Pattie Starnes and Rich Munn met about a year ago and although they’ve been dating regularly since, they still are getting to know each other.
“While it’s too bad it happened this way, this has been very positive for us,” Munn was saying as he stood beneath the cloud-filled sky visible through a big hole in the dining room ceiling above him.
“This particular experience has brought us closer together than we’ve ever been.”
He wasn’t just talking figuratively. The closeness had been literal.
As the EF-4 tornado was bearing down on the Northridge community Monday night, the 67-year-old Munn and 59-year-old Starnes were in her quaint Maplegrove Avenue home off North Dixie Highway.
Her two beloved shih tzus – Meeko and Eveemay – were in a blanket-covered cage just beyond the archway that led from the dining room to the living room.
“We knew the tornado was coming, but we didn’t know exactly when,” Pattie said. “And then all of a sudden it was on us.”
Rich nodded toward a dining room corner next to the archway: “We were right there and I was kind of holding her, but we really started to feel the power of it.”
“You could hear the wind …”Whoooooo’…. getting louder and louder,” Pattie said. “It was like we were standing along a train track with the train coming by.”
“That’s when I said, ‘We’ve got to get under the table. Now!’” Rich said.
Pattie said she wanted to get her dogs who were crying in fear just a few feet away.
“I wanted to get them into the basement, but Rich said, ‘No, under the table now.’ I was like ‘Noooo.’ My mind just froze.“
That’s when Rich, a fitness instructor and body builder, went into full-flex mode and muscled Pattie to safety.
“He just grabbed me and threw me under the dining room table and then landed right on top of me,” she said with a a bit of embarrassment.
“I was on top of her as the thing went through,” Rich said.
Pattie said the roof buckled and she could hear ‘Crack…Crack …Crack.’
“And then,” she said, “it was like a bomb went off.”
That’s when a 2-by-4 exploded through the ceiling, landing just inches from the dogs and some two feet from the heavy, round table under which they cowered.
“It was terrifying,” Pattie said.
Rich guesses they may only have been under the table a minute, but in that time life on Maplegrove Avenue was blown apart.
“When we got outside, it was surreal,” he said. “It was midnight and it was pitch black and the first words we heard through the darkness were ‘You OK?’ People were going up and down the street yelling at every house.”
Pattie’s home – where she had lived with her late husband Albert Starnes, the place she had just fixed up outside the day before – was damaged, likely beyond repair.
The porch roof was gone. The ceiling of the main part of the house had lifted from the walls. The garage at the back of the property – with Rich’s yellow Toyota inside it – had been flattened by huge trees.
Her neighbors’ house was pretty much destroyed. A black compact car parked a few doors down had been thrown on its side and was engulfed in tree limbs. Just around the corner, her church, the Northridge Wesleyan Church, sustained heavy damage and its family center was leveled.
“We were a little nervous another one was going to hit, so we got to the (other) car and tried to drive to my condo in Centerville,” Rich said. “We didn’t make it a block. There were trees everywhere, so we just left the car and came back.”
This intense ordeal has its roots in a by-chance pairing a year ago.
After Pattie’s husband died two years ago, she said she was crushed: “I shut myself in the house and cried and boohooed for a year.”
She finally decided to take piano lessons from a woman who also happened to know Rich from fitness training and body building competitions.
A University of Dayton grad, he had worked 19 years in the admissions and the alumni offices at UD. Some 20 years ago he became a fitness trainer and now works out of the Powerstation Gym in Middletown and TFIT in Springboro.
Rich said the mutual acquaintance texted him – she knew he was divorced – and asked if he was “seeing anyone.”
She then put Pattie – who has two grown children and seven grandkids — in contact.
“We texted for three days and I said, ‘This is crazy. We at least ought to meet,’” Rich said.
She suggested the nearby Miami Valley Gaming casino in Monroe.
“More people around,” she said quietly,
Rich nodded: “She was cautious.”
When he drove up, he saw her walking in the parking lot. Unbeknownst to him, she had gotten cold feet and was leaving.
“I walked up and said, ‘Pattie,’ and she got this surprised look on her face,” he said. “A month later I found out she was trying to sneak off.”
They hit it off that night and their relationship has slowly progressed since.
“We’re both at a point in our lives where we want to enjoy ourselves,” Rich said.
Excluding Monday night, that may be the case now, but Pattie wasn’t sure it would turn into that that first night.
“I’ve never told you this,” she said as she looked at Rich, who shifted uncertainly.
“That night I said to myself, ‘OK, if either of us wins money tonight, it must be meant to be,’” she said with a smile. “And the first thing he puts in (the slot machine), you hear ‘ding…ding…ding…ding!’ I went, ‘Oh my God, you won!’
“He won like $156 on his very first turn. I thought. ‘Wow, this guy does have luck.’”
And Monday night that luck rubbed off.
This story is part of a special project, Stories of Survival, focusing on the people of the Miami Valley who survived the Memorial Day tornadoes and are staying strong as the region moves ahead. You can read other stories of survival from around the region here.
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