‘We just held on for dear life’ Tornado formed from coastal storms

Resident Julie Bercik looks over what’s left of her home Friday after a tornado slammed Sonny Boy Lane on Johns Island.

A tornado with 130-mph wind ripped through Johns Island and West Ashley early Friday, cutting a 7-mile-long swath of splintered centuries-old oak trees, nearly leveling a home and damaging 80 others, and sending mailboxes, plywood and boats flying through the air.

Despite the destruction in communities along Sonny Boy Lane and Old Pond, River and Fickling Hill roads, the twister spared the most precious thing: lives.

Families huddled in bathrooms, closets and bedrooms as their furniture, musical instruments and family albums were sucked from their homes. No one was seriously hurt.

It spared the young father who swooped up his sleeping infant and ducked into a closet just as the door was ripped from its hinges. It spared the family of four who sought refuge in a bedroom only to have the wind cut the stilts from under their mobile home, sending it crashing 10 feet to the ground. It spared the couple who clung to their dogs and each other as the storm relocated every other room in their house to the front yard.

The tornado struck after midnight, a time when such storms are more likely to endanger sleeping residents. But almost all of the people in the hardest-hit neighborhoods were awakened by a Wireless Alert System tone that blared over their mobile phones four minutes before the twister touched down. Many, though, said they initially ignored the chime because of the less serious flash-flood warnings they often get.

Most on Sonny Boy Lane spent Friday counting their blessings and salvaging their possessions. The American Red Cross offered hotel stays to four families whose homes were uninhabitable.

About 4,000 homes lost power. Berkeley Electric Cooperative had restored electricity to most, but the undertaking to remove trees and fix 40 utility poles will be immense.

John Bercik sifted through the rubble of his brick house, plucking out a Stratocaster guitar and anything else he could load into a U-Haul truck. The storm had dislodged all but his garage and the bedroom he was in.

“None of this really matters,” he said. “When you have all the people you care about, that’s all that matters.”

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service surveyed the communities to determine the tornado’s strength and path. Michael Emlaw, who leads the Charleston office, estimated the twister to be an EF-2 with winds on the upper end of a 111- to 135-mph range.

In a display of the storm’s power, pieces of plywood torn from one home impaled a palm tree. An air-conditioning unit was hurled 150 feet.

“This was obviously pretty significant,” Emlaw said. “These people are very fortunate.”

Tornadoes are rarely fatal in the Lowcountry. Funnel clouds that do form typically are weak and short-lived.

But at times, a powerful one can strike with short warning. On Mother’s Day in 1998, a tornado hit Sangaree, killing an elderly woman, destroying 17 homes and damaging 190.

The last time a strong tornado touched down in the area was in May 2008 on Wadmalaw Island.

Friday morning’s twister spawned from a thunderstorm that rolled off the Atlantic Ocean near Folly Beach. The storm was moving northwest at 25 mph. Weather Service forecasters detected signs of rotation on radar, and they issued a tornado warning at 12:38 a.m. Distributed by local cellphone towers, the alert urged everyone to take shelter.

At 12:42 a.m., the twister touched down near Cane Slash Road, the Weather Service said. It spun north-northwest for 4 miles until turning northwest near the Stono River and lifting at 12:59 a.m. near U.S. Highway 17 and Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley.

Bob Scholes, 63, went to bed after watching football only to hear his cellphone go off. On an iPad, he scanned radar images for the signature “hook” that indicates swirling winds. But he could see only rain.

Still, Scholes and his wife heeded the warning and gathered in a first-floor laundry room as debris bombarded the house.

“The house just started to sway,” he said. “Things just started hitting the house. I just kept listening for the big crack.”

Lacking a better description, other residents said they heard what sounded like a train as the tornado neared.

In bed with his wife, Julie, in the single-story house they built 16 years ago, Bercik got the alerts, too. Knowing to seek shelter in an interior room, Julie Bercik opened the bedroom door, hoping to find a haven in the bathroom. She looked out and told her husband, “We don’t have a house.”

They collected their corgi and Labrador and opted for the closet.

“I’m so scared,” Julie Bercik said, looking for reassurance from her husband.

“Yeah,” he said, “so am I.”

The twister cut perpendicularly across Sonny Boy Lane.

On the other side of the street, Ryan Meadows ignored the first alert that lit up his cellphone.

“I thought it was some B.S. flash-flood alert,” he said.

When the second one came across, he thought about his 11-month-old daughter sleeping in another room on the third floor. After a brief quiet, he heard a roar.

He scooped up his baby, rain downstairs and ducked into a second-floor closet, covering the infant Madison with his own body as the closet door was ripped away. The wind tossed the contents of his home.

“My daughter never cried,” he said.

A mile away, on Old Pond Road, Alexandra Arias woke up with her husband. Her son, 10, came out of his room hollering. She woke her daughter, 7. They rushed into the master bedroom. She and her husband covered the children.

Then the stilts and cinder blocks meant to hold the mobile home above floodwaters gave way. Some stilts poked through the floor as the home fell 10 feet.

“Mommy,” her daughter said. “I want to be a survivor. I don’t want to die.”

“We just held on for dear life,” she said.

When the sun rose Friday, the landscape in Marshall Creek and other communities on Johns Island was changed.

By a Weather Service estimation, “thousands and thousands” of trees that attract tourists to the island were snapped into pieces.

The area teemed with insurance adjusters, utility crews and contractors offering their services. Local politicians — state Rep. Robert Brown, County Council Chairman Elliot Summey and Councilwoman Anna Johnson — surveyed the scene. Each official took the opportunity to argue for improved roads, such as Interstate 526, that offer better escape routes after disasters.

Arias escaped her collapsed rental home with a scratch on her leg. She was one of the few who saw any injury.

On Sonny Boy Lane, Meadows hauled away whatever he could salvage from his home. Much of the second story had been vacuumed into the maelstrom, leaving the third floor teetering above like a Jenga puzzle piece.

The roof over his daughter’s room had been ripped off.

The metal fence in his front yard was chewed up. Nearby, three deer lay dead.

“That alert on my iPhone,” he said, “was a savior.”

Next door, Lia Keston and her husband pulled dining room furniture out of their pool. The wind had blown out doors in their house, sweeping away the home’s contents. It left mud and leaves caked to their interior walls.

“We just put the home on the market two days ago,” she said. “I guess that’s not happening.”

The Berciks had escaped their home through a bedroom window. They saw trees that were stripped of their leaves and replaced with insulation from their home.

The floor of John Bercik’s 1,000-square-foot home music studio shifted 8 feet from its foundation. The rest landed in the front yard that was littered with Police and B-52 albums.

“I lost all of five shingles,” a next-door neighbor told the couple. “You guys lost your house.”

Bercik plucked a photo album from the rubble. He picked up a TV and hurled it to the ground. He found yarn his wife uses to make blankets for newborns.

He also unearthed a yellow T-shirt, and he put it on. It said, “Life is good.”

Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at (843) 607-0815.