Staff members’ quick reaction keeps kids safe during tornado

Hometown Hero — Summer Blast Staff

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM From left, Summer Blast staff members Deshonna Garth, Luke Pederson, Jenni Hart, Alissa Wilson and Bridget Carroll pose for a portrait outside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Editor’s note: The Times-Republican Salute to Hometown Heroes award was presented to five recipients on the anniversary of the tornado. The nominating process was open to the public and a committee of local volunteers selected the awardees.

The Summer Blast day camp staff practiced a tornado drill on July 17 not knowing that two days later they’d have to use what they learned.

Marshalltown native Lynne Carroll nominated the 45 children and five staff of the Marshalltown Parks & Recreation-sponsored Summer Blast children’s program which was headquartered in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum last summer. Carroll’s daughter, Bridget Carroll, then 19, was a Summer Blast staff member last summer and is back again this summer.

Bridget finished her shift and left 10 minutes before the tornado hit. However, she called her colleagues on duty to let them know the sirens were going off again.

Lynne said she was motivated to nominate the group because all came out of the coliseum basement unharmed. By some miracle, no one was killed in the storm.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - From left, Summer Blast staff members Deshonna Garth, Luke Pederson, Alissa Wilson and Bridget Carroll pose for a portrait inside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. All four of them helped keep the Summer Blast kids safe during the tornado.

“It would have been disastrous if the kids were harmed or worse … The community came out of the tornado without a death or major injury. I think the Summer Blast staff were key and important.”

Lynne recalled events of the afternoon of July 19.

“They left the Aquatic Center when the first siren went off and returned to the coliseum’s basement to take cover. When cleared, they came upstairs to have birthday treats and went back to the basement a second time when sirens sounded the alarm. They convinced adults — who had stopped to pick up their children — to seek shelter in the basement too.

“Kids and staff emerged to find most of the building’s roof gone … but soon children found their parents. Staff returned to the coliseum the next day to take supplies and kids’ personal items left behind. Summer Blast was closed just one day — July 20. Staff worked the weekend to set up shop in the new location — Lenihan Intermediate School.

“On Monday, staff greeted the kids with hugs. They talked with them about the tornado and destruction. Staff also referred kids (who needed it) to counseling services. In the end, 45 kids were safe and were in the compassionate care of Summer Blast … who tried to make things normal and give hugs to those who struggled.”

The coliseum has long been used by Parks and Recreation for youth programs such as Summer Blast, as well as volleyball and basketball for adults. While plans to renovate the building were in place pre-tornado, the storm allowed insurance money to fund part of the $3.6 million project. Since the start of a $1.35 million fundraising campaign, various donations were announced including a benefit concert hosted by up-and-coming country star Jason Brown.

In Brown’s first announcement video, the Summer Blast staff members were recognized for their heroism as he toured the coliseum.

“All of those parents mean the world to us,” Jennifer Hart, the recreation supervisor who oversees the program, said in the video.

Brown was astounded by the staff’s work to keep the kids safe.

“I cannot imagine walking up to this building knowing my child is hopefully still in there and seeing the roof gone,” Brown said in the video.

Without a scratch on any of the children, the staff remained calm and brought them out of the basement as parents arrived. While roof damage was significant, water damage caused by a sprinkler system that couldn’t be immediately turned off did even more. One staff member thought it was raining as they brought the kids up, but it was all water from the sprinkler.

Since the coliseum is closed indefinitely for repairs, Summer Blast 2019 is now at the Marshalltown Learning Academy. Staff members Deshonna Garth, Luke Pederson, Alissa Wilson and Bridget Carroll have all returned to the staff this summer.

The coliseum was constructed as a memorial to Marshalltown residents who had been killed in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I and was dedicated March 15, 1929. It was renamed the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and re-dedicated to all veterans killed in all conflicts, from the Civil War to World War II to the War on Terror.