Tri-Cities Tornado: Restaurant worker recalls being trapped in the rubble

Posted at 10:50 PM, Aug 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-06 23:37:33-04

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Four people were killed and dozens of buildings were damaged when an F4 tornado touched down in the Tri-Cities on August 6, 1993.

Despite the tragic death and overwhelming damage, amazing stories of survival emerged from the rubble.

Frances Jimenez was a 22-year-old Virginia State University student working a summer job at the French Betsy restaurant in Old Towne Petersburg that day.

She remembered it was raining that Friday afternoon.

"One minute I'm standing, and the next minute I'm under the building," she recalled 25 years later.

The F4 tornado struck and caused the roof of the restaurant to collapse on the 13 people inside.

Frances and the others were buried alive.

Police and other first responders rushed into the rubble to look for survivors.

"You don`t know where we are, and, you know, they was brave enough to come within that building, cause anything could've happened," Jimenez said. "Most of it had collapsed, but you don't know if the storm is over."

While the tornado had moved on, other concerns remained.

"I still was going under the assumption that it was a gas leak," retired police captain Greg Seidel said. "So I was worried about sparks moving metal with metal."

Within minutes, rescue crews found Frances. Her body had been partially shielded by a co-worker Lorenzo Briggs. On top of Briggs, a steel beam.

"If it wasn't for him being where he was, covering me, I mean, I could have been right there directly in that beam," Jimenez said.

In reality, Seidel said that beam likely kept the full weight of the roof from crashing down and killing both of them.

CBS 6 senior reporter Wayne Covil was in Petersburg the day of the tornado. He was standing outside the restaurant when crews brought Frances out on a stretcher. He thought she was dead. Lorenzo was the next person brought out.

Both Frances and Lorenzo ended up at Southside Regional Medical Center. Both alive, but injured.

"I crushed my left side and pelvic bone," she said. "I was pretty much bedridden."

She spent weeks in the hospital, recovering from her injuries. During that time, she allowed Covil into her room for an interview.

"I thank God [that] Lorenzo was on my side because God helped him protect me," she said during a 1993 interview.

Though 25 years have passed, Frances said she continued to think about the tornado, every day.

"If it starts raining, really bad, I'm nervous," she said. "Just to think about what happened, my life could have been over right then and there."

Frances and her husband still live in Petersburg. She now works at the city's circuit court.

"She and I have probably seen and spoken to each other countless times over the past few years," Covil said. "But I never realized she was the young woman I first met all those years ago. And she has no recollection of talking to me in her hospital room."

She said she did recall another voice. One that was in her ear shortly after she was pulled from the rubble. A voice, she said, she would never forget.

"My eyes were never open, because I was covered, and I could not open my eyes, but whoever was in the ambulance talked me through, and to keep me remain calm," she said.

Frances said she owed her life to many heroes that day, and she would always remember how they put themselves in harm's way to get her to safety.

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