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Posted August 15, 2011 | comments Leave a comment

Weekend storms: No special effects needed

Microburst creates surreal scene for thrift-store shoppers

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- Janie Fritzman thought she was cast in a movie she never auditioned for.

The door blew open. Winds rolled in. The roof flew off. Insulation came crashing down. With it, wood was smashing things.

People huddled and prayed. One man was thrown off a motorcycle. Another person was yanked from a banister.

An employee at the Shenandoah County Thrift Store, Fritzman witnessed what officials think was a microburst, or downburst, of wind during a Saturday afternoon thunderstorm.

It ripped into the northern and back portions of the store, at 659 N. Main St., and sent debris flying, some insulation eventually resting on the opposite side of North Water Street. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

"It was like something I watched on television," said Fritzman, who is retired from the federal government. "It didn't hit me until later. Then I couldn't stop shaking."

Merchandise on the store's second floor and what was kept in the attic were ruined, she said. That includes all clothing.

"Everything's gone," Fritzman said. "Everything we have left is dishes and knick knacks."

County Fire Chief Gary Yew said it was not a tornado, but likely a microburst that struck around 2:30 p.m. He said pictures of the store's damage would be sent to the National Weather Service for verification.

A microburst leaves a different pattern of damage from that of a tornado, where trees are twisted, snapped and ripped, said Andy Woodcock, a weather servce meteorologist in Sterling. It's a downrush of wind caused by droplets of water that, in the summertime, get too cold, and too heavy, in the sky after being pushed there by hot air in the morning.

As they drop, they carry air with them, gaining speed until eventually reaching the surface at about 60 to 80 mph, Woodcock said.

Fritzman said the ordeal did not last long. There was another employee and several customers in the store at the time. If not for the Route 11 Yard Crawl going on simultaneously, more people would have been inside and threatened, Fritzman said.

Cars were damaged, including some at the nearby Woodstock Used Cars LLC. Debbie Bonner, an employee at Wenger's Produce between the thrift store and car lot office, said she missed the destruction because she left for a moment.

"It freaked me out bad enough when I came back and saw it," she said.

Fritzman said she hopes the community will rally together in support of the store, which contributes to local agencies and provides funding for older residents unable to pay electric bills.

"It was just like something you'll see on TV, because it happened so quickly," she said. "Then it was just rain as hard as it could rain."

A similar violent rush of wind struck the Shenandoah Valley Flea Market near New Market in July 2009, forcing the building to be razed. The weather service estimated it to be a microburst of 70 mph.

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