SANFORD, N.C. – More than 100 employees and customers at a home improvement store, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder seeking safety from one of the deadly storms that ripped through the South, screamed in near unison once the steel roof curled off overhead, the store's manager said Sunday.
They all made it out alive Saturday, thanks to quick action by Lowe's store manager Michael Hollowell and his employees, who carried out an emergency response plan they had learned.
They herded everyone to the windowless rear area of the store, away from the direct hit out front.
"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell told The Associated Press.
Hollowell and his employees deserve credit for moving customers to a safe zone in the store about 40 miles south of Raleigh, said Sanford police Capt. J.R. Weeks.
"It can't help but have saved lives," he said. Since most of the damage was in the front, getting them farther away likely prevented some people from harm.
Search and rescue crews combing through the store found no one buried in the debris that knocked down concrete block walls and left trailers leaning vertically against towering shelves in the lumber department. About two-thirds of the warehouse store was exposed to the elements.
The front of the store looked as if it had been flattened, and cars in the parking lot were flipped over on their roofs.
"We're just thankful that more people weren't hurt," said Cindy Hall, a local Red Cross volunteer.
Other businesses nearby were also badly damaged, including a tractor supply store which saw its roof ripped off.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.
Hollowell said he'd heard severe weather warnings earlier in the day, but his first glimpse of imminent danger came when he saw employees running toward the back of the store. The safest part of the store, with joined concrete walls and without heavy inventory stacked high on shelves, it was the destination in an emergency, set in the store's preparedness plan.
Hollowell looked out the front door and saw the tornado nearly across the street. He called his assistants into action on in-store phones and in seconds the warnings had the 50 or so employees and up to 60 customers running to the back, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder.
"It was so tight that you couldn't move with everybody in the hallway. We got as close as we could," Hollowell said.
Dan Wear, another employee, was guiding customers to safety only to see some had stopped to record the barreling twister with their cellphone cameras. He moved them out of the way just in time. As he was running to the back, a customer behind him was lifted by the wind and rolled like a bowling ball through Wear's churning legs. They both ended up sprawled under racks of carpeting in aisle 42, Wear said.
Hollowell dismisses any talk of heroism, saying the safety exercise was a team effort.