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Video: Quick-thinking Lowe’s employees hailed as heroes

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    >> in north carolina was almost completely destroyed when a powerful tornado tore through the building with nearly 100 people inside. remarkably no one was seriously injured thanks to quick-thinking employees. bobby gibson is one of the heroes who helped get his customers and co-workers to safety. gary and kathy hendricks were shopping there when the storm hit. good morning.

    >> thank you.

    >> bobby, when did you first realize the lowe 's store was in the direct path of the tornado?

    >> yes, ma'am. roughly about ten minutes prior we heard that we were under a tornado watch and a warning. roughly about two minutes before the storm made impact, my senior store manager mike holowell saw commotion. he could see the cloud. he didn't describe it as a funnel but more like a cloud wall of rain and cloud and debris coming toward the store from the parking lot across the road from us in that shopping center . at that point it was just reacting off instinct. roughly 90 seconds to two minutes to really just react and try to get everyone to the safest part of the building in the rear of the building.

    >> i know you train for situations like this, but nobody expects they will see a tornado coming right at them. you said you had very little time to react. were you nervous you couldn't get everybody to the back of the store in time?

    >> oh, yes, ma'am. that's one of those things that your emotions and i could just think of getting everybody to safety. me and mike were communicating back and forth on the phone to -- you know, where are you at, did you check this area, that area. all we could think about is getting everyone to the rear of the building. the training became instinct. yeah, you can't train for something like this.

    >> absolutely.

    >> not in this amount of time.

    >> gary , you and your wife were checking out and saw the funnel cloud coming toward you. how nervous were you seeing that as it approached? describe what was going on in the store?

    >> yes. we were at the cashier's checking out. i'm not one that likes to stand in line a long time. i went over to the front glass and was looking out. i saw a cloud i can't describe. it was like sparkling mist, not what you expect to be a tornado. i turned around, looked at the cashier and said, is that a tornado? she looks and shortly afterward a bunch of lowe 's employees showed up. we started moving away from the window. the interesting thing was a customer said, oh, that's no tornado. you don't know what you're talking about.

    >> so there was confusion.

    >> yes. they started moving back toward the front again.

    >> how much do you --

    >> one of the employees said --

    >> i'm sorry. i was going to ask how much do you credit then the great work of all of the employees at lowe 's, like bobby who herded you back to a safer place. kathy ?

    >> everything.

    >> and yes, when that man said that it could have been a disaster. one of the employees said, listen, folks, let's not be stupid. everyone head to the back of the store. when we headed to the back of the store the employees had us focus, follow us, come with us, we are taking you to a safe area . that prevented everyone from being pan i cicpanicked. it was a smooth transition and when we hit the safe area and got down on the floor we had about five seconds when the winds blew through the building. so their quick response saved everyone.

    >> absolutely.

    >> well, bobby gibson, great work to you and the employees at lowe 's who acted so quickly. gary and kathy we're happy you're safe.

    >> thank you.

    >> the training kicked in.

    >> it's instinct. you don't expect

By
TODAY contributor
updated 4/18/2011 9:16:17 AM ET 2011-04-18T13:16:17

It was like nothing they had ever seen — a shimmering wall of debris and danger bearing down like a freight train on the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Sanford, N.C. It was one of more than 60 tornadoes that raked the state Saturday, leaving a trail of death and destruction.

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With only seconds to react, store employees herded about 100 customers to the most secure corner of the vulnerable steel-frame building. And when the storm had passed, a few had minor injuries, but all had survived, huddled in the only part of the building left standing.

“When we hit the safe area, got down on the floor, we had about five seconds,” survivor Gary Hendricks told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Monday. “Their quick response saved everyone.”

Seconds to react
The race against death began about 3:10 p.m. Saturday, assistant manager Bobby Gibson told Morales. All day, there had been reports that the worst storm in a generation was about to slam into North Carolina, and tornado warnings had been posted. But it wasn’t until two minutes before the storm actually hit that Lowe’s employees realized how close the danger was.

