Like many of us, Creston track coach Pat Schlapia finds himself looking back one year as the weekend approaches.
Today occupies a spot on the calendar each year as the Friday in April when the Panther Relays is held.
But now, the day after the Panther Relays is linked to another occasion in Creston history. An EF2 tornado formed quickly on the outskirts of Creston just before 7 p.m. on April 14, 2012.
It left behind a trail of destruction, which included the CHS athletic facilities that hosted the Panther Relays the previous night.
When the storm quickly developed that Saturday evening, Schlapia found himself smack in the middle of the tornado on the second floor of Creston Middle School, making copies of the previous night’s track results for the Creston News Advertiser. He shudders to think what might have happened had the storm hit 24 hours earlier.
Scores of high school kids and fans were assembled at Panther Field for the track meet. The way boards and nails and other debris went flying around, including the auxiliary bleachers tossed to the middle of the football field, it seems unlikely that serious injuries wouldn’t have occurred.
There just wasn’t enough warning for people to find shelter, when the storm popped up 24 hours later.
Schlapia recalls dropping his mother (Patty) and brother (John) off at their home after Saturday evening church services, and heading up to the school to make the copies around 6:30 p.m.
It was a routine errand. He would be back soon, he told them, and they could have dinner together.
“You know, we had such a beautiful evening at our track meet the night before,” Schlapia said, “and Saturday wasn’t much different when I parked in front of the school. The sun was out, it was daylight. You wouldn’t have thought anything was out of the ordinary.”
Schlapia walked up to the teachers’ work room on the second floor to use the copy machine. The shades were closed on the windows.
Suddenly, it seemed to turn darker, and then the power went out.
“The security lights were still on,” Schlapia said Thursday. “I went out to the second floor hallway, and I started hearing rumbling and stuff. At first, I thought it must be some big thunder. There was a pelting sound against the building, like a real hard rain or hail.”
Actually, it was debris from the destruction of the Green Hills AEA buidling and nearby apartments that slammed against the school building, and Schlapia’s car. He heard a noise above him, and the air conditioning unit was “bouncing around” in the ceiling.
“I just thought, holy cow, what is going on?” Schlapia said. “It was pitch black and raining hard, and just 15 minutes before it was daylight. I had my cell phone with me, but there was no service. I really didn’t know what was going on.”
Schlapia had been through numerous severe storm drills at school and knew procedures to find safety. But he wasn’t sure there was a safe place in the buidling, with so much collapsing above him. Glass in the front entry way broke and water and debris came flying inside.
It was dark, and pouring rain, as he rushed out to his car.
“I just thought, if I’m going down, I’m not going down in this school building making track copies!” he said Thursday, as he stood wrapped in winter clothing at track practice amid snow flurries in yet another wacky period of April weather in Iowa.
He pulled some aluminum siding from a nearby building off the front grill of his car, got in and drove through a mess of building debris.
“People asked what I thought about the AEA building and so forth,” Schlapia said, “but it was so dark I didn’t even notice. A cable that was hangning down hit my car at about the windshield level. My back window was blown out. When I got home I had a flat tire.”
Schlapia’s first stop was my house. He was delivering the track results. He looked strange, like he was in a state of shock, as I was when I looked out and saw his car.
Insulation and wood pieces were smashed against the rain-soaked side of his car. The back window was obviously gone, and the car was noticeably dented. He was soaked.
“What happened?” I asked.
He said there had been some severe wind and there was a lot of damage up by the school.
If not for that tip, I wouldn’t have been able to react so quickly with a camera on the scene. Of course, I ended up with two flat tires, trying to navigate around the damage near the bus barn and stadium.
I was in contact with colleague Kyle Wilson, who was out of town that evening, and found out Stephani Finley and Amy Hansen were busy covering the damage around the hospital and SWCC. So I stayed around the school to survey damage there.
I got home just before the two tires went totally flat. Like Schlapia, I was amazed at what I was seeing as I returned to the area Sunday morning.
For Schlapia, it was a little emotional, because it was apparent how severe the storm was, and he had been smack in the middle of its path.
“The next day, when I went up to the school to help with the cleanup, and I saw the apartments and the AEA building, and then the school grounds,” Schlapia said. “I was thanking my lucky stars that I got through that.”
Many of the new hurdles the school had purchased for the track season were strewn along North Cherry Street. The scoreboard was a twisted wreck, bleachers were thrown across the football field. An athletic storage shed was leveled, not far from where a gaping hole was left in the bus barn.
There were oddities in the storm, too.
“For some reason it took the one bigger shed, but that old mouse-infested little shed where we kept some of the older hurdles and blocks, it stood solid,” Schlapia said, shaking his head.
Schlapia lives only a few blocks west of me, near McKinley Park. If he had stayed home, it would have been a much different evening. While the tornado was hitting, I was oblivious, having a leisurely dinner at home with Deb. I remember trying to call Pat to tell him to wait on making copies for me, if the developing rain got too heavy.
Alas, he was already on the second floor of the school, about to begin his harrowing experience.
“Yeah, if I had stayed home, I just had a couple of limbs down and the electricity went off,” he said. “I would have waited, had I known. But the sun was out, and there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about.”
A year later, the facilities are rebuilt at Greater Regional Medical Center, Southwestern Community College and Creston Community Schools. A new scoreboard is in place, new hurdles and a new high jump pit are in place for tonight’s track meet.
But, just to be sure, I’m going to tell Schlapia to not venture out Saturday evening on our behalf!
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