Tavern's Freezer Helped Tornado Survivors

Richard Little headed down to the Milestone Tap (search) to meet a buddy for a beer, but minutes later he and other patrons were rushing to the basement as tornado sirens wailed outside.

"You hear the typical freight-train or jet-engine sound. Me and the guy next to me crouched down and put our hands over our heads," Little said. "And it was over in a couple of seconds."

But when the tornado passed Tuesday night, Little and about a dozen others were trapped in the basement of the country-and-western-themed tavern when its century-old sandstone walls crumbled and the roof collapsed.

"You could hear kids screaming and adults screaming to let us know where they were buried," said Little, a 37-year-old truck driver.

Eight people died in the collapse. Authorities on Wednesday pulled the last of the bodies from the rubble of the bar, which was across the street from a grain elevator and featured wagon wheels hanging from the ceiling.

Little was rescued minutes after the tornado swept through the center of Utica. He said he survived because he stood in the basement's southeast corner, next to a freezer.

Debris fell on the top of the freezer, but wood beams formed a protective triangle around Little and the elderly man crouched next to him.

"I took his hand, and I told him I could see daylight," Little said.

Little said he was quickly helped out of the debris by rescue crews, then joined in the rescue efforts himself, helping lift debris off others who were trapped until he sought treatment at a hospital for a sore shoulder, ribs and back.

John Steele, 62, had been at another restaurant where patrons also ran to the basement as the tornado neared.

"There was total blackness," he said. "Things kept crashing."

Once the storm passed, Steele joined about 30 rescuers at the Milestone Tap, forming a line to lift rocks off the rubble pile.

"You could hear people yelling down in the basement and all you could see was this pile of broken-up stone," Steele said.

They freed a boy and an older man, but there was one man Steele knew he could not save.

"Obviously he was dead," Steele said. "The building was on top of him. You could tell he was dead."

Dr. Peter Meier, an orthopedic surgeon, was rushed by police to the scene because rescuers thought a man who was stuck in the rubble might need his leg amputated. The man had a compound fracture, but Meier was able to save his leg.

"It looked like the building imploded," Meier said. "It pancaked to a 6-foot high pile of rubble."

Meier said firefighters who shimmied into a 2-foot-square hole that led to the basement told him the freezer "created on open space in one area — that's where people survived."

The space was only 15 feet from a group of people whom Little fears died in the collapse.

"I think that's the only thing that saved me," he said. "It was just luck."