The Chesapeake Bay went black and lightning became blinding as a lethal tornado whipped through a large campground near Cape Charles, Va., on Thursday morning.
Amid the violent storm, a Jersey City couple were killed and their 13-year-old son gravely injured when a tree toppled on their tents, state police said.
Campers, including vacationing emergency medical technicians, rushed into the rain and pounding hail when they heard cries for help and saw a wounded and dazed teen, said Julie Gallagher, 21, an EMT from Franklinville, N.J.
The teen, Gallagher said, “had a blank stare and said, ‘My parents are dead. I just watched my mommy die.’ My heart broke. I’ll never forget those words. Never.”
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller identified the couple as Lord N. Balatbat and Lolibeth E. Ortega, both 38. Their son, whom police did not identify, was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, Geller said during a news conference at the entrance to the Cherrystone Family Camping Resort, which is on the bay about 110 miles east of Richmond.
State police said that about 1,300 campers and 40 employees were on the 300-acre waterfront site, which has become an annual summer getaway for families like Gallagher’s. In all, 36 people were injured and transported from the campground as a result of the tornado, state police said.
Gallagher said she used a kayak as a flatboard to carry another young wounded child — who was near the New Jersey couple — to arriving ambulances.
The storm tossed camping vehicles onto their roofs, state police said. One caught fire, recalled Gallagher, who said she passed others assisting at that scene as she ran toward voices calling for help.
The storms struck the camping site about 8:30 a.m., said David Watson, a Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman.
Pine cones were hurled against sliding doors in her cottage and hail “like baseballs” hit during the fiercest point, said Gallagher’s sister, Victoria Thomas, 27 of Monroeville, N.J. “It went on like that for 10 minutes but felt like five hours. You couldn’t see six inches in front of you.”
The storm, which state police said was an EF-1 tornado, was brutish enough that it also overturned a tractor-trailer. Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, Va., treated 26 people injured in the storm, “most if not all from the campground,” said Peter Glagola, a hospital spokesman.
He said most were treated and released.
The son of the couple killed was transported to Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughters in Norfolk, state police said.
Mike Rusnak, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Wakefield office, said a tornado warning went out 10 minutes before the storm touched land in Northampton County.
“The bay got black and the lightning was so bright,” said Linda Wager, a 52-year-old from Pleasant Valley, N.Y.
Wager, a former EMT, was watching a movie in her RV when an alert popped up on her phone. Wager’s family — including her 6-month-old grandson — and friends from North Carolina ran to a nearby bathhouse to take cover.
But as she waited for a few moments, she wondered whether anything was going to happen.
“I was hoping that it was something that we just had to be prepared about,” she said. “But once I saw the sky . . . I knew.”
The tornado formed over the bay, producing a waterspout that moved onshore as a tornado, Rusnak said.
“Generally it would get weaker when it hits land — but this was more unique,” Rusnak said. “It lasted longer and was stronger.”
State police said the tornado entered the campground from the southwest shore, moved northwest through the campground, and then turned south and continued southeast through the remainder of the campground.
According to a Northampton County news release, populated neighborhoods also were impacted.
Wager said the tornado aimed directly over a pine forest section of campground where a tree fell on a tent and a camper unit “opened up like an unrolled tin can,” she said.
“All their belongings were strewn all over the place,” Wager added.
Maria Annunziata, an 18-year-old daughter of Wager’s friend from Apex, N.C., who also hid in a bathhouse, said the tornado didn’t seem real.
“The campers were all upside down, and that’s when it hit me,” she said.
The National Weather Service dispatched a storm survey team Thursday morning to assess damage, weather officials said. Authorities closed the campgrounds and were allowing groups of 20 to return to pack up.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said in a statement that Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, Virginia Department of Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Stern and regional state emergency management officials were also en route to the Eastern Shore.
“We are all saddened by the reports of injuries and lives lost in this storm and will continue to offer our thoughts and prayers to the Virginia families who were affected, along with whatever support is necessary to help these communities move forward,” McAuliffe said in the statement.
Just lived through a tornado. Children are missing. People are dead. Trees are down. Campers are flipped pic.twitter.com/UWxzE6hBqC— Jordan Bertok (@bertokjordan) July 24, 2014