Man recalls saving baby from tree during deadly tornadoes 20 years ago

'Storms tear up things, but we rebuild, we go on,' rescuer says

By Candace Campos - Meteorologist

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - In what was the deadliest tornado outbreak Florida has ever seen, one Osceola County man remembers the night 20 years ago as a story of survival after he rescued a baby that had been flung into a tree.

Ronald Vernelson said it was the middle of the night on Feb. 22, 1998 when his son, who lived two miles away in Kissimmee, called him in a panic.

“The storm came in around 12. My son called and said, ‘Dad the house is gone.' I said, ‘What do you mean?’  ‘The house is gone, dad,’” Vernelson recalled.

He and his wife got in their car and drove through dangerous winds to get to their son. As they were helping him, another woman approached frantically looking for her 18-month-old grandson who had been asleep in his crib when the tornado struck.

“We looked in her house, we looked in the swimming pools. We kept calling him, his name was Jonathan, but no answer,” Vernelson said.

During the search for the baby boy, Vernelson noticed part of the mangled home lodged into a tree and sitting on a branch was baby Jonathan, cradled in the mattress from his crib.

”The deputy thought the baby was dead and he wouldn't let us in. But I said, ’No that baby isn't dead, we’re going in,’” Vernelson said.

Vernelson and his son lifted a large limb and pulled the baby to safety. Not only was the boy alive, but he was dry and remained asleep through the ordeal -- escaping virtually unscathed.

“Storms tear up things, but we rebuild, we go on, life goes on 20 years later,” Vernelson said, standing in the once tornado-ravaged neighborhood.

That same oak tree still stands in the now-empty lot surrounded by new homes and new neighbors, but the story residents called “The Miracle at 1400 Fair Oaks” lives on to this day. 

The tale of baby Jonathan is one of the many survival stories that came out of a horrific and destructive event that February night.

A strong cold front spun up seven tornadoes, three of them strengthening into EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale,  packing winds faster than 200 miles per hour. 

Widespread damage could be seen from the streets and from helicopter video. Winter Garden, Sanford and Kissimmee were the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

The largest and longest-lasting tornado that night tore through Osceola County and remained on the ground for 48 minutes, stretching more than 200 yards.

Even 20 years later, this historical event is still the deadliest tornado outbreak to ever rip through the Florida. That night, between 11 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., 42 people lost their lives and 260 people were injured.

Many of the victims had been fast asleep in their homes when the tornadoes struck, which made it more difficult for them to seek shelter in time, according to News 6 Chief Meteorologist Tom Sorrellls.

“It happened at 12:40 a.m. at night. I’m not sure if people ever got the warnings. The warnings went out, it wasn't the fault of anyone else except it was harder to warn people at night. They were all caught flat footed,” Sorrells said. 

Many lessons were learned that night and now, with the help of technological advancements, it’s even easier to stay safe when threatening weather strikes – even at night.

“Technology speaking, we have new radar, new ways to communicate, faster warnings, detailed warnings. I think today we would save more lives. I can’t promise, but I think so, I believe it,” Sorrells said.

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