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Mormon site rides out tornado

Tourists still visited an historic Mormon site this week even though it was damaged by the recent tornadoes.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | LIBERTY, Mo. | May 7, 2003

"When it hit, debris and stuff was just falling all over. You couldn't see any distance."

—Rex Bennion

Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent a winter here in jail on a trumped-up charge of treason from December of 1838 through April 1839.

More than a century and a half later, on May 4, when a powerful tornado tore through town, the old jail that held Smith as an inmate made it through the storm.

But the surrounding Mormon-owned visitor center incurred serious roof damage. The roof sprouted leaks when the rain came, said Elder Rex Bennion, one of the tour guides.

Two blocks west at the town square, the damage was even worse. The area was roped off with police tape Tuesday morning as engineers checked the structural integrity of the public offices and downtown businesses. The damage to many of these buildings, according to police on the scene, was extensive. Dozens of homes in town saw damage on a similar scale, and several dormitories at a nearby college were also destroyed.

Bennion watched the storm front from the visitor's center, until the flying debris got so bad he descended into the basement with about 30 other people, most of them Mormon tourists, to ride out the tornado in safety.

"When it hit, debris and stuff was just falling all over. You couldn't see any distance. It was just a mass of whirling stuff going in the air," Bennion said. "I had never been in a tornado before. Hearing about them is one thing, and being in one is something else."

Despite the damage, the visitor center stayed open. Bennion was running tours the Monday following the storm. Never mind that electricity, phone service and gas lines were shut off all over the downtown area.

"We're running tours by flashlight," Bennion said, "but they're still coming in."

Indeed, down in a cavernous area that Bennion pointed out as "the old dungeon," a tour guide's flash-lit face was the only visible object in the darkness. Her presentation, which chronicles Smith's rather unpleasant four-month stint in jail, has the suggestion of a Halloween tour of a haunted house.

Bennion said 80,000 people toured the center last year, and nothing, not even a tornado, proved powerful enough to stop the steady influx of tourists.

Meanwhile, a few blocks southeast, just out of the path the tornado followed, the owners of the James Inn Bed and Breakfast picked up debris from around the building.

"We are blessed we don't have as much damage as some people. No structural damage," said Mary Ann Kimbrell, who along with her husband David, owns and runs an inn out of what was once the St. James Catholic Church. "We still have a steeple."

Several windows were blown out, and the roof lost a few tiles, but the Kimbrells and their guests emerged from the basement unscathed.

Two of the guests, Kimbrell said, were newlyweds from Kansas City, who got a little more excitement on their honeymoon than they had expected.

"They said, 'Man, this is probably a story we'll tell our grandchildren,'" David Kimbrell said.

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