Tornado strengthens PA family's faith

BY SUSAN KIM | SALISBURY, PA | July 20, 1998

SALISBURY, PA (July 20, 1998) -- The sound of 32 shattering windows -- many of them antique stained glass -- is

what Dawn Hillegas remembers the night a tornado ripped through her 100-year-

old Victorian home in Salisbury, PA on May 31. She stood in her dining room

curling her body around her 3-year-old daughter, Mariah, to protect her from

flying glass and debris.

"It didn't sound like regular glass breaking," said Dawn. "It sounded like

glass being shredded. The suction was so great it started pulling Mariah out

of my arms. By the time it was over, her head was above my head."

Dawn also painfully remembers another sound: the crunch of a bulldozer against their home, which had to be destroyed June 9 after structural evaluations by insurance adjusters, an architectural engineer, and two construction contractors. "I watched it come down," said Dawn. "I felt I needed that closure. But all week long, remembering that sound made me sick. It just

stayed with me."

The Hillegas family -- Dawn, Terry, Mariah, and their sons Anthony, 8, and

Russell, 4, were physically unharmed by the tornado, although Dawn and Mariah

were treated by a local doctor for minor cuts from glass. "When the doctor

heard I was standing with Mariah in the path of that much glass, he was amazed

we were alive," said Dawn. "All I can say is that God was standing behind me

that night."

The family's Saint Bernard, Maggie, was tied in the backyard and survived the

storm. "Normally she roams the yard," said Dawn. "But for some reason that

day, I tied her up. That's the only thing that saved her. She was still tied

when I ran out to check on her. But she wouldn't move at first. She stood so

still I thought the tornado had killed her and set her back down. Then she

slowly turned her head."

The tornado, which devastated the farm community, was followed by two more on

June 2 that struck nearby Elk Lick, Greenville, and Summit. The area's 800

residents are still recovering from an estimated $30 million in damages -- $5

million of it uninsured, including more than 50 homes destroyed and 100


Fortunately the Hillegas family had adequate insurance coverage. But that does

not ease the pain of losing their two-story, 4-bedroom home, which had a

summer kitchen, hardwood floors, 10-foot ceilings, a front porch, and

beautiful original wood carving throughout.

The family is temporarily living with Terry's parents in Salisbury, and

8-year-old Anthony said he misses his room, particularly the glow-in-the-dark

stars and planets he had stuck across one wall. "That was the wall that got

blowed out by the tornado. It was a scary night," he said. "Now I feel sad

about the house. When they came to tear it down, we stayed there a little bit

and watched."

Terry, who based his insurance business out of the home, is still setting up

his office in his parent's garage. In addition to destroying the windows, the

tornado doubled over the roof, released the main side walls, and destroyed

treasured possessions like an antique china cupboard that was the centerpiece

of the dining room.

But Dawn said her heart warms when she thinks of the people who helped the

family. St. John's United Church of Christ, the local fire department,

neighbors, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the local Lion's

Club all lent the family spiritual or financial support.

"Rev. Raymond Brown from St. John's has been excellent," she said. "He was

with us every day, including the day they brought the house down. We made

one last walk through it and he offered a prayer."

For 10 days after the tornado, the family thought their home could be saved.

"The insurance adjusters told us it could possibly be fixed," said Dawn. "Then

an architectural engineer spent two hours examining the house, and two

construction contractors each spent an hour and a half."

They found that saving the house would mean rebuilding the walls from the

ground up, replacing the roof, repairing plaster, installing new drywall,

rewiring and possibly revamping a structurally unsound foundation. The

Hillegas family and the contractors decided together that the home must come

down. "We were on a yo-yo wondering if we could keep our house," said Dawn.

"We would have loved to have saved the house."

The family, who had lived in the home since 1987, is planning to rebuild on

their one-acre lot. As they look toward the future, they also reflect on how

the loss has changed their faith.

"I went to church every Sunday before this happened," said Dawn. "But now

my faith is even stronger. Before, I sometimes thought 'Is He really

listening to me?' Now, I hear my questions answered and my feelings

reflected in the anthems and the sermon. When I go to church now, I cry a

lot, because so many things are being answered for me."

Posted July 20, 1998

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