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Washington Post 7-30-2010 (Dvorak)

Incalculable losses among storm's victims

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, July 30, 2010; B01 

(c) 2010 The Washington Post

There will be no trial for the killer. No colored ribbons to pin on lapels. No impassioned rallies or speeches. No laws to write or bills to pass in response to a brief, brutal storm Sunday afternoon that took the lives of four good people.

The cloudburst's toll was stunningly swift and frighteningly random. From Annapolis to Sterling, four families were left with waves of grief, funeral arrangements to make and the unrelenting question of "Why?"

It is an irresistible part of the grieving process to ask that question, because it is a quintessentially American trait to spring into action and do something about the cause. To prosecute a killer in court, hold a rally against gun violence, organize a walk to fight cancer, draft a bill to require airbags, protest a war outside the White House.

For some, this becomes a way to accept an untimely death, to find value in life and meaning in loss -- it changed something, meant something, happened for a reason.

But what do you do when a pillar of her College Park community, a beloved mom of two, was just out running errands in her minivan and is killed by a freak storm? Who should be punished because a wild gust of wind knocked down a tree branch and crushed 44-year-old Michelle Humanick just as she pulled off the highway in College Park to avoid driving in the storm?

Or what about Eric Lawson, the sweet-faced 6-year-old racing home from a Sterling park to beat the rain who was crushed by a 30-foot branch that cracked and snapped? Matthew Lawson gathered his little boy's broken body in his arms as the sprinkle of rain became a downpour.

"I'm completely in shock. It's like out of a horror movie," his mother, Elizabeth Vickers, told The Washington Post.

Friends of Carl Henn, 48, said it was like a scene from hell when he was struck by lightning in a Rockville park during the storm. Henn was a father and tireless environmental activist who bicycled everywhere, organized community gardens and was killed while standing beneath a tree.

And then there was Warren D. Smith, 63, of Annapolis, who was electrocuted on a watercraft from a lightning strike near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as he tried to outrun the weather.

This kind of carnage has happened before. In the past two years, the region has also mourned a beloved Catholic priest and a popular mother of six, both of whom died in much the same way -- a fallen tree during a thunderstorm.

Looking, searching, praying for a bad guy to pin this on -- can't we do something about all these trees?

But I don't think we're ready to put our tree canopy on trial. So who, or what, can we blame?

There is much chatter in the weather-geek world that maybe the perp lies there. There should've been more warning for this storm! Bring back air raid sirens to wail over every park, road and neighborhood every time a thunderstorm is approaching!

I don't think so.

Of course, that hubris could itself be the lesson in all this. We sometimes seem to believe that we can bubble-wrap, legislate or muscle past any ill that the world serves up. We spend a bazillion dollars on secret agencies, scanners, protocols and security guards to protect us, yet we remain utterly vulnerable to natural forces beyond our control. So far this year, the nation's capital has been thumped by record snow, crippling heat and even an earthquake.

So maybe the moral from Sunday's storm can be found in the character of the people we have lost. Together, those struck down in a violent 15 minutes represented kindness, service, community, generosity, innocence, accomplishment, pride and humor.

How totally amazing that among four random people chosen by nothing more than the incalculable probabilities of time and space, there was so much to admire.

Is it statistically possible that these storm victims happened to be so special, or are they a reminder that we cross paths everyday with wonderful people whom we scarcely notice?

The minivan driver who just merged in front of you, the guy who took the last shopping cart, the kid who threaded through the grocery store, the guy who made a wake in the channel -- how sad that we wouldn't know what sparkling personalities lie inside without the help of an obituary.

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