The phone kept ringing all night.
Chris Ammons's future mother-in-law kept calling Wednesday evening, worried about approaching Hurricane Ivan. Ammons didn't see the urgency: He and his fiancee lived far from the evacuated coastal towns of the Florida Panhandle, in a large mobile home set on cinderblocks in a rural stretch of farmland outside Blountstown. He figured the most he had to worry about was some rain.
But he relented, and he and his future wife -- who had spent about $900 at a nearby jeweler on his gold band and her half-carat diamond ring -- headed north. "I got tired of the phone ringing, so I said, 'Baby, let's go,' " said Ammons, 25.
It was the difference between life and death.
A tornado spawned by Ivan ripped through their two-bedroom, wood-shingled mobile home, tossing it and several others like confetti into the surrounding pine trees. Their neighbors, James and Mary Marshall, were killed. And so were other neighbors farther down the road, James Melvin Terry and his daughter, Donna Faye Terry Reed. The Associated Press identified those who were killed.
Even with mandatory evacuation orders emptying out large swaths of the Panhandle as a precaution, with state-of-the-art tracking equipment and with minute-by-minute analysis of Ivan's path on television and the Internet, it was often the ancient role of fate and chance that determined who was spared.
Simple decisions -- going inside or staying in the car, taking a mother-in-law's advice or not -- had serious consequences for those caught in the path of the deadliest U.S. hurricane in years. Ivan was responsible for at least 18 deaths in the Panhandle, six attributed to injuries from tornadoes, state officials said.
"There's no logic behind it," said Robert Trammell, 59, a retired state representative who drove around his former district Saturday viewing the damage in Blountstown. "It's just happenstance. It's just one of those things."
People in the Panhandle have been through hurricanes before, and they have come to think of them the way San Franciscans view earthquakes -- just another fact of life. But the power and number of the tornadoes produced by the storm took many in this region of small rural communities and beach towns by surprise. It was as though they had been preparing for one disaster and got two instead.
A twister slammed into Hamilton's Restaurant and Lounge in Panama City Beach, and the place is in tatters, part of its roof caved in, bits of stained-glass windows everywhere, an entire wall of the dish room blown out. David Baldwin, a sergeant with the Bay County Sheriff's Office, made it out alive, but he's not sure how -- or why.
"It's definitely sunk in, but there's still no answers to why it happened the way it did," said Baldwin, 35, who was one of seven people -- along with a greyhound named Bud -- caught inside Hamilton's when the tornado struck.
Baldwin and a sheriff's investigator, Steve Nagy, were patrolling the evacuated area Wednesday when they stopped at the restaurant to give Nagy's brother, Mike, a Panama City firefighter, a ride. Baldwin parked his green SUV just outside the front door. They were inside for a few minutes -- somewhere between three and five minutes, Baldwin said -- when a wall of water came across the Grand Lagoon.
"It just hit like a ton of bricks," said Steve Nagy, 37. "It started to sound like you had your head in a jet engine. I was convinced we were going to die."
The seven inside, including the owner, Steve Stevens, dived for cover around the restaurant as glass and debris rained on them. It was only later, after they had stepped outside and helped motorists from their damaged vehicles, that they saw the SUV, with a V-shaped wedge down the center, likely from a flying air-conditioning unit.
"There's no control over Mother Nature like that," Baldwin said. "When something of that magnitude hits . . . there's no control."
All seven in the restaurant escaped serious injury.
But less than a block away, John D. Martin, 84, and his son were picking up the mail at his daughter's real estate agency, Marti Martin Realty. Martin, a deacon emeritus at Panama City's First Baptist Church, always went to great lengths for his two children, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, his relatives said. He even buttered his daughter's dinner roll after she injured her arm.
The last thing Martin did was save his son's life. If Martin had not yelled at his son as the tornado suddenly swept in, "I would have walked right into it," Douglas Martin said. Douglas survived; John Martin died.
"I know he's with the Lord," said Martin's wife, Voncile, 83. "That's where he worked to go. . . . One day, I'll join him again."
Farther inland, in Blountstown, Ammons walked on the grassy field where his mobile home once stood. Tractors raked the limbs from damaged trees down a dirt road as the smell of burning timber filled the air. Piles of rubble were everywhere.
The closest thing resembling Ammons's house was a mound of furniture and debris a long walk away, across two-lane Highway 69A. On the field was just a square patch of dirt, some cinderblocks and the metal back steps. Across the highway was his recliner, his roof, the hub of his ceiling fan. A fluffy toy bunny in a pink hat, covered in mud. A Super Nintendo game cartridge, NHL 97. An unbroken jar of spaghetti sauce, its cap still on tight.
"I got a king-size bed I can't find," said Ammons, a heavy-equipment operator. He tried looking for the two wedding rings, but he could not find them in the pile.
Ammons and his fiancee, Santana Sullivan, 20, left their house about two hours before the tornado. "It's just that one decision," he said. "That's one of the best decisions I ever made in my life."