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.
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.
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.”
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.’ ”
More Tales of Survival
“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.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints