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A walk through downtown La Plata is giving the opportunity for people to remember the aftermath of a 2002 tornado that struck La Plata and the rebuilding efforts that transformed the battered town.

Twenty-five businesses, churches and institutions have signs out, showing photos of the aftermath and rebuilding efforts at each site. Several signs also give short stories for each photo.

One sign, outside of Title Professionals on La Grange Avenue, tells Nancy Gasparovic’s story of her narrow escape from the tornado and a providential find in the tornado’s aftermath.

Gasparovic, who is the president of the title company, said that on the day of the tornado, April 28, she was working at her desk just minutes before the tornado came through La Plata.

“It was about 7 p.m. when my cellphone rang. It was one of my neighbors who called me to say, ‘This is embarrassing. I have a cake with your name on it and you’re not here,’” Gasparovic said.

She said she ran quickly out the door to return to her home in Issue for her birthday, the same day.

The tornado struck downtown La Plata at about 7:03 p.m., just five to eight minutes after she received her phone call, Gasparovic said.

It was fortunate that Gasparovic left when she did, as upon returning to her office the next day, Gasparovic said that she found debris and glass impaling the wall behind where she sat a few minutes before the tornado came.

The building was still there, though, surrounded by several businesses that had received more severe damage or had been totally devastated, which prompted Gasparovic to call the building “the little house that stood.”

Gasparovic said that she relocated the business temporarily to the home of Irene Davis, a late friend, while returning to the damaged site daily to shift through the debris.

Four or five days later, while sifting through the roofing material, concrete blocks and glass that had stacked up from the tornado, Gasparovic said she came across a Bible, whose owner had highlighted and used it very much.

Gasparovic said she first looked for the Bible’s owner, which on the front page indicated that a Mackie Jenkins received the Bible from Jeanne Jenkins in 1994.

At the time Gasparovic said she was unable to track down the Bible’s owner, so she placed it on the mantle in the business, keeping a mental note to find the Bible’s owner.

A few days later, a television news reporter came to the business asking about the Bible, Gasparovic said.

It was during the interview that the reporter asked whether Gasparovic had checked the Bible’s bookmark, which was ground into the Bible’s binding.

Gasparovic said she had not. The reporter then opened the Bible to the bookmarked section and exclaimed, “Do you know what Ezra chapter three is about?”

Gasparovic did not know. They both looked at the heading to Chapter 3, and it read, “Rebuilding of the Temple.”

Gasparovic said she took the heading as a miracle.

“The whole town has indeed been rebuilding, and it’s truly a miracle from God that we’ve rebuilt buildings and didn’t have a tremendous loss of human life,” she said.

Gasparovic said she received a phone call from Mackie Jenkins two years later, who told her that the Bible was his work Bible that he had stored in a construction trailer in La Plata.

Gasparovic said that Jenkins allowed her to keep it, as it belonged in the town of La Plata.

Today, the Bible is encased in a shadow box in the renovated Title Professionals building.

“It’s a nice physical symbol of the miracle in the town of La Plata, where we rebuilt buildings and didn’t have hundreds of people killed because of the tornado,” Gasparovic said of the Bible.

She also thanked those who helped through the tornado aftermath and the rebuilding of La Plata, including the Amish community who boarded up her business’ roof to protect it from an impending rain.

Living through the storm

Baldus Real Estate’s sign tells the story of real estate agent Bonnie Baldus Grier living through the tornado that hit April 28.

Grier said she was working late at the firm’s offices at U.S. 301 and Charles Street when her co-worker, Hillen Morgan Jr., said that a storm was coming and that he was leaving.

Grier said she told Morgan to lock the doors and that when she finished her work, she would leave.

Shortly after Morgan left, the lights went out for a moment and came back on, Grier said, which prompted her to save and print out her work.

“I went to copy what I had worked on so far. That was on the east-most side of the building. At that point, I went outside on the east side and looked at the sky. It looked fine, and there were clear skies. But I should have looked out on the other side. There were dark skies on the west side,” Grier said.

