Clear the stage and bang the drums. I also ask you to pay strict attention to our newest hero in my Hall of Fame because if Lowe’s shoppers hadn’t obeyed Michael Hollowell last Saturday, there is the likelihood some more might have died in a terrifying April storm.
I’m like a lot of people, perhaps some who were in the Lowe’s store in Sanford, N.C., last week, when I blissfully ignore exit signs and hardly think of an escape route. But when the same storm that screamed through Chattanooga on Friday picked up fury as it swept through the Carolinas, there were about 100 people at Lowe’s when a savage tornado hit.
They call it a “super cell,” a weather pattern that spawns tornadoes, and Monday the death count neared 50 across six states. Had it not been for Hollowell, the store manager who is more adept at directing patrons to the paint department or appliances, it could have been a far-greater disaster.
Hollowell got the first inkling something was amiss when he saw panicked customers running towards the back of the huge building. Get this; because he and his fellow employees had gone through emergency training, he alerted employees via an in-store phone and then they herded about 60 customers and some 50 employees into a back room that spared every person serious injury.
Due to an emergency plan that Lowe’s had in place, believe it or not, the safest spot had reinforced concrete walls and did not have inventory piled high against the walls. Lowe, headquartered in Morehead, N.C., was assigning the employees to other locations on Monday.
The roof was sheared from the building, concrete-block walls collapsed, cars in the parking lot were flipped like playing cards and the crescendo of noise was deafening. “I’m not a hero,” Michael insists, calling the quick thinking a team effort, but grateful customers say he’s the reason they are alive.
“It was so tight people were shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallway. Nobody could move,” he admitted. Samford, in Lee County, reported one death from the storm, but it wasn’t at Lowe, where one employee had to grab a customer intent on taking pictures with his cell phone.
Dan Wear was frantically guiding customers towards safety when he had to hustle one onlooker into the hallway. As the customer ran behind him, the wind tossed him “like a bowling ball” into Ware’s legs and both ended up in Aisle 42 but were relatively unharmed.
Two-thirds of the store was decimated, truck trailers were leaning against debris in the lumber department and the entire store front was flattened. “You could hear steel ripping,” said Hollowell and a survivor in a nearby county said, “It looked just like the Wizard of Oz.”
Kathy Henricks and her husband, who just bought a house last month, told Raleigh TV station WRAL that as they made their weekly visit to Lowe’s she had joked, "We need to get somewhere safe. We're going to Lowe's," she laughed. "Guess what? We were right in the path."
Seconds later, store employee Jeff Glenn said, “We watched it come over the sky and said, 'Yo, this can't be happening to us!”
And that’s where our Hero, Mr. Hollowell, kept a clear head and wonderfully orchestrated an escape to a windowless room in the rear of the store. “It was a team effort. One person didn’t save all those lives,” he said, but police beg to differ, saying it was his cool head that made the difference.
While Hollowell should never forget his bravery, special kudos goes to Terry Rodriquez of the Golden Corral Restaurant nearby. About 140 people were eating at her restaurant, many in front of plate-glass windows.
“All I could think is that I have to get them away from the glass because I knew it would just cut them in half,” she told the Raleigh News and Observer. “I thought, where can I put them? Then I yelled: ‘Tornado! Everyone to my kitchen!’ ”
With people packed in the meat cooler and rest rooms, the tornado jumped over the Golden Corral only to land on Lowe’s, some 200 yards away. The restaurant suffered only slight damage.
So, as we applaud Michael Hollowell, permit me to lend the moral of the store. When a store manager orders you to safety, immediately follow his or her lead and don’t dare tarry. If you don’t, you could end up with your silly cell-phone camera in aisle 42.