An employee of a Chesterfield County flooring company who was killed during Monday’s tornado-fueled storms had made sure his co-workers were safely heading inside of an attached office building before disaster struck.
But Ronnie Bishop, 60, who had worked for Old Dominion Floor Co. for 15 years, never made it into that building before a tornado with 120 mph winds touched down on Speeks Drive. He was later found dead in the company’s collapsed warehouse.
Bishop’s death was one of two fatalities in Virginia related to the tornadoes, high winds and torrential rain spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Florence; in Louisa County, a motorist died during flash flooding.
The National Weather Service confirmed Tuesday that a total of six tornadoes hit the state, all but one of them locally.
Gina Bishop said Tuesday that her husband was in his office just off the warehouse floor when the tornado warning came.
An employee who had gone outside and seen the funnel cloud yelled for everyone to take cover. People started fleeing the warehouse and had only seconds to spare, said Bishop’s co-workers and wife.
Bishop left his office and checked to make sure the warehouse was empty, and that everyone was headed into an attached office building. He was following just behind another employee, but he never made it out.
About an hour later, Gina Bishop was still searching for her husband. She had driven from her office in Chesterfield after seeing on television that a tornado had touched down on Speeks Drive.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s Ronnie,’” she said.
Another update from the news media followed: There had been a fatality. Ronnie wasn’t answering his phone. His co-workers also weren’t answering.
Once she got to her husband’s workplace, she searched for him among the familiar faces standing in the rubble. Then one of the owner’s relatives came up to her.
“She met me with that look that you just know. That look that it is one of yours,” Gina Bishop said.
Fire and rescue workers found his body trapped under debris, and they extracted him about 8:30 p.m. His 14 co-workers escaped harm.
“He was an old country guy. He had no filter. If work wasn’t getting done, he’d tell everyone what it was doing to him. But everyone loved him and respected him,” said Seth Hicks, who often called Bishop for advice when he worked under him at Old Dominion Floor Co. this past year. Bishop, who came from a family of carpenters, was the company’s hardwood floor supervisor.
Company employees showed up for work Tuesday, and they spent the morning loading the back of pickup trucks and SUVs with office files, cinder blocks and rubble. They were gone before noon.
Kelley Balewick, the regional manager of the plumbing, well and septic supply store a few hundred feet away, said there wasn’t much warning before the tornado hit.
“It was maybe minutes,” Balewick said.
Once the first warning alerted on their phones, one of the company’s employees went outside and saw dark clouds “going in all different directions” and debris flying in the air in the direction of Hull Street Road.
“We knew it was going to hit at that point,” Balewick said
In the state’s other storm-related death, Richard Edward Kelih Jr., 59, of Louisa apparently drowned after his 2003 Toyota Tacoma was overtaken by rushing waters as he attempted to cross a flooded road, state police said.
The pickup overturned on Rock Quarry Road, and the cab was submerged. State police responded about 1:55 a.m. Tuesday, and authorities located the vehicle about six hours later. Kelih’s body was recovered from inside.
The storms also brought power outages to the Richmond area. Dominion Energy Virginia reported 11,000 customers without power in the Richmond and Tri-Cities area at the height of outages on Monday afternoon and evening, but that number had dropped to less than 600 by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
In Chesterfield’s Bon Air enclave, trees were knocked down and a stream surged into backyards near Colton Drive and Sydelle Drive.
One tree knocked into the side of Bob Diegelmann’s Colton Drive home, punching a hole in the ceiling of his master bedroom. Diegelmann, 75, was at work and didn’t see the damage until a colleague drove him to his home about 6:30 p.m.
“It’s kind of a freak thing to happen,” Diegelmann said Tuesday morning. “Bon Air is supposed to mean ‘good air,’ not ‘evil air.’”
Across the street, Valerie Buckingham said she took shelter in a bathroom in her home.
“I remember holding on to the bathroom door after they said, ‘Get cover,’ and I literally ran into my back middle of the house, and it turned black,” the 53-year-old said. “The whole house shook. … I heard a huge ‘Bam!’ The ground shook.”
Branches came down like arrows in the back of her home, punching holes in the roof, Buckingham said. Out in her front yard, the storm felled a red oak tree that was resting across the roadway Tuesday.