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A commotion sent store manager Mike Hollowell to the front doors, and when he and Gibson glanced outside, they saw danger looming. “We could see the cloud ... it was more of a wall of rain and debris coming toward the store from the parking lot across from us.”

Though the employees had been trained to deal with disasters, nothing had prepared them for peril on this scale. “We were just reacting off instinct,” Gibson told Morales. “We had roughly 90 seconds to two minutes to ... react and try to get everyone to the safest part of the building, the rear of the building.”

TODAY
From left, Lowe’s employee Bobby Gibson and survivors Gary Hendricks and Kathy Hendricks recount their narrow escape on TODAY.

At first, Hendricks said, some customers were mesmerized by the bizarre appearance of the storm. “We were at the cashier, checking out, and I’m not one that likes to stand in line, so I went over to the front glass,” Hendricks recalled. “I saw a cloud that I can’t describe; it was almost like sparkling mist … it didn’t look like what you would normally expect to be a tornado. I turned around and I looked at the cashier. I said, ‘Is that a tornado?’ ”

Video: Deadly storms kill dozens across 6 states  (on this page)

Within seconds, store employees began herding customers to the back of the building. But first, they had to persuade some skeptics that the threat was real, Hendricks said.

One customer urged the others not to follow the employees to safety, saying, “That’s not a tornado; you don’t know what you’re talking about.” For one perilous instant, other customers wavered. “When they heard that, they started moving back toward the front again,” Hendricks told Morales.

But quick-thinking employees quickly regained control of the situation. “When that man said that, that could have been disaster,” Hendricks said. “One of the employees said, ‘Listen, folks, let’s not be stupid. Everyone head [to] the back of the store.’ ”

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“When we got to the back of the store, the employees had a focus … that prevented everyone from being panicked.”

Video: Quick-thinking Lowe’s employees hailed as heroes (on this page)

It took only a few seconds for the tornado to reduce the front of the building to a jagged mass of twisted steel and shattered glass. But thanks to the quick thinking and calm determination of the employees, the customers inside had been spared the fate that met 21 of their fellow North Carolinians, killed in the worst spring storms since the 1980s.

While acknowledging his disaster training, Gibson said it was instinct that made the difference. “When you get trained for something like this, it’s not for that kind of reaction time. It’s just phenomenal,” he said.

“All we could think about was getting everyone to the rear of the building. The training became instinct at that point.”

                       

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Photos: Dozens dead after storms rip through 6 states

