The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

May 25, 2013

Tornado upon them, quick choices decided fate

(Continued)

A group of roofers was already there, fixing leaks from a storm system the day before. Susan knew there was no use in arguing with the company man.

The 35-year-old store manager wasn't there 15 minutes before the sirens began blaring.

Stutzman and his "associates" are a well-oiled machine. Without waiting for instructions, they began ushering customers to the meat room behind the deli — about 65 people altogether. The temperature in the room is kept just below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and Stutzman's staff distributed white butcher smocks to help keep the refugees warm.

They left the store's front doors open, in case anyone else might need to seek shelter. As he stood in the doorway, Stutzman watched as an old man unplugged an electric scooter, climbed aboard and rolled up the bread aisle toward him. Almost as soon as the man was safely inside, the storm was upon them.

Standing watch, Stutzman could hear the skylights popping and see ceiling tiles lifting up from the storm's suction — but, surprisingly, when the storm was over there was limited damage.

Outside, it was a scene of devastation. The Church of God out back was half collapsed, and nearly an entire neighborhood was gone, home alarms beeping out of synch in an eerie half-harmony.

"It was just so mind-blowing, how lucky we got," he said Thursday. "It could have been us in the rubble."

Back home, Susan Stutzman had been listening to the news and feared that the store had been hit. It was about an hour before her husband could get word to his family that he was OK.

She knows he'll make the same decision again.

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