When a tornado ripped through the University of Maryland, College Park, campus September 24, it killed two students and wounded 25 others. It also displaced 700 students living in University Courtyards, an apartment complex for students. The complex sustained extensive damage and is uninhabitable.
A former student-athlete at the school, Steve Francis, now a professional basketball player with the NBA's Houston Rockets, decided to do what he could to help.
Francis, who was on campus the day of the tornado, offered a free meal on September 27 to the displaced residents of the apartment complex.
The students, many of whom had once slept in sleeping bags around the floors of Cole Field House to get tickets to watch Francis and the 1999 Terrapins play, were essentially rendered homeless by the tornado. They're living in hotels, on cots at the campus recreation center, or with family and friends.
A native of nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, Francis called the university Wednesday evening to say he knew the displaced residents of University Courtyard were among the most distressed and inconvenienced members of the university community after Monday's deadly tornado strike, and he wanted to know what he could do.
Francis suggested that he host a meal for students -- but it had to be on the 27th, just before he flew to Houston to begin training camp for his third pro season.
Choosing to spend his last hours in Maryland with the students, Francis told the capacity crowd at the Maryland Golf Course banquet facility that he had been playing basketball in Cole Field House when Monday's storm hit.
"I was looking out those windows, watching all this stuff fly by, and I just kept thinking to myself, 'That could be me out there,' " Francis said. "I felt so sorry for all those students and other people caught out there (in the storm.)"
Francis was introduced by David Thaw, a Maryland senior from Tolland, Connecticut.
Thaw recalled camping out in Cole Field House during his freshman year to get tickets to watch Francis and his Maryland teammates play Duke University. Thaw also spoke poignantly of this semester's tragedies -- the death of a student at a fraternity house, the terrorist attacks of September 11 that claimed the lives of two Maryland graduate students who were in the Pentagon, and Monday's tornado that claimed the lives of two undergraduate students and a retired volunteer firefighter.
Francis, who joined the students for dinner, was glad to do something to raise the students' spirits.
"I remember all of the people here supporting me while I was a Maryland student, and this is just a small way that I can give back to those who have helped me."
The students enjoyed a complete meal, with barbeque chicken and ice cream sundaes for dessert. The event was closed to the media.
Current Maryland basketball student-athletes Lonny Baxter and Steve Blake also were on hand for the dinner. And like Francis, they signed autographs and posed for photographs with residents. Francis also signed "Lend A Hand, Heal A Heart" buttons for all 100 students.
Several of the students, including five men's basketball players, may be without housing for a month.
The estimate of damage to buildings and grounds is still being evaluated. In addition to the damage to the apartment complex, temporary trailers housing the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, behind the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, were destroyed. Five people were rescued from the trailers.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has declared Prince George's County, where the university is located, a federal disaster area, paving the way for Federal Disaster Relief funds.
University officials have confirmed the two students were Colleen Patricia Marlatt, age 23, and her sister, Erin Patricia Marlatt, age 20. Both were residents of Clarksville, Maryland, and were the daughters of Patrick Marlatt, second-in-command at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, which is part of the University of Maryland.
A memorial fund has been established by the family. Those wishing to donate to the fund should send checks to: The Erin and Colleen Marlatt Scholarship Fund, c/o St. Louis Church, P.O. Box 155, Clarksville, Maryland, 21029.
Contributions to the Maryland tornado relief fund can be sent to: The University of Maryland, College Park, Foundation, c/o Terry Miller, Room 2103 Pocomoke Building, College Park, Maryland. Donors should make the check out to the foundation and indicate "Tornado Victims Fund" on the memo line.