JERSEY CITY, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Friends and family of a Jersey City couple are devastated after a tornado ripped through a Virginia campground Thursday, killing them both.
Lord Balatbat and Lolibeth Ortega were at the Cherrystone Family Camping and RV Resort with their children when the twister tore through the campground, toppling a tree onto their tent.
“I heard people saying, ‘come help me, help me, please help me.’ We saw the tree on the people and there was nothing that could be done for them,” one witness said.
The couple was killed, and all three of their children, ages 7, 12 and 13, were hospitalized.
“Their 13-year-old son was in a neighboring tent. A tree fell on that tent,” said Corinne Geller with Virginia State Police. “He has life-threatening injuries.”
Lord Balatbat’s father, Luis Balatbat, 78, told the Jersey Journal that his grandson is in a coma, his 12-year-old granddaughter suffered leg and ear injuries, and his 7-year-old granddaughter was struck in the stomach by a tree limb.
“I’m struggling,” the grandfather said. “I wanted to go there, but my doctor said do not go there because I am not well enough to travel. My wife is the same way.”
Luis Batlabat Jr., 47, said his nieces and nephew don’t yet know their parents didn’t survive.
“They’re orphaned already” Luis Batlabat Jr. said. “We don’t know who will take care of them.”
Luis Balatbat shared what the family believes may be one the last photos of Lord Balatbat before the devastating tornado ripped the family apart, CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown reported.
The photo shows Lord Balatbat lounging in a hammock — happy and relaxed just one day before the family’s annual trip turned into a nightmare.
More than 1,300 people were registered at the campground when the tornado hit, downing trees, ripping awnings from trailers and flipping RVs on their sides.
“All hell broke loose,” said Joe Colony, who has been coming to the Chesapeake Bay campground for the last 30 years. “We got an emergency message on a cellphone, and within 30 seconds, the thing hit and it blew down 40, 50 trees in the park.”
Witnesses said the tornado came off the Chesapeake Bay, cut across the campground and then turned and doubled back across the property.
“The tornado actually came in off the bay – the southwest corner of the campground — proceeded northeast through and made a ‘V’ heading southeast back through the campground,” Geller confirmed during a news conference.
State police said in all, 36 people were hurt, ranging from cuts and broken bones to more serious injuries. The American Red Cross was assisting displaced campers and a shelter was set up at a local high school.
Outside the family’s home in Jersey City, one friend named Albert said he talked to the couple by phone hours before they died.
“Never expected this,” he said. “Never.”
Luis Balatbat Jr. said his family was shocked to learn of the death of his brother and sister-in-law.
“We are a close family and this is very bad for us,” he said.
Though Lord Balatbat was the youngest of six children, relatives described him as the caretaker of the family, and that they don’t know what they’ll do now.
“In other words, they’re the breadwinners of the whole family here and abroad,” said family friend Querubin Corrales.
Lord Balatbat was a manager at a Jersey City Walgreen’s. Workers said he was always smiling, easy-going and eager for family getaways.
Walgreens spokesman James W. Graham told CBS 2’s Brown that the company has a benefit fund intended to help employees who have experienced hardships caused by long illnesses, accidents, natural disasters and other situations.
“A tax exempt charitable foundation, the fund each year helps hundreds of families experiencing personal tragedies or moments of extraordinary need. We made sure the family of Lord Balatbat and Lolibeth Ortega is aware of the fund and we will help them access it if they are interested in doing so,” Graham said.
Melissa Lopez said Balatbat was an amazing boss.
“Everybody’s devastated,” Lopez said. “Everybody was crying at work. We’re still there in shock. We can’t believe it.”
Meanwhile, at the elementary school the children attend, P.S. 20, teachers are trying to create a college fund to help the family.
“They’re such sweet kids and what makes it very hard is that this is going to change them forever. And my fear is that I just hope they always remain such wonderful kids, because they had amazing parents,” said teacher Migdalia Rosario.
“They are great parents,” said family friend Kharl Ibasco. “They bend over backwards for their kids.”
The family had visited the same campground every summer for the past several years.
The children are still hospitalized in Virginia, where relatives are keeping a beside vigil.
Funeral arrangements for the couple have not yet been announced.
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