The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Deputies led 20 to safety after storm
RELATED: ‘I thought I was going to die’
BY JEFF BRANSCOME
Spotsylvania County sheriff’s Deputy Jesse Hanrahan saw a woman lying on the floor after he walked into what was left of the Cheer Fusion All-Stars gym.
She was in the lobby at the former warehouse on Fleming Street after a microburst tore through an area near Four-Mile Fork on Sunday evening.
The woman, Michelle Smith, told him she had fallen and that everyone else was in another room, which she called the main gym. A lot of them could be trapped beneath a wall that collapsed, she said.
So the deputy walked through a doorway and into broad daylight. The roof was gone, as was a wall to his right.
“My first thought was, if someone’s under the wall, how are we going to get to them?” Hanrahan, 26, recalled in an interview Tuesday. “Because, obviously, I can’t pick up the wall.”
He was the first on the scene after the powerful thunderstorm destroyed the 6,868-square-foot cheerleader-training facility between Lafayette Boulevard and U.S. 1.
The storm dumped debris on a house next door and pushed it off the foundation. The straight-line winds ripped the roof off parts of a small strip shopping center nearby. And in Spotswood Estates the microburst packing winds of 80 mph downed trees, damaging homes and vehicles.
Hanrahan, a father of four who has been with the county Sheriff’s Office for a little more than four years, said he received the emergency call shortly after his shift had been scheduled to end.
He had checked on a 7–Eleven on Lafayette Boulevard without power before responding to Cheer Fusion.
After he walked into the main gym, which had been reduced to piles of concrete blocks, he heard shouting from a small rectangular auxiliary gym.
About 20 people, mostly teenagers, were inside, he said. They were at the gym for a 5 p.m. practice session.
An adult pointed out parent Heath Mullins, who told the deputy he thought he had broken bones.
A beam had apparently fallen on him as he helped usher children and other parents to safety.
“He wasn’t disoriented. He wasn’t in and out of consciousness or anything,” Hanrahan recalled. “He was aware of what was going on.”
Mullins had multiple fractures of his feet, legs and back.
He and the other injured parent, Michelle Smith, were in stable condition at Mary Washington Hospital on Tuesday evening.
An adult in the auxiliary gym also told Hanrahan that Smith was believed to be missing. He determined she was the woman he’d seen lying near the front door when he arrived.
So Hanrahan told everyone to start filing out before more of the building collapsed. He then helped escort Mullins to safety.
Hanrahan estimated that it took about five minutes from the time he entered the gym to get those inside to start leaving.
“It turned out pretty much as good as it could have,” he said. “It could’ve been horrific.”
The decision by the adults to gather in the auxiliary gym is what saved everybody, he said.
Spotsylvania Deputy David Setlock said he arrived to see about 20 children running from the side of the building. He and Sgt. Frank Belcher carried Smith out of the shattered structure.
They also inspected the second floor. Belcher said that when he looked out a window, he realized most of the building was gone.
“I definitely thought more people were going to be injured seriously,” he said.
Setlock said he stayed on the scene until 8 o’clock Monday morning, about 6 hours after his shift was scheduled to end.
After seeing the severity of the damage, he said, “I was amazed that anyone had actually lived through it.”
Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402