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  1. Dade County High School student Marcella Lackey, second left, dances with Craig Holmes, left, at her high school prom in Dade County, Ga., on Saturday, May 14. Two weeks after a tornado devastated their town, students from Dade County High came together for their prom, hoping the traditional teenage rite of passage can help them regain a sense of normalcy. (Billy Weeks / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial photo taken on April 17 shows a home severely damaged by a tornado that ripped through Gloucester, Va. on April 16. Tornadoes and flash flooding have left several people dead in Virginia, and crews are continuing to assess damage that severe weekend storms caused across several areas of the state. (Randall Greenwell / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tornado victim Clay Anderson, left, with his dog Mindy, sits on the steps of his back porch and talks with American Red Cross volunteer Kathi Garrett in the Saint Andrews community in Sanford, N.C. on April 17. (Wesley Beeson / The Sanford Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Nathaniel Ramey, left, comforts Megan Hurst at her grandmother's house in Askewville, N.C. on April 17 after a tornado struck the previous day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. This aerial photo taken on April 17 shows a home severely damaged by a tornado that ripped through Gloucester, Va. on April 16. (Randall Greenwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Kathy Gay looks up at the damaged ceiling in the home of her brother Gary Jordan on April 17 in Gloucester, Va. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A car is swallowed up by a hole left after a tree fell as a tornado passed just south of downtown Raleigh, N.C. on April 17. (Stan Gilliland / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The remains of two school buses at Page Middle School in Gloucester, Va. on April 17, a day after the tornado hit. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Chris Nelson hugs his daughter Andrea, 15, in the parking lot in front of Lowe's hardware store in Sanford, N.C. on April 17, a day after a tornado destroyed the building while the Nelsons were inside shopping. The Nelsons returned Sunday to reclaim their truck, back right. (Ted Richardson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. An aerial photo shows tornado damage at the Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford, N.C. on April 17. (Thomas Babb / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Mary Grady sits in her neighbor's yard where she rode out a tornado in Askewville, N.C. on April 17. Her home was destroyed in the storm. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A woman inspects her home and car in Raleigh, N.C. on April 17, after homes and businesses were badly damaged Saturday by a severe storm system that whipped across the state. It brought flash floods, hail and reports of tornadoes from the western hills to the streets of Raleigh. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Debris fill the street after a tornado hit Raleigh, N.C., April 17. Tornadoes tore through the Carolinas on Saturday afternoon as the death toll rose to at least 45 people from the storms across the southern United States over the last three days. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Raleigh police officer J.L. Bloodworth speaks with a man seeking information about relatives who live at the Stoney Brook Mobile Home Park in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, April 16, where three people where killed. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A worker takes a picture of the damage left behind by a tornado in Raleigh, N.C. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Jeffrey Tan, 13, left, sits on the tree that fell on his great-grandmother's house, Saturday, April 16, in Raleigh, N.C. (Chris Seward / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An auto repair shop lost its back wall and roof after a tornado ripped through the area, Saturday, April 16, in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Emergency personnel confer in front of Lowe's Home Improvement after it was hit by a tornado in Sanford, N.C., Saturday, April 16. "The Lowe's Home Improvement has been flattened," said Monica Elliott, who works at the nearby Brick City Grill. "It's totally destroyed." (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A.C. Bivens looks at the damage to his home after a tornado ripped through Washington County, Ala., on April 16. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Family and friends go through the debris of what is left of Gene Box's trailer after a tornado killed her and two of her children while ripping through Washington County, Ala., on April 16. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Only stairs and flowers remain Saturday, April 16, after severe winds tore a mobile home off its lot late Friday night in Boone's Chapel, Ala. (Amanda Sowards / Montgomery Advertiser via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Bill Mosley, right, urges his daughter Lisa Mosley to walk carefully through the spare bedroom, fearful that she step on a roofing nail as the two gather possessions from the tornado damaged house in Clinton, Miss., Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Standing amid downed trees and destroyed houses, members of Southside Baptist Church of Yazoo City, give a prayer of thanks following several hours of work cutting up trees and removing storm debris in this Clinton, Miss., neighborhood, Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A car drives through a partially flooded street, Friday, April 15, 2011 in Decatur, Ala. (John Godbey / The Decatur Daily via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Storms continue to brew as I-20 is shut down after a morning tornado downed power lines and overturned cars and trucks Friday, April 15, in Clinton, Miss. (Brian Albert Broom / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Friends and neighbors help tornado stricken residents remove possessions in east Clinton, Miss., Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A billboard lays collapsed on the ground after a tornado went through Friday, April 15, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Michelle Lepianka Carter / The Tuscaloosa News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Makala Welch helps her grandparents clean up after a tornado touched down in Clinton, Miss., April 15. (Charles Smith / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Jerome Whittington attempts to salvage belongings through the window of his automobile in Tushka, Okla., Friday, April 15. (Sue Ogrocki / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Two women stand in the middle of what used to be houses after a large tornado hit the small town of 350 people, killing two, in Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A woman removes belongings from a house damaged after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Evan Whitehead walks past a family member's vehicle and house while looking for belongings after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Volunteers pitch in to remove branches from a fallen oak tree in Tushka, Okla., Friday, April 15, following a tornado. (Sue Ogrocki / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Denym Pingleton, left, carries her books out of the inside of what is left of their school with fellow students Kayla Wilhite, right, and Courtney Wilhite after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A severe storm passes over east Tulsa and the Renaissance Hotel, in Tulsa, Okla., April 14. (James Gibbard / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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