By Debbi Mack ('02 MS, Library Science)
When I decided to seek a Masters in Library Science at the University of Maryland, it was years after earning a B.S. in journalism there, and later adding a J.D. from the university’s law school in Baltimore to my resume. I thought I was prepared for anything, but nothing could have prepared me for an experience that lay well outside the boundaries of my studies.
The event occurred in late September 2001. I remember it well, because it was two weeks (almost to the day) after the 9/11 attacks.
I think most of us were a bit on edge, anyway. Added to that disaster was the constant need to keep up with a flurry of assignments, pop quizzes, and group projects that the library science program demanded of us.
I distinctly recall I had an evening class. Worn down with fatigue, I stood in the restroom beforehand, staring at my reflection in the mirror, and muttering, "Take me now, Lord." Words that would come back to haunt me.
After class, as we pounded down the stairs, I heard someone say a tornado warning had been issued in Virginia. Too close for comfort, given how fast tornados can move. I barreled past a classmate out the door, where she stood staring at the sky. She said, “Oh, my God.” I looked up and saw nothing horrible. Just dark gray clouds. But something in her tone unsettled me. After hustling to my car, I hit the road with the radio tuned to news updates. As I turned onto University Boulevard, I heard about a tornado sighting in Hyattsville. And, wouldn’t you know, every vehicle was at a standstill, thanks to the red light at the Metzerott Road intersection.
As I sat in the infinitely slow stop-and-go traffic lined up at the intersection, I glanced in my left side-view mirror, and saw an immense funnel. I couldn’t believe it. An actual tornado—and not a small one—approached on my side of the road. It was a reality I couldn’t ignore. My response was to completely freak out. I began yelling things unfit to print in a G-rated publication. Over and over. And I couldn’t take my eyes off the ever-growing funnel in the mirror—huge, black, and potentially deadly.
When it reached the exit I’d just taken from campus, the tornado crossed the road. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the dark, churning look of the bottom. It was surreal—as if it contained the wrath of God or the devil. My small relief at seeing the twister pass to the other side of the road was tempered by the knowledge that tornados can change direction in unpredictable ways, and could just as easily head straight for me again.
As I awaited the inevitable, the sky darkened to the point of inky blackness. It could have been midnight during a new moon. And then the transformers began to explode. As the funnel moved down the road, each explosion came closer.
At that point, the words I’d spoken earlier—"Take me now, Lord"—came to mind. I actually shouted, "I was only kidding!" More than once.
The blasts became louder as they approached me. My ears felt a sudden change in air pressure. Then, everything went sideways before my windshield. I sat there, gripping the wheel (like an idiot—I should have at least sought cover on the floor) and staring at what looked like the screen of an old TV set with the horizontal hold out of whack. With the occasional leaves, and twigs flying by.
I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but right when I thought the worst was over, the wind tugged my car. It jerked toward the funnel, and upward in fitful spasms. At which point, I freaked out again.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the wind stopped. And I mean stopped dead. As if nothing had happened.
I gathered my wits slowly, and called my husband on my cell. At first, I couldn’t get through, because I’m sure everyone else was doing the same. And who knew if the cell towers were standing?
Eventually, I was able to reach my husband. After assuring him I was okay, I drove home, as directly as I could given the state of the roads. And while I drove, I heard a radio report that the tornado had turned north, and was following I-95. Headed straight for my neighborhood.
So I rushed home (as fast I was able), hoping I’d have a house to return to. Not to mention my husband, and our cats. When I got to our neighborhood, I was lucky to be able to navigate the tree limbs, and other debris that littered our street.
But, miraculously, our house, and trees were completely intact. Even though the funnel went directly over our place. My husband witnessed this from a window in our sub-basement.
So, despite the numerous memorable events (from the agonizing to the awesome) I associate with my time as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, none will quite match the experience of living through that close encounter with a tornado.
Since earning her Master of Library Science in 2002, Debbi Mack’s career path has morphed from lawyer-turned-freelance writer/researcher to novelist, screenwriter, and aspiring filmmaker. Debbi is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sam McRae Mystery Series, featuring Maryland lawyer-sleuth Stephanie Ann "Sam" McRae. She’s published an award-winning young adult novel, Invisible Me, and a thriller called The Planck Factor. Debbi is currently re-releasing the Sam McRae mysteries under her own imprint. Her latest publishing project is a mystery entitled Damaged Goods with a new protagonist, retired Marine and unlicensed investigator Erica Jensen. A Derringer nominee, Debbi has written and published several short stories. Debbi also hosts a podcast called the Crime Cafe where she interviews other crime, suspense, and thriller authors. In June 2018, she launched a Patreon campaign for the podcast. She also has a YouTube channel where she reviews books and offers advice on writing, among other things. Debbi has developed a passion for photography and videography. In addition, Debbi has written a feature film screenplay that made the semi-finals in the 2016 Scriptapalooza contest. Her first novel, Identity Crisis, has been optioned by a Maryland producer, and Debbi adapted the novel into the first draft of the screenplay. A Queens, NY native, Debbi is a retired lawyer, who’s also worked as a journalist, librarian, and freelance writer/researcher. She lives in Columbia, MD, with her husband and their cats. Debbi enjoys walking, cats, reading, travel, movies and espresso—not necessarily in that order. You can find her online at www.debbimack.com.