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Maryland Tornado Heaps Further Pain on Mournful Campus

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Karina Price walked to the information desk in the student union with that dazed look of someone who has experienced tragedy. But it wasn’t one tragedy she had lived through since the fall semester began at the University of Maryland, it was three.

The latest hit her hardest: a freak tornado that ripped through the stately 146-year-old campus Monday evening, killing two students and leaving Price and hundreds of others with no place to live.

It might have been easier to deal with the worst storm of its kind here in 75 years if Price and most of the university’s 34,000 students were not already drained by all the grieving they’ve been doing of late.

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Five students who began what was to be a promising year at the campus northeast of Washington are dead. The body of Alexander Klochkoff, a 20-year-old sophomore, was discovered on the front porch of his house on fraternity row Sept. 5, cause unknown. Two graduate students who were in the Pentagon when terrorists struck are believed dead. And the tornado took Colleen Marlatt, a 23-year-old environmental policy senior, and her sister Erin, a 20-year-old sociology sophomore, both killed instantly when their car was hurled against trees.

“We’re in shock. The attacks of two weeks ago, we took that very hard as a campus, and now this. We’re wondering what is it about September that’s so awful,” University spokesman George Cathcart said Tuesday as classes were dark for yet another day and flags dipped again to half-staff.

At the University of Maryland, there is grief within grief. Like much of the nation, it is emotionally stretched to the limit, laboring under the weight of unthinkable sadnesses, one collapsing in on another.

So a team of campus counselors is working full tilt. Learning has come in fits and starts, mostly fits. Several students from the East Coast lost family and friends at the World Trade Center. A memorial service after the attacks drew 8,000 people who left 10,000 flowers along the fountain that runs down the middle of the campus mall.

And Friday, what was to be four minutes of silence in memory of the dead stretched to half an hour of ceremony as students picked up those flowers and buried them in a garden that was shaping up to be a permanent memorial.

As a new week began Monday, it appeared the routine of college might finally be taking shape. Then the skies darkened about 5 p.m., and, because of recent horrors, students expected the worst.

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“I thought I was going to die,” the 21-year-old Price said. She was on a campus shuttle bus when the driver got off, announced a tornado was coming and threw himself into a ditch. The students on board started to scream and cry. Windows exploded from cars and buildings all around. The steeple blew off a church, and the roof of a Home Depot was shorn away in the storm’s 70-mile path.

Nathan Fahlsing, a 23-year-old senior, was in his room when his ears popped from the pressure, and he and his roommates took cover in the bathroom.

Stacey Handshoe, 21, and her boyfriend, Michael Schanberger, 20, were at an indoor softball practice when they saw debris swirling and students outside struggling to open the doors. They played a game to stay calm. Her parents drove down in the morning to bring her clean socks and contact solution and make sure she was OK.

“We don’t have a place to live. We don’t know when or if we will again,” said Handshoe, still in the softball clothes she wore the day before. She was waiting for word of the condition of her home when six of her friends walked into the student union, announcing they had no place to live and were driving around in a car with blown-out windows.

All of their accounts pale in magnitude to what happened Sept. 11, with one exception: This disaster is theirs.

September is supposed to be a time of fresh starts. The university--whose alumni include Muppet creator Jim Henson (he invented Kermit the Frog there), newscaster Connie Chung and sports commentator Boomer Esiason--has gained increasing credibility in recent years. Four hundred more freshmen enrolled than expected this fall, Cathcart said.

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“We converted double rooms to triple, we shoe-horned them in. It was a challenge but a good challenge, a reflection of how far we’ve come,” he said.

Now the campus feels broken and spent. Students walk around waiting for someone to tell them what to do. No one does. Classes that continued through hurricanes, ice storms and blizzards were canceled more often than anyone cares to count.

“Can someone give us food?” a student asked the information clerk Tuesday as lunchtime rolled around and several remained evacuated from their homes without wallets or cash. “I’ve never felt so unsafe,” said Lisa Peterson, who works in the athletic department.

Near a bank of phones, a young woman sat on the floor, confused.

“If they have school tomorrow, I’m going with nothing. I don’t even have a pen,” she said to someone on the other end of the line. “A few adults have been making calls for us and all they get is, ‘We’re working on it.’ ”

Yen Lu, 31, from Taiwan, sat in a student lounge trying to figure out how to finish a paper due the next day. She has no electricity at her house, no working computer and no sense of security. Her family has called twice in two weeks to make sure she is alive.

“I’m lucky. But I feel so sorry about the United States, so many tragedies,” she said, her thoughts turning to the Marlatt sisters. They had apparently been visiting their father, an assistant director of a firefighter training academy that was temporarily housed on campus. “I’m not a Christian, but I pray. I prayed for them.”

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