WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Joe Stager said it was the most harrowing five minutes of his life.
Stager, 47, a manager at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in the Arena Hub Plaza, was on duty when an EF2 tornado struck the store just after closing time Wednesday night, tearing off the back of the building.
His actions during those five minutes have employees and others praising Stager as a hero.
Stager said he was in the store with employees Mary Zoltewicz, Patrick Abdalla, Rachel Trojan and Tara Steffon closing up for the night as the twister hit.
Shepherding those nearest to him toward an information desk likely helped save coworkers from serious injuries.
“Before Wednesday, I’d have said Joe was a great guy to work for. You see how he treats customers and he was always fun to talk to,” said Abdalla, who recounted his storm experiences in Friday’s Times Leader.
“Now I see him through a different lens,” Abdalla added.
In a Facebook post that garnered more than 2,000 likes and 5,500 shares as of Friday night, Plymouth resident Brian Oppelt Sr. also praised Stager.
“The manager at Barnes & Noble last night, during the tornado, huddled the employees together and lay over top of them to protect them while all hell was breaking loose around them,” Oppelt wrote. “My son’s friend was one of the employees working when this happened.”
Tale of destruction
For Stager, what happened just came naturally, as nature turned an ordinary night into something extraordinary.
“We were getting ready to close up for the evening. We’d heard some alerts that there were storms coming, but you hear alerts all the time,” Stager said.
Stager said he had just locked the front doors at 10 p.m. Wednesday and it was already raining hard.
The noise of rain pounding the store’s roof was not a new one for Stager and his staff, but this was different.
“The sound kept getting louder and louder,” Stager said. “All of a sudden, it just went to a whole other level.”
The side window violently blew in. Stager said he yelled to the other four people in the store to stay away from the front windows and to seek cover.
“It was so surreal. I could just see ceiling tiles falling down. It was like raining in the building.”
He grabbed Trojan, who is 17, to protect her from the falling debris. They and others ducked under the information counter.
“And all of a sudden, the back wall of the store just blew off,” Stager said.
With estimated wind speeds of up to 130 mph, the twister quickly moved on its path of destruction across the plaza.
“And all of a sudden, it stopped and everything was dark,” Stager said.
Abdalla was on the phone with 911. Stager ran to the back office to get his own phone.
“I looked towards the back wall and normally there’s an emergency light on. The light wasn’t shining back there,” he said. “The wall was gone.”
He made his way to the break room, where the ceiling was down and the wall was gone.
“I went into the manager’s office and grabbed my phone and the keys, and that wall was gone,” Stager added. “In another five minutes, I would have been in that office.”
Stager returned to the front of the store, and the employees safely made their way out of the building, all without a scratch.
“It really hit us afterward how lucky we were,” Stager said Friday, as he returned to the plaza to survey the damage to his store.
Unlike some buildings in surrounding plazas, which have been condemned and face demolition, the Barnes & Noble building has only been tagged as temporarily unsafe.
In a Facebook post, Barnes & Noble wrote: “We will work hard to assess the damage and begin repairs as soon as possible. We love our Wilkes-Barre community and look forward to serving you again soon!”
Already, supporters in the community are lending a hand.
The Hoyt Library in Kingston offered space to host a special Father’s Day storytime that had been scheduled to take place this morning at the store. It will take place at 11 a.m. at the library on Wyoming Avenue.
Stager, who has been a manager at Barnes & Noble for five-and-a-half years, said the store is always busy, with strong support from the community. He said he didn’t know what the corporate office will do, but he said he and the employees “are ready to come back” as soon as the building is repaired.
There was no talk of heroism, at least not from Stager.
“The way he acted during an incredibly scary time is amazing and heroic,” Abdalla said.
“This is something we all hope we would do in the same situation, but you sir did it and should be recognized for your heroic act,” Oppelt wrote in his Facebook post.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.