VAN WERT, Ohio – When theater manager Scott Shaffer heard the storm warning on the radio, he knew he had little time to protect the 50 parents, children and neighbors watching The Santa Clause 2 and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
It turns out, he had just five minutes.
Shaffer and his staff hustled their charges into a brick hallway and restrooms at Van Wert Cinemas, just before a tornado estimated at a half-mile wide slammed into the building Sunday.
No one inside was seriously hurt.
The storm ripped away parts of the walls and roof, and tossed three cars into the front of a theater that had been filled with children watching the Santa movie. Rows of blue-cushioned seats were left open to the sky and littered with wood and plaster.
Another theater in the five-screen complex was destroyed when the ceiling caved in, and the walls were buckled in the other theaters.
Emergency officials called Shaffer a hero.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he saved many lives," Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor said as she surveyed the damage Monday in this city 100 miles northwest of Columbus.
Shaffer decided to send everyone for cover after hearing the storm warning on the theater's weather alert radio. As three employees and moviegoers helped him round people up, Shaffer opened the front door to wave others back inside from the parking lot.
That's when he saw the tornado, spinning toward the theater surrounded by farm fields and a few houses.
"It was the whole sky," he said.
Shaffer later crouched with others in a hallway with his arms over his head.
"I could hear glass breaking, ceiling tiles dropping and a lot of rumbling. For a few seconds, it got ear-piercing," he said. "I was too scared to panic."
Children and teenagers screamed and wept, and mothers clutched their children as the wind ripped the roof off the women's restroom.
Paul Roddy, 27, lay on top of his wife, Tracy, in the hallway.
"I was trying to protect her," he said. "I was trying to give her a chance to survive."
When it was over, after about 30 seconds, Roddy stood up with debris covering his back. "It was even in my pockets," he said of the dust.
Liz Hoersten, 43, was watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but didn't have time to get to the hallway. She huddled with her mother, daughter and others, listening to the roar as the walls and floor shook.
"There was a little baby who was sleeping, who had no idea what was going on," she said.
Next door, the home of theater owner Jim Boyd was destroyed.
"Our entire life went away in a matter of five minutes," Boyd said, picking through clothes covered with insulation. He and his wife were a mile away visiting his mother when the tornado hit.
"We're alive," he said. "We're extremely lucky."