Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

November 19, 2013

Walk-in beer coolers shelter 100 storm survivors


The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — CNHI News Service

KOKOMO — Alex Binkley, manager-in-training at Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, got an unexpected lesson Sunday afternoon in coping with the sudden fear of a severe storm strike.

“As soon as I felt the wind beating up against the walls, I knew we were going to get hit,” he recalled. “All our lights started shaking. All the TVs started shaking. Then the lights went out and the wind hit.”

Binkley said he quickly directed more than two-dozen customers and employees into the restaurant’s three walk-in food and beer coolers. They were soon joined by shoppers from nearby stores in the Kokomo Mall, including several people from J.C. Penney’s, where the ceiling caved in.

By the time the ferocious winds hit their peak, said Binkley, 100 survivors were huddled safely in the coolers, waiting out the storm.

“Every building (in the mall) except ours pretty much got destroyed,” he said. “But everybody here stayed pretty calm.”

Binkley declared he restaurant and its coolers the “savior of the mall.”

Authorities said Kokomo, located 60 miles north of Indianapolis, was the Indiana city hardest hit by Sunday’s severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that swept across the Midwest. More than 6,000 homes and businesses lost power in and around Kokomo. There were no reports of death.

A few miles from the mall, Michael Gardner, 21, had just returned home with four of his friends from a church luncheon when the first tornado warnings occurred. Gardner said they scrambled from the second floor of the home to the basement just in time, with the last person jumping down the basement stairs as the house began to move.

In an instant, he said, the wind caused the house to collapse, burying Gardner and his friends in rubble. But none of them were harmed.

As the young men climbed out of the debris, they heard screaming from a neighbor’s yard. A car lay on top of Melody Vandergriff, 25, her head caught beneath the rear bumper. They and neighbors tried to lift the car but could not do so. Emergency crews arrived shortly and freed Vandergriff.

Meanwhile, manager Jerry Smith dug through the rubble at BMO Harris Bank until he found the tattered American flag from the front of his building. The flag, he said, was about the only salvagable item from the destroyed bank.

“When I heard my bank was leveled, I thought people were stretching the truth,” he said. “But it was leveled.”

Details for this story were provided by the Kokomo, Ind., Tribune.