Tornado victim: 'I thought we were going to die'

By Stuart Dye

The children's beds are a grim reminder of the tornado's fury - and show how one young family were just moments from tragedy.

Shards of jagged glass spear the mattresses where the youngsters would have been sleeping just two hours later - the windows blown in by the tornado's force.

"I thought we were going to die," says Deborah Chester as she sorts through the ruin of her home in Oakura, Taranaki.

"It's just immense, just crazy," says husband Chris. "Everything is destroyed. It's all ruined. We don't know where we will go now. It's time to look for somewhere else to live."

The Chesters moved from England four years ago to escape the threat of terrorism.

Mrs Chester was sitting in a second-floor office facing the beach when she saw "two black swirls" heading straight towards her.

She grabbed daughters, Paige, 6, and Madison, 8, and carried one under each arm as she fled the house. Seconds later the roof was partly ripped off and the windows imploded, sending shards of glass through the house and embedding them in the beds of the children.

"Two hours later my girls would have been lying there," says Mr Chester, pointing to a bed. "They are still petrified."

The small beachside town of Oakura was the hardest hit as seven tornadoes ripped through Taranaki on Thursday.

Only as the day dawned yesterday did the full extent of the devastation - and the brute force of the tornado that caused it - become apparent.

Glass shards were embedded in steel posts, a mobile home was flipped 180 degrees and a fence ripped away by the wind was found almost 1km away.

Trees lay strewn around, road signs and power poles were bent at right angles and an 8m wooden barge board that flew 500m was still stuck in a stone roof.

The owner of that roof, Paul Cunningham, considered himself one of the lucky ones. "Can you even begin to imagine the ferocity of that travelling through the air?"

As many as 60 Oakura homes were damaged when the tornado hit. As the clean-up got under way yesterday it was thought at least six were beyond repair.

But there was a sense of disbelief that it was only structural damage and no one was hurt.

"I don't want to overstate it, but it's a miracle there has not been serious injury or worse," said David Walter, chairman of the Taranaki Regional Council.

Mr Walter's family have farmed in east Taranaki "since the bush was felled". He said the damage was comparable only to that caused by Cyclone Bola in 1988.

The tornado came from the sea and destroyed everything in its path as it spiralled inland.

Around the corner from the Chesters' Messenger Tce house, Patricia Holmes was outside her Mcfarlane St home yesterday clearing up inside as workmen put tarpaulins over her destroyed roof.

She was preparing a roast for visitors when the tornado struck. She rushed to the lounge and grabbed the heaviest piece of furniture there.

"I held on to the organ and I won't repeat my words because you couldn't print them," she said.

The windows blew in and the roof "flew away". Glass was embedded in the wall, but missed Mrs Holmes.

"How it did not hit me I don't know. I've never seen a tornado before and I hope I never do again."

Directly opposite Mrs Holmes, Trish Whitney was looking at her house, which was completely untouched by the tornado.

"We heard it and our fence has gone, but not one bit of damage to the house. It passed us by and you think 'There but for the grace of God ... ' "

Mrs Holmes' and Mrs Whitney's story is repeated all over Oakura. Destroyed or severely damaged houses sit metres from others the tornado missed on its indiscriminate path.

"There's a few people will be buying a Lotto ticket today," said Mrs Whitney.

One of those might be Norman Forth, who was sitting in his caravan at the Oakura Holiday Camp when the tornado hit.

"There was a bit of a rattle, then the windows smashed, then I flew up in the air. Next thing I know I'm coming to under the fridge-freezer."

Mr Forth climbed out of his caravan to find it lying on its side. According to a neighbour, it had been tossed more than 3m in the air.

"It's a 2000kg caravan, so maybe I'm lucky. But I would have been luckier if I lived there or there," Mr Forth said, pointing to the caravans either side, which the tornado missed by centimetres.

Behind his caravan, a mobile home that was empty at the time of the storm sat facing inland. Before the tornado hit, it faced the beach.

By last night about 1000 homes were still without power. That is likely to be restored later today but the clean-up operation will go on for some time yet.

Volunteer firefighters in Oakura worked through Thursday night - many of them despite the fact that their own homes were damaged. The lucky ones got an hour's sleep.

But they were buoyed by the community spirit.

People from surrounding towns arrived to offer what help they could. Roofers and builders worked for free, people brought hammers and chainsaws and others swept the roads or moved rubbish in barrows.

Two women - Margaret and Janet - served hot soup and muffins from the back of a car.

"We just live around the corner and you do what you've got to do to help," said Margaret.

"It's a great community and we're a resilient lot. We'll bounce back."

Tornadoes can be the most destructive of all weather phenomena, ripping houses from their foundations and lifting up cars and trees.

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