Taking cover as Hurricane Florence unleashed fury on the US port city of Wilmington, Adam Sparks heard “a loud pop.”
He went to the door to see what had happened, but “it was still pitch black at that time,” he said. Power had gone out just before the powerful storm’s eye touched down in his state of North Carolina early Friday morning.
It was only an hour later, when fire trucks had taken over the street, that he realised the worst had happened: a mother and her infant had died after a tree struck the back of their house.
“Most of the neighbourhood had evacuated,” Sparks said. “Only myself, themselves and a few others decided to stay.”
Their small home with red brick walls appeared intact from the street — but the back offered a more grim view.
A section of wall had completely collapsed, with a few belongings in view bearing witness to the violence of the crash.
Later in the day Wilmington Police confirmed the mother and child were the first fatalities resulting from Florence’s onslaught, adding that the father was taken to the hospital with injuries.
“The tree line they have behind their home is very tall, very old trees,” their neighbor said. “It’s always a gamble with trees like that.”
“Who could be prepared for this? It’s the worst-case scenario.”
– ‘Heartbreaking’ –
A yellow police cordon now encircles 24 Mercer Avenue, in a residential area of Wilmington.
According to firefighters, the area had not been in the zone under orders to evacuate as Florence began assaulting the US east coast with torrential rains and heavy winds.
Under the pummelling rain rescue workers spared no effort in attempting to save the victims trapped under the felled tree’s branches.
Later in the day the firefighters gathered in a circle for a moment of meditation, knees on the ground, heads bowed, faces long.
“They are out here, they are under a lot of stress. They don’t even know the conditions of their own homes or their own families,” said fire chief Buddy Marinette. “It’s a difficult situation for all of us.”
“Right now, we are giving the guys a little bit of a break, they need it.”
Since Florence slammed into the Carolinas, hundreds of people have needed rescuing after being trapped in their homes by monstrous storm surges and flooding, with four deaths officially confirmed, including the mother and child.
The storm’s winds have weakened slightly and authorities now consider Florence a tropical storm — but the danger remains. Forecasters warn of potentially “catastrophic freshwater flooding.”
Franco Hendrickson, another neighbour of the victims, was at the scene when relatives arrived later in the morning.
“Seeing the devastation was just heartbreaking,” he said. “Me and my girlfriend we were just really, really sad — sad morning.”