Fallston shaken in storm's aftermath

The rain had begun to fall harder, so Anthony Sadleo figured he'd stop and see his buddy Keith Matthews in Matthews' small auto-detailing shop off Belair Road. Why plunge into rush-hour traffic before the weather cleared?

Matthews was laughing when the men heard a keening sound, kind of like a train whistle, as the sky blackened over Fallston.

"I think we're getting a tornado," he said. Within moments, Matthews was pinned under a collapsed concrete wall with a broken femur and dislocated shoulder that would send him to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Businesses along a short stretch of Belair Road appeared to be the hardest hit by a Friday storm that spawned a half-dozen potential tornadoes from Hampstead to Fort Meade. As Fallston-area residents waited for power to return, they began to pick up the pieces Saturday and relive the sudden terror of the powerful storm.

The National Weather Service confirmed Saturday evening that a weak tornado touched down in the Pleasant Hills area of Harford County at 5:54 p.m. on Friday, tearing up a path 1 1/4 miles long and 1/4 mile wide. The weather service also confirmed weak tornadoes that snapped tree limbs and caused other minor damage in Fort Meade and at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport in Anne Arundel County, in Gamber in Carroll County, in Damascus in Montgomery County, and Springdale in Prince George's County.

The storm had a ferocious affect on the owners of more than a dozen Harford County homes and businesses, who spent Saturday cleaning up damage that is likely to exceed $1 million, according to a county spokesman. Damage also was reported in Carroll, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency might need a month to assess the impact statewide.

About 700 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews worked Saturday to restore electricity to the last of 35,000 customers who lost power during the storm.

"All I saw was a black funnel bottom," Sadleo said. "When you've never seen [a tornado], you say, 'Is that one or isn't it?' But I can tell them that it was."

The storm was certainly unusual for the owners and hands at Fallston's Country Life Farm, who picked up enough apples from a fallen tree on Saturday to fill two pickup trucks.

"It's sad, scars we will see for some time," said Ellen Pons, who owns the 79-year-old horse farm with her husband, Josh. They had spent the morning clearing debris from decades-old cedars and pines in time for an evening graduation party.

Farmhand Kevin Brown was with his fiancee in their apartment above the carriage house Friday when they felt the barn shaking and rocking. They called the owners to see if they should move the two mares and two foals but in seconds had to flee for their safety.

"We noticed that the storm was picking up strength and the rain was coming down harder," Brown said. "We looked out the window and grabbed the dogs. You heard the trees snapping. It was 'Snap! Snap! Snap!' We knew something was brewing."

The couple, with two small dogs in tow, ran 200 feet to a cellar as tree limbs and debris swirled around them. They waited 10 minutes before surfacing and were relieved to find all humans and horses unharmed.

On Saturday, Sadleo walked uncomfortably through the rubble in which his friend was buried less than 24 hours before.

"I obviously was in the right place because I'm still standing here," Sadleo said, as neighbors milled around, wishing him well and snapping photos of fallen trees. "That's the important thing."

He stared at the remains of the building that fell in on him, Matthews and another friend, Lewis Akins. All that's left are the bases of three walls and a pile of concrete blocks, twisted metal siding and one upended folding chair.

Sadleo recalled the evening before. He had looked outside after Matthews said "tornado," and saw pieces of trees and metal being tossed about by the wind. Then the walls of the one-story detailing shop began to shake.

The roof tore away first. The front wall caved in from left to right, knocking him down. Finally, the side wall fell in, pinning Matthews underneath, on his belly.

"I'm hurt bad," Matthews said.

Sadleo couldn't see anything but Matthews' arm. "Just keep talking to me," Sadleo said. "Keep talking."

About the same time, another friend, Lamar Kennard, pulled up in his tow truck. He had figured he would be safe in the heavy vehicle, but the wind whipped his side mirrors forward so hard that they cracked the windshield. He watched as a Toyota pickup levitated in front of him, spun around and landed on its top.

'I said, 'That had to be some pretty bad wind,'" he recalled Saturday, having joined Sadleo at the scene.

Sadleo needed to keep moving, because an open wound on his leg was stiffening. Akins, who was at the detailing shop with Sadleo and Matthews during the storm, walked up.

"I guess we're brothers for life now," he told Sadleo. "We stared down death together."

"I thought we were all gone," Sadleo replied.

"I still can't believe I'm alive," Akins said, inhaling a Newport.

When the wind died down after 30 seconds — which they said felt like 30 minutes — Sadleo, Kennard and Akins tried to pry the wall off of Matthews. Men from a nearby landscaping company pitched in and, together, they finally got him loose. As they waited for an ambulance, Kennard held his injured friend in a sitting position, trying to keep him talking. Matthews was able to say where he was and to recall his friends' names.

After Matthews was taken to Shock Trauma, medics insisted that Sadleo go to the hospital. His wife was in Missouri, where the couple has a home, so an ambulance technician called Sadleo's sister-in-law, Pat Haught, who lives in Baltimore County and was also at the shop Saturday.

She met him at Franklin Square Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion in addition to the cuts and scrapes.

"He was very shook up," Haught said. "And he's been through a lot, so for him to be shook up … I tell you if this doesn't straighten you out, I don't know what will. You don't know if you're going to be here tomorrow."

"You see that there," Sadleo said, steering Haught's attention to the carcass of a trailer, thrown 50 yards by the wind.

It's odd how a violent windstorm leaves its mark. For all the destruction on the little stretch where Matthews and Sadleo work, the storefronts across Belair Road look largely untouched.

"People kept telling us that the Walmart was OK," Sadleo recalled. "I said, 'Who cares about the Walmart?'"

Suffer storm damage to your property?

•Contact your insurance company immediately.

Take photos or video. Wait to remove damaged property until after an insurance adjuster sees it.

•If you must relocate, make sure your insurance company knows how to reach you.

•Keep receipts from emergency repairs and temporary living expenses.

•Make only repairs needed to prevent further damage. Do not make permanent repairs before consulting with your insurance company to avoid expenses that will not be reimbursed.

•Seek estimates from at least two contractors.

•Make a list of damage.

•Keep paperwork for claims that are denied. If the federal government later declares the region a disaster area, you might be eligible for federal relief.

•Read your policy to understand what's covered.

Source: Office of Maryland Insurance Commissioner