August 25, 2016 Opportunity

How Starbucks Customers and Partners Survived an Indiana Tornado That Flattened Their Store

Starbucks shift supervisor Angel Ramos didn’t know if he’d make it to his 24th birthday today.

Ramos and dozens of others were in a Starbucks store at US 35 and State Route 22 in Kokomo, Indiana, when a tornado roared over the building causing it to collapse yesterday (August 24).

“It blew over and flattened like a piece of cardboard folding,” an eyewitness reported.

Remarkably no one in the store was hurt, although Indiana State Police said up to 20 people in the region had minor injuries from several other tornadoes that touched down, damaging numerous buildings.

Many are attributing the safety of the customers to Ramos, who’s been a Starbucks partner (employee) for two years and a shift supervisor for only the last six months. He says part of the credit goes to his store manager, who called and talked him through the ordeal.

“The fact that any of us survived is a miracle. If his timing had been off by even a minute or two none of us would be here today,” said Hannah Harris, 19. “Most people who’ve been around tornadoes don’t take them seriously, but he did.”

'Something didn't feel right'

The day started with sunshine and a threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon. That forecast changed rapidly, and by early afternoon a tornado touched down several miles from the Starbucks store, which is located about an hour north of Indianapolis. At that point, many people received text alerts on their phones advising them of the danger. Concerned, but realizing tornadoes are a way of life in the Midwest, the customers inside the Starbucks at the time kept talking, not too concerned about the approaching storm.

Kim McCartney, the store manager and a 13-year partner, also received the text. She’d just left the store 20 minutes earlier and immediately called Ramos because she “wasn’t comfortable and something didn’t feel right.” She had a sense that a tornado could be headed their way.

She told him, “You need to grab the first aid kit, grab everybody, get them in the bathrooms and stay on the line with me.”

Ramos knew the protocol for what to do in the event of a tornado. As he began to calmly talk with the 20 or so customers in the store, the sky turned dark, it began to rain and he saw ominous clouds on the horizon. He grabbed an iPad, opened weather apps and moved everyone to the safest locations in the store – two bathrooms.

“Even in a tornado we divided up with women in the women’s restroom and the guys in the men’s room,” Harris said. “But the men outnumbered women that day, so a few guys came in at the last minute. A gentleman beside me was calm and put his arms over me.”

With all customers and three fellow partners in the bathrooms, Ramos exited to make a final check of the store. He found one person outside who needed shelter.

 “It’s time to lock the doors and get inside,” McCartney instructed Ramos on the phone.

Then they waited.

Tornado sirens sounded.

Cellphones alerts began going off warning of imminent risk.

The lights went out.

The building shook.

“’Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ is all I could think,” Harris said. “I don’t think any of us really thought it was going to hit. We were trying to keep calm.”

Harris, who’s from Oklahoma and is familiar with tornado danger, felt a sudden change in air pressure. She heard “that freight train sound” people who’ve been through tornadoes describe followed by “huge” crashing sounds.

McCartney, still on the phone with Ramos, also heard the chaotic noises until the signal cut out.

'I figured some chunk of the store would be missing. I didn't know it would be the whole thing'

Seconds later, the tornado – with winds estimated between 150 and 200 miles per hour – was gone. So was the Starbucks.

The two restrooms at Starbucks were the only part of the stand-alone building that remained.

“I could see the sky from holes in the bathroom ceiling, so I figured there was some chunk of the store that would be missing,” Ramos said. “I didn’t know it would be the whole thing.”

Ramos couldn’t open the bathroom door from the inside.

About 30 seconds after the tornado blew over, people in a restaurant across the street ran to the collapsed Starbucks, imagining the worst. When they got to the rubble, they heard people inside the women’s restroom screaming. They used tools one of them had to take the doors off their hinges, rescuing the customers and partners before firefighters could even make it to the location.

“This was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I’m so grateful for all that Starbucks did,” said Harris, who added that Ramos lives up to his name, “Angel.”

Still wearing his Starbucks green apron, still wanting to be a leader in his store, Ramos helped get others out of the men’s restroom, moving cinder blocks and debris from the path. Minutes later, after he determined everyone was safe, he looked around.

“At that point I thought, ‘I guess I’m not coming into work tomorrow.’ Did I remember to clock out?’” he said, trying to make light of the situation for a moment. “It was so strange to see things that seem permanent in an entirely different arrangement. Equipment and the counter bent. Chairs broken. Tables bent.”

Ramos will spend his birthday today cleaning debris from his yard, which had minor damage due to the tornado. He also plans to get together with all the partners who work with him.

“We’re a family. We’re all still together and that’s what’s important,” he said.

Photos courtesy of customer Hannah Harris, pictured above with Starbucks shift supervisor Angel Ramos and her friend Blake.

For more information on this story, contact the Starbucks Newsroom