16-outlet Canton, Ohio-based commercial dealership, estimates the damage at about $300,000 to $400,000.
``I consider it hitting the lottery, except on the bad side,'' Mr. Ziegler said.
The service center remains open for customers with help from five of the company's surrounding centers in Northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Ziegler plans to rebuild the location, though the dealership still is scouring the site to find salvageable tire changing and balancing equipment. Luckily, its service trucks were all out on lunch or service calls when the tornado struck about 1:45 p.m., and no customers or their trucks were at the service center.
Two other employees-service manager Bob Beish and tire tech Larry Siwula-were in the shop with Ms. Bloomingdale at the time, though there were no serious injuries.
Meteorologist Will Kubina of the National Weather Service in Cleveland said the F1 tornado produced winds from 75 to 110 mph. The swath of damage extended eight miles, he said, though the tornado hopped along that path.
That hopping-characteristic of purely random tornadoes-proved to be another silver lining for Ziegler Tire.
Mr. Ziegler said a nearby warehouse that held a significant inventory escaped damage altogether. He said the tornado appeared to hit the service center, hop over the warehouse, then smash into a railroad yard, where two railroad cars were knocked over like toys.
``We're fortunate from that standpoint, so it could have been worse,'' he said.
He said customer records also are stored electronically, so those were not lost in the storm. Unless, of course, they were still on paper.
``If it was written, it's scattered all over the place,'' he said.
Ms. Bloomingdale was working at her laptop computer when a severe thunderstorm warning sounded. Looking out the window, she saw horizontal rain, fierce wind, trees straining toward the ground and an eerie glow reminiscent of horror movies, she said.
``I thought to myself, `Oh, this is a bad storm,'... and almost instantaneously my windows blew in,'' she said.
The four windows in the office-frames and all-popped out into the building. Outside turned to total blackness. Ms. Bloomingdale instinctively ducked under a desk, knowing she wouldn't make it downstairs. She didn't know a tornado was bearing down on the office.
``Within seconds-even though it felt like an eternity but only lasted a matter of seconds-the walls started to blow apart, and the office just shifted southwest,'' she said.
Caught in the swirling black vacuum, she said the tornado blasted its trademark freight-train sound, only more forceful and powerful than a train. ``That scared me because it just hits with such force,'' she told Tire Business. ``It's unbelievable the force the wind can carry.''
Since she closed her eyes and buried her head in her arms when she saw the walls start to break apart, she didn't see the desk get sucked off her. Ms. Bloomingdale said she felt the tornado pulling and pushing her, and at one point she thought the floor had fallen to ground level as she felt a rush like she was falling.
When it was over, ``everything was gone around and above me, but I was still in the same spot,'' she said. Mr. Siwula appeared at the staircase and helped her downstairs past live, sparking wires.
Later realizing a tornado had in fact hit was difficult, but the real test was the next morning, when Ms. Bloomingdale returned to work.
``Being in that spot the day after, it was more threatening and fearful to me,'' she said. ``That was hard to be up there and realize I had been there 24 hours before. It was such devastation.''
Though he said he also was in shock the following morning, Mr. Ziegler was counting the lucky strikes.
``We're just happy no one got hurt,'' he said.