'The devastation is just stunning'

Sun Staff

Shortly after dawn's light revealed the full impact of the most devastating Maryland tornado in 75 years, wood-chippers buzzed and brooms whisked across Prince George's and Howard counties yesterday as residents and officials pledged a rapid recovery.

For the fortunate, cleanup meant yanking a toppled tree from a front yard or replacing a windshield. For others - along a relatively narrow path from Northern Virginia to College Park to Laurel - the impact of Monday evening's storm was far greater.

The Marlatt family of Clarksville was coping with the loss of sisters Colleen, 23, and Erin, 20 - killed in a car on the University of Maryland, College Park campus just moments after separating from their father, F. Patrick Marlatt, a Howard County fire chief also injured in the storm.

A third death was attributed to the tornado. Clarence Kreitzer, 78, a Bowie volunteer firefighter for 60 years, died while driving home from the station Monday night, possibly of a heart attack, authorities said. He had spent several hours erecting floodlights used for rescue work in College Park.

A damaged off-campus apartment complex was closed to many of the 700 students who live there, but virtually all university buildings were in good shape.

A few miles away, in downtown Laurel, a 19th-century structure that once served as city hall had to be razed after its roof peeled away. In a North Laurel townhouse development where the twister's northerly path ended, 43 homes were damaged.

But overall, state and local officials expressed relief that a storm that flung cars like toys and shredded trailers and lamp posts did not exact a larger human toll.

"The devastation is just stunning," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, shortly after a Maryland State Police helicopter tour of the twister's path. "It is a miracle that more people weren't killed or injured. ... Our goal is to return people to normal as quickly as possible."

Students at College Park and in Prince George's County public schools will resume classes today. The Terrapins will play their home football game against West Virginia on Saturday.

More than a few noted yesterday that the recovery - expected to cost well over $10 million and last for weeks - seems manageable in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

"Because of what happened, there is a heightened anxiety, and nerves are frayed, so it was especially tense last night," said Amy Harbison, a university employee whose brother escaped from the 50th floor of a World Trade Center tower. "But there's also a heightened awareness of how devastating things can be."

A damage total was unavailable yesterday, but the machinery of government assistance was lurching to life. Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors are scheduled to tour damaged areas today. U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who represents much of the area, said FEMA was "stretched to the limit" after the terrorist attacks but promised federal aid would be available if needed.

Major roads in the storm's path, including portions of Route 1 and Route 193, remained closed late yesterday.

The National Weather Service classified the College Park tornado as a "solid" F3 storm, with winds near 200 mph. The tornado was the most powerful to strike the state since an F4 storm ripped through Frostburg in June 1998.

Damage was unofficially estimated above $10 million, according to a weather service official. That would make this the costliest tornado in Maryland history.

Yesterday's deaths were the first in Prince George's County since a 1926 tornado that killed 17 people - the deadliest on record in Maryland. They were the first tornado deaths in the state since a 1984 fatality in Dorchester County.

The tornado might have claimed Bowie's oldest volunteer firefighter. Kreitzer died suddenly Monday about 11 p.m., after spending several hours assisting crews on the College Park campus.

A colleague at the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department said Kreitzer's crew was relieved about 9 p.m. and returned to the Huntington fire station. Dan Clark, a fellow volunteer who knew Kreitzer for 47 years, said he spent a couple of hours talking and watching a football game and then drove home.

About a block and a half away, Clark said, Kreitzer apparently lost control of his car and it went over the curb - possibly because he had a heart attack.

Known to his friends as "Cuz," Kreitzer joined the department in 1937, at age 16. "He was an institution," said Santa Bigony, a volunteer emergency medical technician. "He gave until he was unable to give."

At College Park, the worst devastation was at the site formerly occupied by a trailer used by the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. Chunks of the trailer were wrapped around trees like climbing vines. Computers, training handbooks, gas masks and other materials were strewn about.

On campus, firefighters mimicked the rescuers at the World Trade Center in New York, and stuck a large flag near the work. A local restaurant, Lasick's, served workers free food.

Inspections by structural engineers showed damage to some college buildings was not as severe as feared. Nearby, a new $130 million performing arts center suffered little more than some shattered windows and will still have an opening night gala Saturday.

At the north end of the campus, where the storm touched down, students were patching blown-out car windows and marveling at how much has happened in less than a month since fall classes started.

"I was talking to one of the freshmen and I said you'll never forget fall semester 2001," said Tanya Naguit, 18, a sophomore.

At Easton Hall, a north campus dorm, freshman roommates Jerry Chao, 18, and Jeff Poe, 18, returned to their room about noon yesterday, 20 hours after being evacuated. They recalled watching the tornado from a sixth-floor hall as it bore down on their dorm, ripping up trees, its funnel swirling with metallic debris. They soon fled to Easton's basement, while windows shattered and the howl of the wind became deafening.

"It was the craziest thing I have ever seen," Poe said.

Among the most affected campus buildings was its president's mansion. President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. is staying in a room at the University College, the system's continuing education branch, until the residence is cleared, university spokesman George Cathcart said.

With classes canceled yesterday, students navigated a maze-like path back to their dorms, stunned at the violently changed landscape. Many roads remained blocked off by mounds of debris. The steeple of the nearby Pentecostal Holiness Church on University Boulevard was blown off, and a 5-foot hole was punched in the building.

Hundreds of tall, 100-year-old trees that had lined the campus drives and buffered dorms from Route 193 lay splintered on the ground, waiting for wood chippers. Students lamented the denuded look of the campus.

"It doesn't seem like Maryland anymore," said Dominic Foster, a freshman from Hershey, Pa. "One of my main reasons for choosing it was the campus. Now, it's kind of shot."

An even greater surprise awaited students whose cars were parked in the 600-space lot behind Easton Hall, near where the Marlatt sisters died. Most of the cars had at least one window smashed out; dozens were piled atop each other or crushed beneath trees.

One by one, students were allowed into the lot to determine the extent of damage to their cars. Alexa Christiansen, a sophomore from Reston, Va., gasped when she found her mother's Ford Escort with four of its windows shattered. Her friend, Nicole Arbeiter, reminded her it could be worse.

"Hey, you still have a car," said Arbeiter, a sophomore from New York City.

The greatest aftershock of the tornado - aside from the fatalities - could be its effect on academics, students said. Classes were also canceled for an entire day two weeks ago, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Lauren Wilson had a term paper due yesterday and a chemistry exam scheduled for yesterday morning, both of which were pushed back.

"I couldn't do any of it. I was just sitting in my friends' room and said, 'What do we do now?'" she said. "It's throwing off the work schedule."

At Laurel High School not far away from College Park, the school's roof was ripped from a wing containing six social studies classrooms. When the school reopens today, students will use other rooms, said Principal Michael Martirano.

"It's going to be devastating for them to see their school like this," he said.

And in downtown Laurel, a few miles away, a Salvation Army canteen truck was dispatched from the Pentagon, where its crew had been assisting rescue workers.

"I've been on duty for 32 hours," said Robert A. Reed of Jonesboro, Ga., wearing his identification from the Pentagon's recovery efforts. "You do what it takes to make it happen. You can catch up on your sleep later."

Across the street from the canteen truck, Claire Sherwood, 26, was huddled with friends in matching maroon sweatshirts donated by volunteer workers. A UMCP arts student, she fled the campus and drove home after the storm hit, only to learn that the twister had also touched there.

What should have been a ride to safety wound up being a tour of the tornado's damage. "It was scary," she said. "I was freaking out."

Sun staff writers Jonathan Briggs, Michael Dresser, Frank Roylance and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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