Comfort Inn Hero
Hurricane Andrew storms into town.
Don Van Natta Jr.
The Miami Herald • Aug 1992
Nine of us huddle in a room in a cheap motel, transfixed by the sounds of a catastrophic hurricane.
Suddenly, a deafening explosion, like a bomb going off. Two ceiling cracks race from the front of the room to the rear. The ceiling sags. Water streams inside.
The sounds are different now, more insistent. We hear the whiny wind, an eerie high-octave sound, whistling at us through the cracks in the ceiling.
Andrew has come inside.
And we don't know if he'll take us with him on the way out.
Instinctively, all nine people crowd into the bathroom or hunch inside the adjoining closet. We press together, not knowing what to do.
One man crawls under the sink. An older man stumbles into the tub. An elderly woman begins to panic.
"I need air!" she shouts, shoving me aside. "Move away." I back into the bathroom. A young woman grabs her. They begin to pray.
The bathroom walls buckle. The toilet groans. The ceiling shakes.A woman shouts, "What are we going to do? The ceiling is going to collapse!"
A young man and I try to hold it up with our bare hands.
Someone remembers the mattresses. We drag two toward the bathroom, and three people crouch beneath them. Two people -- husband and wife, I think -- whisper their prayers.
There is a debate. Do we stay? Do we try to leave? What are the odds either way?
The bathroom ceiling is rattling. I can't hold on much longer. White chunks of plaster tumble to the carpet near the door.
I close my eyes for a few moments and say a prayer -- for the first time since Sunday School.
Let's decide, someone shouts. Do we stay or do we go?
Everyone is silent.
Instead, we listen to Andrew for the answer.
The hero of this story is a man named Frank.
The tale begins just after midnight Monday. The southern rim of the Florida peninsula is beautiful. A humid, still night is punctuated by a playful breeze.
With two colleagues, reporter Lizette Alvarez and photographer Carlos Guerrero, I drive from Miami to Florida City. Our hope is to see the eye of the hurricane. We land at the Comfort Inn, because it is the last open motel on U.S. 1 before a Florida Highway Patrol roadblock halts southbound access the Keys.
It turns out the hotel is open only because the desk clerk promised an elderly lady in a wheelchair from Key Largo he would stay open. The clerk's name is Frank Wilkins, a 29-year-old former Navy man. Seventeen other people are stuck here -- most of them motorists from places as far away as Virginia and Tokyo.
Three are Japanese tourists. Two Californians moved to Florida just two weeks ago to begin their "dream life" among the islands. One slightly menacing man stalks the motel stairwell in green Army fatigues. He keeps a high-powered rifle on the floor next to his bed. At 2 a.m., it is placid outside. But at 3 a.m., the wind begins to gust to 50 miles per hour, the rain comes horizontally. We go outside to watch the night sky. It is fantastic. Down the hall, Clarence Walters points a video camera at brilliant aqua lights of exploding electrical transformers.
"Fireworks, " Walters says. "Just beautiful."
At 3:32 a.m., Florida City loses all power. At the same time, a sudden burst of red and green and blue animates the night sky, a grand finale of colorful light. At 4 a.m., we stand on the second floor balcony and listen to the sounds: glass windows popping, metal snapping off the roof, chips of metal scratching along the parking lot pavement.
At 4:18 a.m., a huge surge tears a chunk off the roof. And we hear it ricocheting around the stairwell, and then through the parking lot toward U.S. 1.
We run for the nearest room, where the Jacobs family is staying.
"This is good that everyone is here, " Maureen Jacobs says. "I have a tendency to cry. I'll be brave now."
We then hear a metallic stripping sound coming from the roof. It sounds as if the roof is being peeled off like the top of a tin can.
At 5:03, my ears pop, a response to the dramatically dropping barometric pressure. John Eastwood turns off the radio, and mutters, "Don't need this damn thing anymore. It's here."
A moment later, the sound accelerates, like the gunning of a car engine, into a relentless, overpowering roar.
The worst part, everyone agrees, is not being able to see this thing making all that noise.
It is 5:12, and the sounds of glass-breaking and metal- twisting are louder.
Without warning, at 5:15, there is calm. "It's the eye, " I say. "It has to be."
The winds quiet down. We rush outside. Alvarez and I go to our original room to blow out two candles. Others use flashlights to survey the damage: Cars windows are blown out, steel and metal are twisted like aluminum foil. By 5:25 a.m, the storm's second act begins. Frank, the hotel clerk, bangs on doors on the motel's south side, screaming for people to get out and go to the north side.
Nearly everyone ends up in a room facing the north.
Frank assures us this is a good idea, but the storm is worse than before. The explosion occurs, the ceiling cracks, several people huddle between mattresses. And in the bathroom, I hold the sagging ceiling above my head and pray.
We think it's a life-or-death decision: Stay or go?
Some want to stay. "There is no way that door will open, " Sherry Cox says. "No way."
Others insist on taking our chances somewhere else.
I run to try the door. It does not budge.
More water pours in. The ceiling sags, more plaster drips to the carpet.
"This is it, " Hanna Degorski tells her husband, Arthur.
"We have to do something, " Sherry Cox says. The ceiling sags, and the floor feels as it is about to give way.
We make another run for the door. Two men pull on the doorknob, and it opens.
Holding hands, our heads tilted away from the sheet of stinging rain, we dash into room 268. The room is leaking water in several places, but at least the ceiling is intact.
We catch our breath and it seems the worst may be over. But it isn't.
Frank does a head count. Nineteen. We are one person short.
He searches a list. Johanes Muller, a 25-year-old tourist from Germany, is missing. "Room 240, " Frank says. "I tried to get him out of there." Frank expects to find Muller's body there. The roof on the north side of the hotel is gone -- the rooms where everyone was staying earlier have been demolished.
In 240, Frank lifts up a mattress lodged in the corner, and sees Muller lying there, his eyes shut tight. He is shaking.
"I could not believe that this would come, " he says. "I didn't realize the danger."
Daybreak is coming, even though the wind refuses to diminish. The first light is an eerie cobalt blue, and from the south side, we get our first glance at U.S. 1 and Florida City.
"Where is the gas station?" Sherry Cox asks.
There is an eerie feeling, as if we were survivors of a nuclear war. But the early-morning light is deceiving. Despite the destruction, the gas station appears, barely standing, as the day grows brighter.
One thing is gone: a trailer park, behind the motel. Pieces of it are lying everywhere. On the road. In the street. On the motel's second floor terrace.
Alvarez and I go back to our original room, and find it totaled. The mattress is in the back parking lot. Our suitcases are missing.
In fact, we find most rooms everywhere are blown to bits. No ceilings. Only a few walls. Maybe four rooms survived. Luckily, we were in two of them. Plus, Frank knew to turn us around -- from the south side to the north side -- once the eye passed over us. "Once it slowed down, I knew it was going to go in the opposite direction, " he says. People walk up to Frank and thank him. "You saved my life, " Eastwood said. A few of the women gave him hugs and kisses on the cheek.
He just grins. "Ten years from now, we'll have to have a reunion, " he says.
"Not here!" Maureen Jacobs shouts.
And everyone laughs, for the first time in a long time.