KINGSPORT — A violent storm roared through town late Saturday afternoon creating a potential deadly situation at Hobby Lobby in the East Stone Commons shopping center.
The back wall and a roof section collapsed at the popular arts-and-crafts store while it was packed with shoppers.
That structural damage caused three large natural gas lines to leak, and Atmos Energy was working to fix the lines Saturday night.
“They had to cut the gas off on Stone Drive. ...When the building collapsed, it broke the gas lines when it fell. ...We had a very big potential (for fire) in the last little bit,” Kingsport Fire Department Capt. Bill Anders said.
But no one, according to Anders, was hurt.
“(Hobby Lobby) management has accounted for all employees. ... We searched the building twice for shoppers,” he said.
Hobby Lobby’s Amanda McCarroll was working Register 3 when the collapse happened.
“We were jam packed full of people as normal on a Saturday,” she said. “I heard thunder real loud, and you can hear it really well in the store. I didn’t think anything about it, and I said ‘Don’t worry guys, it’s not going to rain too bad.’ And then it thundered again, but it sounded different. And then our little tiny trees at the front of the building started shaking and outside turned gray.”
She thought it was a tornado, but a customer she was waiting on got mad and told her not to talk that way.
Then, McCarroll said, the building’s sliding glass doors started shaking and came off their hinges.
“The roof near the frame shop picked up and left, and then I got terrified,” she said. “It sounded like drums being played on the top of our roof from the back to the front of the store. ... Then we smelled gas and called 911.”
Anders couldn’t confirm whether the building sustained a lightning strike.
“It looks more to me like wind or water,” he said. “The weight of the water may have collapsed the roof. ... No other businesses are affected yet, but they may have water damage.”
Power in that Eastman Road area around East Stone Commons was also off at a time when restaurants were gearing up for customers.
The East Stone Commons parking lot, littered with roofing material, was filled with Kingsport firefighters attempting to ventilate Hobby Lobby, while several Sullivan County Emergency Medical Service workers were there in case of injuries.
A few miles away at Model City Apartments, roof damage forced residents to evacuate.
Resident Casey Repass was with his family, and his children were talking about the storm when it turned ugly.
“The wind started howling, trees started falling down and a whole corner of our apartment got ripped off,” he said. “It was kind of like an earthquake coming through. Everything was shaking. ... It demolished all our clothes and everything. It sounded like ... 10 car crashes side by side.”
There were also reports of roof damage at Five Points in the downtown area.
Northbound John B. Dennis Highway was also closed to traffic after a big light pole toppled onto the roadway.
There were downed trees all over the city, electricity was spotty and many traffic lights were not working.
“It really taxed our system,” Anders said of the storm. “We had several trees down and several emergencies going on.”
Back at Hobby Lobby, store official James Elkins pledged corporate heads would prepare the store for a reopening.
“I guarantee you tomorrow or the next day there will be people to rebuild this,” Elkins said. “We have a great crew. We will take care of this. We’ll be open soon.”
Staff Writer Sharon Caskey Hayes and Chief Photographer Dave Grace contributed to this report.