On March 2, a shipment of cargo containers bound for a U.S. military base in Afghanistan sat loaded on the dock of Rick Segeleon's New Pekin, Ind., plant, ready for pick-up.
By 3 p.m. that afternoon, all of it — the $18,000 order, the 10,000-square-foot plant, four tractor trailers and numerous pieces of equipment — was gone, reduced to a concrete foundation by an EF4 tornado that roared through the small town.
“Everything is gone. Just wiped clean,” said Segeleon, the president of Airgo Industries, a plastics fabricator that specializes in cargo systems for air and military travel.
The small company, which employs three to12 workers depending on the size of an order, was not in operation when the storm hit, he said in a phone interview.
“It's good that there was nobody there; that was the saving grace,” he said by phone.
“If the truck would've been scheduled to come out on Friday, I would've been there and I wouldn't be here to talk about it.”
Segeleon estimates the damage at $750,000, but said he's still trying to piece together exactly what was lost. The plant housed equipment — several scorers, die cutters, and a row of 18 sonic welders — along with offices, a small sewing operation, and trailers filled with inventory.
“You can think about someone breaking in … you can conceive of a fire … but it's hard to imagine showing up at your facility and there being nothing there,” he said. “Everything. Everything that we've got is gone.”
However daunting, Segeleon said he plans to rebuild.
The first priority is clearing away debris. The plant sat on 5 acres that also housed farmland, a wooded area, and a then-vacant two-story house — all of it destroyed. Debris from the factory was found up to three-quarters of a mile downwind of the storm, including a truck that landed in a pond a half-mile away.
The factory was insured, and the policy will cover the cost of cleanup and rebuilding, but it won't be enough to replace everything, Segeleon said.
His customers, the largest of which is the U.S. military, have been understanding.
“I let them know that we're not going to be shipping for awhile, but please keep the orders coming and we'll do our best to get them out,” he said.
The twister was one of an estimated 58 tornadoes that touched down in parts of the South and Midwestern United States earlier this month.
The New Pekin storm, which tore through 49 miles of southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, was the strongest. Eleven people were killed. Winds were at 170 miles per hour when they roared down Old Pekin Road and slammed into the factory, according to the National Weather Service in Louisville, Ky.
Homes and businesses near the Airgo plant were also decimated. A brick home next-door was leveled, nine mobile homes vanished, power lines snapped, and a building across the street was still standing but had been so warped by the storm it would need to be torn down, Segeleon said.
A few houses away, a family of five was killed; 15-month-old Angel Babcock and her family made headlines worldwide when the toddler was found, alive, in a field across the street. But Angel had suffered severe head injuries and was taken off life support two days later.
Tornadoes aren't unheard of in southern Indiana — the Airgo plant emerged unscathed from a 2004 twister — but storms this destructive are rare.
“It's not uncommon to see some tornadoes. It's uncommon to be the unlucky guy it hits,” Segeleon said.
About half a mile away, Fabri-Form Co.'s New Pekin plant fared better.
“The word I continue to use is fortunate,” said Bryan Mason, marketing and product manager, in a phone interview.
Outside of a few downed trees and roofing tiles, the plant was largely untouched by the storm. The area lost electricity and phone service, but the plant was fully operational in a few hours and didn't miss any shipments, Mason said.
But instead of getting back to work, Fabri-Form employees hit the streets.
On Saturday, the day after the tornado, salaried workers reported to the plant and launched a phone tree to check in on other employees and their families, Mason said.
The New Concord, Ohio-based company employs 90 at the New Pekin plant, five of whom live in town. None of the employees or their immediate families were killed or injured, but one employee did lose her home, he said.
A group of volunteers spent Sunday clearing away debris from harder-hit areas.
“We all feel like those are our family members; we deal with them on a day-to-day basis so much, we really have a place in our heart for them,” he said.
Over the weekend, the plant offered up its parking lot and shipping docks as a staging area for emergency workers.
“We just opened our doors and did whatever we could to help out,” he said.
Fabri-Form is also working with area relief organizations. The company will post information about donating to Pekin on its website, www.fabri-form.com.
Fabri-Form is a custom fabricator and thermoformer with about $50 million in sales for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The company opened its Pekin plant in 1953.