Grier said she continued to work until she took a look out her window.

“I saw horizontal debris flying everywhere. And I said, ‘Oh my God,’” she said.

Grier said she saw a car with two people pull up to the building and she was ready to let them into the building when she saw that the debris was so bad that she couldn’t see anything, and would not be able to get out to them.

“I remembered that I needed to stay away from the windows because of the glass, so I shut the door to my office, and then shut the door to another office. I was then in a long windowless corridor, where I lay down on my stomach and covered my head,” Grier said.

The tornado then swept through downtown La Plata.

Grier said that after the tornado went through, “I looked up and there was a humongous hole in the roof about eight feet from me. The floor was covered with debris and dirt.”

A second wave went through shortly after, and Grier ducked for cover again.

After that passed, Grier maneuvered her way through the building, exiting through a hole where glass had blown out, and found the two people she had seen earlier, standing outside looking shocked.

Grier said that people began to congregate near the intersection of U.S. 301 and Charles Street, some who were injured, including one man whose truck had rolled over and who was covered in blood.

“I ran back inside to see if I could get some bandages. While I drank a glass of water, I noticed some paper towels. I began to dip paper towels into the glass so that people could clean up their cuts,” Grier said.

Later, Grier said that a triage station was set up near what is now Popeyes at a Texaco station.

She said she was concerned about the safety of her brother, Rick Baldus, and her family, but discovered they were fine. Her home on the western side of La Plata also sustained damage from a fallen chimney, but it was rebuilt. Giant oaks uprooted from the tornado were replanted, she said.

Grier said that the tornado traumatized her, and has made her cognizant of the weather.

“It’s been a big turn in my life,” Grier said.

Grier also said it was fortunate that the tornado struck at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, as that made it the least destructive as possible for human life, as schools and most businesses were closed.

The tornado did destroy the administrative building of Baldus Real Estate and left the company’s main building beyond repair, but the tornado brought a blessing in disguise, Grier said.

“La Plata does look 100 percent better now,” Grier said, also praising the look of the new Baldus Centre at the same location as before.

The new building opened in April 2005 and now contains Baldus Real Estate, Old Line Bank and several other businesses.

Grier also said that the tornado’s aftermath helped to bring the community together.

“Everything kind of took a fast-forward approach, as things were totally destroyed,” Grier said, and the community pulled together to rebuild and pick things up.

“So from a camaraderie perspective, from a community perspective and from a friendship perspective, that was fabulous. The community couldn’t have been nicer. It was very positive what it did for the community,” Grier said. “Good things do come out of the bad.

“People just showed up and helped, and that was incredible.”

Grier also thanked the community and people who helped in the aftermath.

The Memory Lane signs will be on display in the town through April to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tornado. Maps depicting the sign locations are available at each participating location, town hall and on the town’s website, www.townoflaplata.org.

The signs also will be on display at the town hall for Celebrate La Plata from noon to 5 p.m. on April 28.

pwarner@somdnews.com

Take a stroll

La Plata businesses, churches and institutions participating in the Memory Lane exhibit are:

-Archbishop Neale School

-Baldus Real Estate

-Burger King-Carrico Building

-Centennial Street Development

-Chapman & Bowling LLC

-Charles County Foursquare Church

-Charles County Rescue Squad

-Civista Medical Center

-County First Bank-Dash In

-Dawson Building-Drs. DiLorenzo & Hrechka

-La Plata Police Department

-La Plata Shopping Center

-La Plata United Methodist Church

-Martin’s Service Station

-Mitchell Building-Mitchell’s/The Greene Turtle

-Mote Management-Mudd, Mudd & Fitzgerald

-Norris Building-The La Grange Building

-Title Professionals

The signs will be on display through April to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tornado. For more information, stop in at participating locations or the town hall at 305 Queen Anne St., or go to www.townoflaplata.org.