Posted: Sept. 29, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The sky was green as Nicole Majeski, the state Democrats' executive director, looked out the window of her office Tuesday afternoon in party headquarters in East Corporate Commons near New Castle.

There were nine people working in the headquarters, located on the second floor of a large metallic building that sits on a slab. When Majeski saw the wind and debris start to swirl, she hollered at everybody to get out of there.

There was no question a tornado was roaring to life in the tenacious rump of a hurricane slashing wantonly through Delaware, and it was happening fast.

Gregory B. Patterson, the campaign manager for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, was the one who thought to flee to a sheltered cubbyhole under a staircase on the first floor.

The building shook, and the power died. In the darkness Erik J. Schramm, the campaign coordinator for Minner, went to hold open a door to let some light in -- but not for long.

"A draft came through the building and ripped the door out of my hand," Schramm said.

The door smashed the hand of a part-time campaign worker for Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., and he would need a ride to an emergency room for stitches. On the wall near the protection of the stairwell, he left some of his blood behind.

The tornado was a frightening thing, loud and low and ominous as it powered by. "It was just like the movies. It was like a backwards smokestack," Schramm said.

Not just the Democrats were being threatened. Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, was driving a Lexus belonging to Elizabeth Walker Field, the president's cousin, as the two were supposed to be going to Ocean City, Md., to meet with a Republican women's group.

They were on the Delaware 141 bridge over Interstate 95 at Newport. They never saw the funnel, but they could feel it.

"The clouds got darker and darker. The rain was just going in 16 directions. The clouds were so low on top of us, and the air got real close. It was hard to breathe. The bridge was vibrating, like a big truck going over it," Rakestraw said. "I was scared. I can't believe people weren't killed."

The tornado was over as quickly as it came. Curiosity being the poorer part of valor, the Democratic staffers headed outside to see the damage. Eerily, the rain paused as they walked around, the air filled with the odor of leaking gas.

Large metal shards of the roof of their building had been torn off and left twisted on the ground. Cement had smashed the back passenger-side window of a car belonging to Nina Bawa, the Democrats' technology chief.

Other buildings nearby were in worse shape. The facade was ripped off United Electric Supply, its sprinkler system irrelevantly shooting spray out of the roof. The electrical workers' union hall had a jagged crack in a wall. Other places lost roof parts, too.

Trees were split apart. A light pole was sheared off. Soggy clumps of yellow insulation lay about limply, and stuffed animals that had been in storage littered the battered landscape.

The Democratic staffers returned to their headquarters. Surprisingly the power was back on, the lights, telephones and computers restored. The office had lost a section of ceiling, water had coursed through, and the elevator was out of commission, but the office was functional.

The election was 34 days away, and the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the party's biggest event of the year, was scheduled for Monday. Political workers are used to deprivation and to dealing with the unexpected. They went back to work.

About 15 minutes later, however, a firefighter showed up and told them they had to leave. That gas leak they had smelled was not to be ignored.

By Wednesday morning, the staffers were back at work, although not quite working. "We're all so traumatized by this, I can't imagine what Florida went through," Majeski said.

There still was political fallout to worry about. It is not good for a governor to be gone at disastrous times, and Minner was in Alaska for a conference of the Council of State Governments as its newly installed president.

She left immediately for home, flying commercial from Anchorage to Seattle to Minneapolis to Philadelphia to arrive by Wednesday morning.

The Democratic staffers quickly were making the most of what they had been through. The U.S. flags still were flying in front of neighboring buildings, and the sign on their own still announced, "Delaware Democratic Party."

Bawa patched up her smashed car window with a "Minner-Carney" sign. Patterson already was working on the design of a new T-shirt, based on the signature line of one of Minner's campaign spots. It would say:

"Delaware Democrats 2004. Surviving the tornado? Done."