Possible Tornado Hits Rest Area, Homes In Southeast Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A barn collapsed around her horse and its colt, her dog was found in a nearby field, and she had to search for one of her missing house cats.

But Delane Gallon and all of her pets emerged uninjured Wednesday evening after a possible tornado cut a four-mile path through Gallia County in southeast Ohio and lifted her house off its frame. Damage to the area was estimated at $6 million, said Bill Davis, president of the county commissioners.

"Whenever man thinks he's got it made, Mother Nature comes along and says I'm the boss," she said.

County Emergency Management Agency officials said only two truck drivers whose rigs overturned at a highway rest area were hospitalized with minor injuries in the storm. Both drivers were treated and released Wednesday night from Holzer Medical Center in Gallipolis. A third person was treated and released from Pleasant Valley Hospital in Point Pleasant, W.Va.

Along with damage to the rest area, the storm destroyed 10 to 15 homes and trailers and damaged 15 to 25 others in the Rio Grande area, Randall Hatfield, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Charleston, W.Va., said on Thursday.

Witnesses said two funnel clouds seemed to merge into one before touching down near two rest stops on U.S. 35 between Gallipolis and Rio Grande, about 80 miles southeast of Columbus near the West Virginia state line. The storm then headed south into Adamsville.

Semitrailer trucks hauling cattle, bottled water and car windshields overturned and people huddled in restrooms as the storm hit the rest stops, officials said. At least five trucks were destroyed.

The cattle were not harmed and were still in their trailers after the storm. Gallia County EMA spokesman Keith Davis said some of the trucks' loads were scattered among the debris from the heavily damaged restroom buildings.

One of the truckers said he was roused from the bunk in his 18-wheeler by the sudden change in weather.

"I saw the funnel cloud. It was no more than 150 yards away and coming straight at my truck," said Michael Belsches, 41, of Newport News, Va. "I knew I was gonna be in for a ride. You could see it throwing trees and brush off the ground. It was like blasting stuff."

"I think it kind of slammed me," said Belsches, treated for bruises and cuts.

Another weak tornado apparently touched down near Wilmington in southwest Ohio but caused only minor damage to about four buildings and at least 20 vehicles, authorities said. No injuries were reported.

County commissioners declared a state of emergency Wednesday, allowing officials to seek assistance from the state. EMA officials said several roads were being closed because they were having problems controlling sightseers at the damage sites.

The weather service in Charleston said a tornado spotter it trained reported a possible touchdown at 6 p.m. near Rio Grande. Hatfield said inspectors were in the region Thursday morning to determine whether the storm was a tornado. Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor also toured the area.

The weather service reported that the storms had moved out of southeast Ohio and northern West Virginia by about 8:30 p.m. More thunderstorms were forecast for southeast Ohio on Thursday.

In Clinton County, Allan Randall, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, said a possible tornado about 25 to 50 yards wide touched down about 6 p.m.

"We did send someone to check it out, and at this point it looks like a very weak tornado briefly touched down, went back up and touched down again," he said.

A clerk at the Ramada Inn near Wilmington, which sustained roof damage, said an employee saw the funnel cloud coming and guests were ushered into the basement before it hit the building.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)