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Birthday turns to day of grief for family after father, stepmother killed in Brunswick tornado

Posted February 17, 2021 12:54 p.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2021 5:53 p.m. EST

— Two of the three people killed by a Monday night tornado in Brunswick County were a retired couple getting ready to celebrate the man's birthday.

Richard and Phyllis O’Connor were asleep in bed when the storm hit shortly before midnight and leveled their home. The tornado picked up the house and dropped it on a neighbor's house in the Ocean Ridge Plantation subdivision, flattening both, according to son Rob O'Connor.

Tuesday would have been Richard O'Connor's 73rd birthday.

"It's been just catastrophic. I mean, it's like a bomb literally went off at their house," said Rob O'Connor, who was on his way from his home in Arizona to North Carolina to help his two brothers through what’s left of the home and make plans to bury their father and stepmother.

One of his brothers called him Tuesday to tell him about the tornado.

"I had to pull over," he said. "I thought it was a nightmare, and I was waiting to wake up."

During a visit to the devastated neighborhood, Gov. Roy Cooper learned that the spouse of the third tornado victim was hospitalized in critical condition.

More than 50 homes were damaged in the Ocean Ridge Plantation neighborhood, which is off U.S. Highway 17 and N.C. Highway 904, and 10 people were hurt.

The National Weather Service said an EF-3 tornado packing winds of up to 160 mph tore across the county and into neighboring Columbus County.

Edward Conrow, Brunswick County's emergency services director, told the governor that the tornado cut diagonally across the county for more than 20 miles from the coast to the Green Swamp Preserve, staying on the ground almost the whole time.

"It developed so fast," Conrow said. "It exploded, and within four minutes, we had a tornado on the ground, which is scary. Everyone's in bed at nighttime sleeping and didn't get a chance to respond."

Cooper was stunned by the destruction he saw, and he pledged support to local officials in their recovery effort.

"A tornado can just completely destroy and can do it in such an abrupt manner. It's really devastating," he said.

"We'll marshal as many of the state resources we can get and need to help here," he told two survivors outside a damaged home.

Joe and Kathy Arancio said they were lucky to escape unharmed after the tornado ripped their house apart.

"I was on the living room sofa, and as soon as the hail cracked the first piece of glass, I ducked," Arancio said. "The whole back of the house blew in, and I went for a ride.

She wound up buried under debris but credited a teak porch chair with saving her life.

"One chair blew in on me like a teepee tent," she said.

Her husband said he got out of bed when he heard hail starting to fall, but the storm blew the doors in on him, knocking him back onto the bed and shielding him from other debris.

"That's probably the only thing that helped me survive – being knocked down," Joe Arancio said.

"The fact that we're alive is a big positive," he added. "It's devastating, but you've got to maintain a positive attitude."

"It's just sticks and bricks, and they can be replaced," his wife said. "We're here. We have something to deal with. There are others across the street and across the golf course that don't have that good fortune."

Rob O'Connor said his father and stepmother "were all about their grandkids and kids."

"They were just great people, and it's tragic," he said. "They did not deserve this, and it's just abrupt and catastrophic. We are severely crushed."

"Our hearts go out to the families of those who lost their lives, to the person who is still in critical condition," Cooper said.

The governor called Brunswick County resilient, noted the community is still recovering from Hurricane Isaias last summer.

Conrow said Brunswick County and local agencies and residents have already pulled together in the tornado recovery effort.

"It's a true showing of a community," he said. "We've got a long road ahead of us."

Brunswick County declared a state of emergency Wednesday, and Sheriff John Ingram asked that people who don't live in the Ocean Ridge Plantation neighborhood or aren't helping those who do stay away from the area.

"The last thing we need is to be inundated with a lot of traffic and onlookers as people are trying to pick up the pieces and begin the recovery process," he said.

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