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Running Store Recovering from Tornado that Ripped through Little Rock

Published on | William Bulloch | News & Updates

Bill Torrey has been running since 1979, and working in sales since 1989. As a race planner for hundreds of events over the years, nicknamed the Godfather of Running, Torrey has been interviewed many, many times by the media. But, the topic of his interviews over the past month is something totally new to him.

He survived the EF3-rated tornado with 165-mph peak winds that killed 32 people and damaged or destroyed roughly 3,000 buildings including Torrey’s store, Rock City Running, in Little Rock, Arkansas. “That was my first time in a tornado, and I would say we don’t need to do that anymore,” he quipped a couple weeks after the disaster.

“The power and the force was just amazing. There are homes around us with roofs torn off and trees down everywhere,” he added with more seriousness.

When the tornado hit in the late afternoon of March 31, a mix of volunteers, staff members and race registrants were at Rock City Running for a race packet pickup for the Capital City Classic 10k, scheduled for the next morning. Little Rock Roadrunners President Brent Corbitt, who was volunteering, described the tornado’s aftermath as “a war zone of debris everywhere, destruction everywhere, and the smell of gas in the air from all of the totaled vehicles.”

“I am happy to say that of the 12 of us at the store at the time of the tornado no one was seriously hurt,” Corbitt said. “Fortunately, the crowd picking up their packets around lunch had slowed down or there would have been far more people in the store.”

The team at the store had been getting weather room updates from a local news station where one of the club’s members worked. Since tornado alerts are somewhat common in Arkansas, it was hard to believe when a text came informing them that the tornado was headed their way. Five minutes later it hit.

“Most of us got to the back of the store in time. Five or six people hunkered down in a little bathroom. Two or three of us were in an office amongst a lot of shelves and pretty protected, but four people – including Bill Torrey – got caught up front,” he recalled.

Though the worst part of the tornado passed through in a quick 20 seconds, the force was so intense that Corbitt thought anyone in the front of the store must not have survived.

As the tornado approached, Torrey had seen a gentleman get knocked down in the parking lot as he tried to get from his car to the building. So, the storeowner went out after him. They managed to get into the protein shake store next door, but he explained, “The glass doors that I was holding exploded in, and I fell backwards into the glass.”

Though he was bloodied pretty badly, others nearby were hurt much worse including a broken leg and a leg pierced by a metal tube. “The bottom line is nobody lost their lives at our location; that is the big thing to me. The material things can be replaced,” he said.

With race bibs and chips blown to “who knows where,” police redeployed for days to help the community, and everyone reeling from the losses, the 10k was cancelled. With 700 people expected for the race, more than double the previous year, the race coordinators pivoted and rescheduled a fun run for the next Saturday, April 8.

The fun run took place in several groups on several routes, and became a fundraiser for Rock City Running’s recovery with a party with free food and drinks. An incredible 550 people registered for the replacement event, and a brief ceremony was held at the Classic’s originally planned finish line.

An online donation portal was also set up and “The outpouring of support from across the country (we have received donations from 45 states and 4 countries) has been amazing!” exclaimed Corbitt. As of April 23, the amount raised was above $56,000 from more than 600 donors, including many $1,000 donations.

Torrey was still waiting for information on the total store losses and insurance as he was being interviewed for this article. He had not been allowed to re-enter the store yet and probably would not be, due to the danger in the damaged building.

Only a couple store employees can work, answering phones remotely and supporting online sales, which are an important source of revenue until a new physical location can be opened. Most employees are being paid based on their average hours worked in the past, though some are choosing not to take pay for now. The storeowner admitted “the money raised by the running community will help quite a bit.”

“I’m real blessed in fact that people are very supportive of me and the store. I couldn’t be luckier in that regard,” he added.

The local support is reciprocity for the decades of community service such as student-athlete scholarships and  support of local nonprofits provided by the store and its owner. It also sponsors a training group for the Little Rock Marathon.

“Once a month or so, the trainees are at my store for a 6 a.m. run, and they always have food and refreshments afterwards. In fact, when they called up to check on me and the store after the tornado, they weren’t worried about the shoe inventory. Most people asked what happened to the frozen margarita machine (its whereabouts and condition are unknown),” he marveled.

Though his current landlord has been trying to find options for the store to reopen, the timeline at the center would be longer than is feasible and not as beneficial as other locations. So, Torrey is already at work on getting a new location ready, just a mile away.

This June will be the store’s 10th anniversary, so he has set an aggressive timeline to reopen on June 1, just eight weeks after the devastating tornado.

If you would like to donate, please visit this link that has been set up by the Little Rock Roadrunners Club: https://runsignup.com/Race/Donate/AR/LittleRock/RuntoRebuildRockCityRunning


Note: RIA would like to thank Matt Garrett of JUNK Brands, also based in Arkansas, for sharing the significant news about the tornado and Rock City Running with our membership, by posting a message to RIA’s Think Tank Google Group.

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