Power was knocked out about 4 p.m. in parts of Lumberton, making the traffic light at the busy intersection of Roberts Avenue and Fayetteville Road go dark.
While a mass of vehicles tried to maneuver through the intersection, a gray van traveling on Roberts Avenue T-boned another gray van, sending it rolling into a stationary pickup at the stoplight, according to Lumberton police.
The van continued to move forward, jumping a curve on Fayetteville Road and sliding into a canal.
No one was seriously injured in the wreck, according to Amanda Crabtree, public relations coordinator for Southeastern Regional Medical Center.
The staff at SRMC had not seen any other storm related injuries by nightfall, she said.
The lack of reported injuries belies the massive damage found throughout the county, from Rowland through north of Lumberton.
Ron Steve, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, said that damage reports from the thunderstorm cell that ripped through Robeson County on Saturday afternoon began in Little Rock, S.C., near Dillon. It made its way north through Rowland, then hit west and north Lumberton.
“If you connect the dots, that’s a 50 mile path,” Steve said.
“This was one thunderstorm cell with consistent rotation, but we are not sure, at this time, if this was one tornado or a family of tornadoes,” Steve said. Weather service teams will assess the damage today.
Rowland saw some of the worst damage, including blown out the windows at South Robeson High School.
Rowland Police Chief John Reaves said that the east side of Rowland saw extensive damage.
“Trees are down, telephone polls are snapped in two,” Reaves said. “Buildings have been torn apart and roofs blown off.”
Reaves said that most of downtown Rowland was untouched.
According to Rowland firefighter Josh Strickland, several trees were knocked down in town, a recreation building was demolished, and debris remained scattered along the streets throughout town after sunset.
“We were able to get power back on in the left side of Rowland around 8 o’clock,” Strickland said. “It’s going to be awhile before anything else gets done. The Red Cross is here helping us out.”
A tornado was also spotted tearing through the Saddletree subdivision Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a disaster … a natural disaster,” said Linda Emanuel, of 852 Saddletree Road. She was in her home along with her husband Carvey, and grandson Jacob Bullard, 14, at the time the tornado hit.
“Suddenly it got very windy,” she said. “We looked out the front windows and noticed that things from our neighbor’s yard were blowing into ours.”
Emanuel then said that she heard a sound that resembled that of a train coming from a distance.
“We looked out the back door, and saw all this,” she said of her demolished storage shed and an ATV trailer that had been turned on its side. “When I saw the damage, I felt lucky — very, very lucky,” she said.
Carvey Emanuel said that he didn’t know what he would do next. “All I can do now is try to settle this mess with the insurance company,” he said.
Just down the road, neighbor George Matthews was hit hard for the second time this week.
He was in his home at 131 Greenview Drive, in the comfort of friends and family mourning the loss of his wife, Ella, who had passed away from cancer on Friday. He was keeping an eye on the storm through the glass door, when he saw a tornado approaching through the parking lot of the church across the street.
“It may not have been all that large but to me, the tornado was huge,” he said. “I saw the tornado coming towards the house, and before I knew it the glass blew out of my door and the gust blew me back about 8 feet into my kitchen. By the time I got back up on my feet, my roof had blown off.”
Matthews said that the tornado did it’s damage in all of 5 minutes.
“That’s how fast it happened,” he said. “It hit, and then it was gone.”
Just as fast, neighbors, friends and family mobilized to weatherproof Matthew’s home. Members of his church, Rockhill Missionary Baptist on Pine Log Road, scrambled over his property taping windows, cutting down damaged trees, and sealing the roof from leaks.
Matthews sat in his front yard, surveying the work on his house. He smiled as the clouds broke and rays of sunshine hit his face.
“The sun’s coming out,” he said. “That’s a good thing — that’s a great thing.”
A few miles east of Saddletree, Gardens of Faith cemetery saw tremendous damage. Hundreds of grave stones were overturned and nearly every tree in the cemetery was ripped from the ground or split into pieces.
The north entrance to the cemetery was completely blocked with trees that once lined the drive.
“It didn’t really hit me until I saw my momma and daddy’s monument,” said Brenda Lawson, of Lumberton.
Her sister, Barbara Tyner, also of Lumberton, said that they hadn’t received any damage to their nearby homes.
Sandra Davis, of Lumberton, and her family went to asses the damage of her parent’s, aunt’s and cousin’s grave stones, none of which had been damaged.
“Tornadoes don’t happen in Lumberton,” Davis said. “It took everybody by surprise.”
Beside the cemetery, two telephone polls fell across Braircliff Drive, leaving the neighborhood without power.
Roy Lindsey, of 5200 Flynn Lane, said he was looking out the window of his home and saw a bright blue light and heard loud cracks and pops. When he went outside to assess the damage, the carport on the right side of his home had blown over the house, punctured a hole in the roof and landed in pieces in his neighbor’s yard.
“It lasted all of 17 seconds,” Lindsey said. He and his wife were in the home, but were safe. “Since I’ve been here — since the 198os — I’ve been through hurricanes before, but nothing like this. I don’t even know what to call it.”
Charles Chrestman, the president of Robeson Community College, said five buildings on campus were damaged by what he called a tornado. He said the most damage was done to the Basic Law Enforcement/Criminal Justice building.
He added that the windows were blown out of at least 10 cars that were parked on campus.
Chrestman said a couple of adults on campus “were shaken up,” but they were not injured. He said SRMC was holding a seminar on campus, and there were some Basic Law Enforcement students on hand. They were able to provide aid to people who were shaken up.
“We’re just thankful no one was hurt,” he said. “We can fix buildings and replace trees.”
North Carolina officials said there were multiple fatalities and they were working to confirm the exact number. Urban search and rescue teams were in two counties looking for residents who might be trapped in damaged buildings. There were 62 separate reports of tornadoes in the state, according to NC public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema.
— Contributing to this report were staff writers Donnie Douglas, Brad Crawford, Ali Rockett, Abbigail Overfelt, Melinda Oxendine and John Charles Robbins, and The Associated Press.