Sunday, July 6, 2003

Storm turns deadly; thousands still in dark

Falling tree kills two women at holiday cookout

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Debris from powerful winds remains Saturday in the back yard of a home on Rockdale Avenue. Laverta Walker, 74, and Resna Leatherwood, 36, were killed when a gust split a 50-foot maple tree during a family Fourth of July cookout.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
Thousands of Greater Cincinnatians remain without power this morning, and one family is coping with the deaths of two family members caused by an accident following Friday night's powerful thunderstorms.

Fireworks celebrations were canceled or postponed because of the fast-moving storms that rolled into the region around 9 p.m. Friday and initially knocked out power to 155,000 Cinergy Corp. customers - from Middletown to Northern Kentucky - said spokesman Steve Brash.

About 11,600 customers remained without power Saturday evening, but all are expected to have their power restored by the end of today.

The potent storms accompanied hail, winds up to 60 mph and skies that left just 0.2 inches of rain at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport but as much as 5 inches in the northern half of Butler County, said meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio.

"Basically, we had a cluster of thunderstorms develop to the Northwest (Illinois and Indiana), " said meteorologist Allen Randall.

Severe thunderstorm watches were issued until 10 p.m. Saturday for a large section of the Midwest, including an area from Indianapolis to Cincinnati and west of Wilmington.

Scattered thunderstorms are forecast for later today and Monday night, with high temperatures near 90 degrees both days.

While homeowners across the Tristate cleared trees and debris from their yards Saturday, the Youngblood family in Avondale could barely approach the 50-foot maple that split "like a sling shot" about 9:30 p.m. Friday and killed Laverta Walker of Evanston, the family's 74-year-old matriarch, and her 36-year-old daughter, Resna Leatherwood of Avondale.

The two women were pronounced dead at University Hospital shortly after the incident.

Sterling Youngblood, who lost her grandmother and aunt, said about 20 relatives had gathered for a Fourth of July cookout behind her Rockdale Avenue home when a strong gust of wind split the tree in her backyard and left devastation in its wake.

Youngblood said her aunt, a mother of three, was sitting in a lawn chair when the thickest part of the tree limb fell, crushing her against the ground.

Youngblood also saw the upper part of the tree limb - with a diameter equivalent to that of a cantaloupe - fall on her grandmother, a mother of eight, as she walked toward a picnic table. The blow knocked Walker down on a concrete drive and she never regained consciousness.

"My grandmother was the one that kept this family breathing, and we're just gasping for air," said Youngblood. "I'm still in shock.

"My grandmother raised her brothers, her kids, me, my child. (And) my aunt was just like a sister. She made us laugh, made us cry. She was our everything."

It was merely drizzling when the tree cracked low to the ground, said Youngblood's 10-year-old son, Malik. Part of the tree fell on his leg but he was unhurt.

Malik always used to visit Walker after school. One of the most devastating things for his mother has been to hear him inquire about where he will go when school resumes, now that his grandmother is dead.

"She taught us well," said a dazed Youngblood, standing Saturday morning near the tree that fell on picnic tables, fireworks and cookout debris. Food was still on the grill.

"Fourth of July will never be the same for me."

Elsewhere Saturday, thousands gathered in parks and along river banks Saturday to get a second shot at catching a fireworks show. Independence Day displays were rescheduled in Evendale, St. Bernard, Wyoming, Florence, Hamilton and Middletown, although some were delayed by rain.

Reading's fireworks show, scheduled for Saturday, was postponed because of the bad weather. The show is to be at 9:30 p.m. today.

Middletown Police Sgt. Jim Cunningham said that his community was still recovering. About 2,500 residents remained without power Saturday evening.

On Friday, the police department activated tornado sirens and, because all the 911 lines were jammed, no one could get through to the city's five dispatchers.

In Dayton, large crowds quickly left a celebration at the U.S. Air Force Museum marking the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight.

Organizers canceled the event's fireworks show and Saturday's hot air balloon show that is part of the city's 17-day celebration of the Wright brothers.

In Ludlow, Ky., a Kenton County sheriff's police cruiser was damaged by a fallen tree Friday night. The officer was not hurt.

Enquirer reporters Andrea Uhde and Erica Solvig and the Associated Press contributed. E-mail

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