CHERITON, Va. (WAVY) — The sky overhead of the small Eastern Shore town of Cheriton turned purple — that’s how the Cheriton Volunteer Fire Chief described the moment before the storm hit Thursday morning.
Firefighters got the call about 10 minutes later.
“I knew a tornado had touched down, but I didn’t know what kind of damage we had at the time,” said Chief Eddie Stockton. “I expected maybe three, four or five trailers [damaged.] You think it was something small, like a water spout, but when I got on the scene, I was kind of overwhelmed. It was a disaster zone.”
Based on photographs, National Weather Service surveyors believe the tornado formed around 8:25 a.m. in the Chesapeake Bay, a few miles west of Cherrystone Campground. It moved east, hitting the northern part of the campground and then crossed Old Cherrystone Road and U.S. Route 13. It lifted around 8:40 a.m. near Seaside Road, close to the Northampton Landfill.
“The trees were twisted, trees were hanging down. Campers were overturned. The water was about six inches deep,” said firefighter Barry Downing.
“I didn’t know if I had people up in trees,” Stockton said. “I didn’t know if I had people trapped under boats.”
Along with the tornado, straight line winds and a large swath of hail moved across Northampton County, snapping trees and overturning RVs. The storm killed two people and hurt 36 more, with injuries ranging from minor cuts and bruises to life-threatening.
“I remember the devastation and the walking wounded,” said volunteer Dave Thornes. “People were walking that had been hit by hail, holding bandages to their head, and people crying.”
Then came word of a tree down on a tent with people trapped inside.
“I got out, got two chainsaws and an ax, and I went to the scene were people were trapped,” Downing said.
They weren’t able to save the New Jersey couple, but they worked to save their 13-year-old son, Lee.
“They had to improvise and use a kayak as a backboard or stretcher to lay him on and take him to the ems unit,” Stockton said.
Crews went camper-to-camper as more help arrived, but the injured kept coming.
“We found some walking and talking, and then somebody would say, ‘there is a woman trapped in here,’ and that’s the lady that had the refrigerator fall on her,” Thornes said.
It was a scene they train for, but a scene no one ever thought they would witness.
“Unbelievable on the Eastern Shore,” Downing said. “I’ve been here all my life and I’ve never seen anything like this at all.”
“I have never had a disaster like this,” Stockton added. “This is a first, and I hope it’s the last.”