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Retailers return despite memories of twister

John Weld was one of several injured in the tornado that ripped through Salt Lake 10 years ago. He stills comes to Outdoor retailer convention show every year.
John Weld was one of several injured in the tornado that ripped through Salt Lake 10 years ago. He stills comes to Outdoor retailer convention show every year.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

"There's a tornado coming!" That was the warning John Weld remembers hearing in the tent of the Outdoor Retailer Convention of 1999. It was equally surprising and unbelievable.

John Weld interview

3 minutes

While his wife and hired hand followed the other outdoor retailers out the tent doors, the then-30-year-old Weld was positive the heart of Salt Lake City had not turned into the tornado-plagued prairies of Kansas. He nearly laughed over what he considered a prank.

"I walked back to get my keys, phone and wallet while my wife and the other guy kept going out the doors," said Weld, now 40. "When I got my stuff, I walked to the doors and saw the opposite tent being sucked up and could see a motorcycle flying in the air."

The Pennsylvania resident sprinted across the tent just as it started to sway.

"It was the most unbelievable feeling of helplessness," Weld said. "I just thought, I'm going to get pulled up into outer space."

Instead, Weld was smacked in the head by a whirling object flying past his line of vision. Before the pain could take hold, he crawled under a Dumpster outside the tent where a group of people were already crouching in fear.

"A woman turned to me and just shrieked, pointing at my head," Weld said, parting the hair in the back of his head where 15 staples closed up the gash years ago. "There was blood everywhere coming out and down my head."

Yet Weld, who has returned to the annual convention every year despite the traumatic incident, considers himself lucky. The tornado's whirling winds swept debris and heavy objects through the air, killing one convention worker, Allen Crandy. Crandy, who had decided to work through lunch, was the only fatality in the 10-minute-long tornado that left the convention and nearby Wyndham Hotel in disarray and injured numerous retailers.

Glass swirled overhead during the tornado, which felt like hours instead of minutes to Tim Ridings.

The 41-year-old South Carolina resident had been delivering shoes for his wife's company in the first tent knocked down — closest to the Delta Center, the one where Crandy was when the tornado struck. Ridings rushed out the corner of the tent, spying a tractor trailer to the side, and crawled underneath it.

But the winds of the tornado flipped the trailer, crushing Ridings.

"It was like when the house crushes the Wicked Witch of the East in the 'Wizard of Oz,' " Ridings said. "I couldn't tell if my legs were severed, just that something very heavy was on them. And as I tried to crawl out, a piece of glass went through my left hand."

Within minutes of the tornado dying off, a nearby man who had been hugging a tree to prevent flying away heard Ridings' calls and plugged in an electric pallet jack to lift the trailer off Ridings.

"It was pouring rain out," Ridings said. "He could've gotten electrocuted. Within minutes he had other people helping him.

"They say I was underneath the trailer just five minutes, but it left like a lot longer," said Ridings, who spent four days at Salt Lake Regional Hospital.

While Ridings was in the hospital, convention organizers had considered shutting down the exhibits, especially since both tents, with about 200 booths each, were damaged beyond repair. Instead, the convention, which is one of the biggest outdoor retail exhibition events in the world, pushed on. Retailers moved over and made booth space for their competitors.

Cindy Chen-Wang and her husband lost most of their supplies when the tornado swirled in. Growing up in Taiwan, she'd never seen a tornado, and the changing red, black and green colored sky scared her.

When she saw the tornado, Chen-Wang ran out and clung to a nearby tree where others were already holding on for dear life.

"When she got back, she couldn't walk from the pain and swelling," said Darin Newell.

"We spent months and $10,000 just to let people know about the show, and I thought it was going to be great with all this business," said Newell. "But then all of a sudden we heard some screaming. A guy came running through these doors that were already shaking, shouting 'Get down! It's an earthquake.' I thought he was drunk. Within seconds, the whole roof lifted up."

The winds smacked one of the flying particles into Chen-Wang's leg, cutting into the ligament. The group lost all of their supplies and the money they had spent, but even so, Newell said they were lucky to be alive.

Weld, whose head took just 10 minutes to staple up, said he and his wife were back to work the next day, squeezing into the previously crammed Salt Palace with hundreds of other retailers.

"I remember going to a bar with a huge bandage on my head," Weld said. "A bunch of kayakers were like 'Dude, that must've been awesome.' People were cheering. We had survived the tornado of Salt Lake."

e-mail: lgroves@desnews.com