At Dave Chisholm’s home on Sydelle Drive, the storm left pieces of leaves encrusted on the vinyl siding of his house.
“The wind probably lasted no more than 30 seconds at the most. With that damage, you’d have to have hurricane wind to do that,” Chisholm, 60, said Tuesday. “I could just see the wind gust coming up the creek. I said, ‘That is a powerful wind gust.’”
Just up the road on Colton Drive, Christy Birdsell said she and her children — ages 9, 7, 6 and 3 — were in the basement when the power went out. A neighbor eventually knocked on her door to see if they were OK, and Birdsell came out to find that three trees from her property were down.
“I was really more shaken up when I went outside and saw what had happened,” Birdsell said.
In western Henrico County, a trail of splintered trees and a flattened fence between two untouched houses in the county’s Tuckahoe area showed the destructive path that a tornado took behind and over West End Assembly of God.
The Rev. Shane Schlesman said he believes that more than Mother Nature was at work when his church off North Parham Road was spared major damage.
“All in all, we are so thankful that the miraculous path of this storm was over us, not through us,” he said.
Some of the church’s 55 staff members were at work at the time. They watched, Schlesman said, as a tornado made its way behind the church, causing trees to fall in its parking lot and damaging only a fence.
To the pastor’s best estimation, the tornado then lifted over the gymnasium. “We don’t think it was by accident,” he said.
Five of the church’s 21 air conditioning units flew off their spots on the roof. Several landed in the parking lot, and others scraped across the roof, causing leaks.
Water damage, from the downpours that continued late into Monday evening, was visible Tuesday in the gym and several classrooms on the upper floor.
The church was buzzing Tuesday with passers-by coming to check out the damage and with staff members, who held meetings to determine when they could resume the church’s packed weekly schedule. Church events were canceled Monday and Tuesday.
“We will still be here praising Him Sunday,” Schlesman said of the church’s 1,800 congregation members. “If anyone wants to help, wait until later in the week to see what’s still needed to make Sunday happen. Right now, we need the professionals to work.”
Henrico received no reports of storm injuries, and county building inspectors so far have found minimal structural damage to buildings, said Henrico spokesman Steve Knockemus. No families were displaced, he said.
Richmond experienced similar destruction in certain sections of the city, and Mayor Levar Stoney toured some of the hardest-hit areas Tuesday.
A massive oak felled by the winds smashed through the front room and dining room of a home in the 1200 block of Rennie Avenue, at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s faculty court off Brook Road.
Dennis Johnson, the seminary’s associate vice president for operations, said he rushed to the wreckage from a nearby building and discovered a gas leak.
“I grabbed the wrench and turned the gas off,” Johnson said. “It was pouring out of there pretty good.”
The Richmond Fire Department responded to the scene and closed off the line.
No one was in the home at the time, save for the residents’ dog, Edison, who was rescued by first responders, said Mike Frontiero, a seminary spokesman.
The couple who live there, both employees of the seminary, will be placed in temporary housing while the organization determines whether the building can be salvaged.
“There has been a huge outpouring of support from the community,” he said. “They will be well taken care of.”
In nearby Bellevue, neighbors said the severe weather was reminiscent of the June 2016 wind storm that left several homes damaged from falling trunks and limbs.
Bryan Townes, who lives at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Lamont Street, said he heard emergency sirens and hunkered down in his house when the storm rolled in. It grew very dark, he said.
“The wind picked up really quickly, then I heard this noise, like suction,” he said. “It was like a split second, then it was over.”
Though left without power, Townes said he felt fortunate that his home was unscathed. Others weren’t as lucky.
On the same block, a home was damaged by falling trees. One block over, on Nottoway Avenue, another tree fell across the road, crushing one SUV and damaging another.
“That would have been my car had I been home,” said Lauren Groppi, who returned from vacation to find the scene of strewn limbs and broken glass.
The city’s Department of Public Works crews were out early Tuesday, as were Dominion Energy crews, cleaning up downed trees and repairing power lines.
Stoney came to the neighborhood after touring damage in South Richmond. The mayor said he was thankful that no city residents were hurt or killed.
Stoney asked that residents stay away from the James River, as it is expected to reach dangerous levels when runoff from rains in the western part of the state comes downstream.
“What we’re trying to do now is focusing on cleanup and keeping people safe,” he said.