COLLEGE PARK– For Patrick and Patricia Marlatt, the wounds of 10 years heal slowly. “You never get over it. You get through it,” they said as they reflected back on the College Park tornado of 10 years ago.
On September 24, 2001, an F-3 tornado ripped through the campus of the University of Maryland. Their daughters, Colleen, 23, and Erin, 20, had just said goodbye to their father, Pat, who works at the Maryland Fire and Recuse Institute at the university. At the time, the center was located in a temporary headquarters near University Boulevard. It would be the last time they would ever see each other.
The girls got into their cars. A few moments later, the tornado touched down almost on top of them. It picked the car up, lifted it over a high rise dorm on the north side of campus, and dropped it. Neither girl survived.
Patricia Marlatt was at home in Clarksville trying to reach her daughters. “I heard the reports that the tornado had touched down and I was just waiting to hear from them waiting to hear from them,” she said. “I kept trying to call them and they didn’t answer, and they didn’t call.”
Back in College Park, Patrick Marlatt, who had to be pulled out of the debris after the tornado hit, asked a colleague if she saw the girls’ car in the parking lot. She said she did not. Marlatt thought his daughters made it out in time, and he said a prayer of thanks.
Marlatt had to be taken to the hospital for minor injuries. “I was talking to a colleague. I asked him if there were any fatalities and he said, ‘Yes, two students.’ He didn’t know who they were,” Marlatt said. “I don’t know how I knew, but I knew then that it was Colleen and Erin.” Not long after, he was told that the girls did not make it.
At their house, Patricia Marlatt began the painful process of notifying friends and family. It was then that she had a vision of Colleen. “I had a real sense of Colleen being the kitchen with me,” she said. “It’s still very vivid in my memory. I felt like she was here. I felt her presence, and she just kept saying to me, ‘Mom, don’t worry. It’s just so beautiful here.'”
One of the toughest calls was telling Colleen’s boyfriend, she said. They were planing to get married. “I said, ‘Ben, are you alone? Are you by yourself.’ And he said, ‘No, my dad’s here. They didn’t make it did they?’ And I said, ‘No, they didn’t.’ It was a very difficult phone call to make,” said Marlatt, tearing up. Instead of planning weddings, the family had to plan the funeral of their two daughters.
The sisters were very close. “It was my son who said thank goodness they died together because it would’ve been so difficult for one to survive, and the other not to survive. They were really best friends,” Patricia Marlatt said.
The storm cost $73 million in damages across the state, according to the National Weather Service. About 50 people were also injured in the storm.
Ten years later, the family said they are doing the best they can to keep going. “I’m still standing. That’s a positive thing,” Patricia Marlatt said.
But not every day is easy. “You have really bad days. Believe me. And over ten years, there are a lot of them, but you have the belief that people care about you,” Patrick Marlatt said.
The Marlatts are Catholic, long-time parishoners of St. Louis Church in Clarksville. They believe the incident reinforced their faith, and that they’ll be reunited with their daughters one day.
“When you have a tragedy like this and you lose the people that you love more than you love yourself, it makes it easy to die. It really does because we believe so strongly and firmly that we’ll all be together again, and we’ll all live happily ever after,” Patricia Marlatt said.
The family started the Colleen and Erin Marlatt Scholarship Fund to make sure that their daughter’s names were not forgotten. The scholarship benefits Catholic teachers and their families in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The scholarships help families send their children to high school and college. Patricia Marlatt said there have been 32 scholars since its inception. They will continue to raise money for the scholarship with a beer and wine tasting event on Oct. 21 at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville. Visit the website for more information.